An official website of the United States government

Building your brand: Lessons from SXSW
May 17, 2019

Establishing a brand identity is a critical element of your business success. In order to stand out to customers, business leaders should practice telling the story of their brands in a way that connects with their audiences. To help YLAI Network members strengthen their own brands, here are a few tips from the 2019 SXSW conference.

Building emotional connections

Branding helps consumers clearly identify who a business is and what it does. When people think of your message, they should associate that message with your brand. To successfully create a memorable brand-message association, you as a business leader must focus on building an emotional connection with your audience. This could be marketing that connects your product to nostalgic times in consumers’ lives, offering personalized customer service, or doing community service projects in areas that align with your business mission and values.

Successful brands build unique associations that help strengthen their brand identities. For example, a bank wants to be thought of as trustworthy. This is a characteristic that the bank portrays to its customers in hopes of building a relationship with those who value a trusting relationship for their personal banking needs. In the same way, some brands want you to think of them as a luxury or premium quality, and their public business decisions reflect this desired impression of themselves. For example, Coca-Cola has developed a brand based on the idea of bringing joy and happiness to their customers. Their advertisements feature smiling individuals who share the soft drink experience in a way that is memorable. By associating images of people smiling with their product, Coca-Cola creates an association of their brand with the experience of connecting with others and having joyful emotions. In contrast, Apple has developed a brand associated with modern style and luxury that allow creative individuals to turn their ideas into a reality. These qualities, (i.e. modern style and luxury) are reflected in their advertising, store design and pricing. The way that these companies build their brand identity is based on one very important question: What do I want consumers to think about my company?

To answer this question as an entrepreneur with a new business, consider drawing a brand map. Below is an example of a brand map that helps to visualize the associations that audiences have of the YLAI Network. The inner circle features YLAI’s unique offerings, like a fellowship program and online resources. In contrast, the outer circle features YLAI’s broader characteristics and attributes, which other brands may also have, like empowerment, tool kits and entrepreneurship.

Graphic of a brand map for the YLAI Network: YLAI Network Brand Map - Brand maps help to visualize what associations customers should have of your brand. The inner circle are core associations that customers will uniquely attribute to your brand alone. The outer circle are broad attributes that relate to your brand, but may be shared with other brands out there. Inner circle: Young Leaders Network, Resources & Training, Fellowship Program, Partnership. Outer Circle: Economic Development: American, Certificates, Resources, Empowering, Entrepreneurship, Community building, Motivating, Webchats, Toolkits, Regional support.

Once you know what you want customers to think of your company, you can make a list of core brand associations that you want customers to attribute uniquely to your brand. This could be a company’s slogan, iconic logo and performance attributes like outstanding customer service. Once the core associations are known, focus on secondary attributes that connect consumers to the brand. These can be more broad, as in the industry or sector of the company, the particular social media channels you use, or the emotional qualities that your advertising portrays.

Telling your unique story

After defining your brand’s attributes, the next step in building a deeper relationship with your target audience is to tell the unique story of the brand. People like stories; storytelling was the primary way of for thousands of years! Building a conversation around the brand’s story, as well as your personal journey, is an extremely powerful way to get consumers interested. Telling the story of your entrepreneurial journey in a compelling way can build an emotional connection that can more deeply connect you with your customers and build connections with different consumer groups who will help spread awareness of your brand.

As you tell your brand’s story, consider how you involve your customers and audience in the journey. Try to include them in your business journey by offering routine updates to your product ideas and developments. For instance, the American Red Cross provides emergency assistance and disaster relief. From responding to small house fires to multi-state natural disasters, the American Red Cross helps people access clean water, safe shelter and hot meals when they need them most, and the brand takes their audience on a riveting and emotional journey through their response to disasters across the United States. Another way to tell your brand’s story is by sharing your wins and losses. Investing your audience in this way can empower your customers to follow and support you even more. People don’t want to just buy a product; they want a whole experience. You can provide an experience for them by including them as part of your business journey. Demonstrating the challenges you face as a business leader will deepen the relationship they have with you and will keep them coming back for updates. As you invite customers along, they are likely to have questions or want to give feedback to you. Just as they have taken time to listen to your story and perspective, it is important to create a feedback loop that includes them.

Always set aside time to make yourself accessible to customers. Whether you hold weekly office hours, host Facebook live sessions, or solicit feedback through customer surveys, showing that you are intentionally making space and time to hear your customers’ thoughts will go a long way in strengthening your relationship with them. With so much anonymity in today’s business world, especially with shopping online, giving opportunities for personal access will really set yourself apart from the competition.

Other key actions for building brand awareness

What are other key techniques for brand building?

  • Starting conversations through social media.
  • Finding unconventional ways to interact and engage with customers. This could be through participating on new social media platforms to reach new audiences or trying a new tactic to reinforce the existing relationships you have with your current customer base.

Although not all companies have the resources to create captivating media and advertising, connecting with customers in your community can be done fairly inexpensively in really creative ways. Innovation and creativity often generate “buzz” that can be an effective way to get people talking about your brand. Remember that word-of-mouth is a powerful tool that creates high rates of successful business conversions! (To learn more about the power of word-of-mouth advertising, check out “Strategic Approaches to Your Marketing.”)

Ultimately, the goal of building your brand is to create an identity to connect with your customers and your target audiences. As you articulate your brand identity, consider how your decisions reflect who you are and who you want to be as a business. Once you know who you are, you can build a lasting relationship with your customers, partners and other stakeholders.