We talk a lot about branding and messaging on the Crayon blog. Specifically, we’re interested in how companies can leverage messaging to position themselves as unique, best-in-class players in their verticals.
Why? Because that’s one of the core challenges we seek to attack with competitive intelligence every single day.
It would be easy enough to say there are 3-5 pillars that all companies need to reconcile in order to understand who they are. But the truth is, every brand is different. To boil down branding to a formulaic set of criteria would be to do your company a disservice.
So, let’s talk a bit more about this concept of brand pillars. Then, we’ll discuss some ways to identify and refine the pillars that serve as foundational drivers for your organization.
What are brand pillars?
When someone talks about brand pillars, they’re typically referring to one of the following concepts:
- The general fundamentals that go into building any brand, or
- The specific fundamentals that go into building a unique brand.
For the purposes of this blog post, we’re going to explore the latter. When we talk about brand pillars, we’re interested in (1) identifying the core values of a given business and (2) understanding how that business can leverage those pillars to drive perpetual growth.
Before we go any further, though, we should set straight a few definitions:
- A messaging hierarchy is a layered system of language that distills a brand’s value down to its essential points.
- The brand promise sits at the top of the messaging hierarchy, and it boils down the broader layers of the hierarchy into a single statement. It describes the experience a customer should expect to have every time they interact with the brand in question.
- A message map sketches out the delta between a product and its alternatives, with vital features existing at the X and Y axes.
Each of the above is a tool you can use to promote a product or service. They make great material for sales scripts, and they’re incredibly useful when brainstorming marketing copy—the kind your company uses in ads, on product pages, in customer communications, and more.
Brand pillars are similar, but meaningfully different. A brand pillar is more akin to a core value than a messaging statement; it helps to define the values by which your company operates.
Brand pillars, in other words, are the unique characteristics that differentiate your company from the rest of the pack—characteristics that ultimately enable you to compete and win. They define why a potential customer would buy from you. But, even more importantly, they define why your company exists in the first place.
Understanding & refining your company’s brand pillars
What are your company’s brand pillars? The answer to this question is less about creating and more about understanding and refining. You can only “create” brand pillars as much as you can recreate a business. And if you’re managing a brand or a product within an enterprise organization, it’s probably not your job to recreate the fundamentals of the business.
It may be your job, however, to understand, refine, and communicate those pillars in a way that helps the organization as a whole maintain its competitive advantage.
Here are four vital questions you need to ask yourself when doing just that.
What is the brand’s purpose?
This is the first and most fundamental question you need to answer in order to effectively communicate your company’s brand pillars. What is the brand’s purpose?
Maybe your founders saw a unique opportunity to thrive in a space without many competitors. Or maybe they spent the majority of their careers at a company that didn’t adequately solve its customers’ pain points, and they set off on their own to create an alternative solution.
Some of this goes back to the origins of the company, but it’s more about understanding why the brand exists through the lens of potential buyers. Maybe the product is something that they always wanted access to. Maybe no brand had produced it before, and over time, it’s evolved into a solution that’s completely unique in the space.
Whatever the case may be, understanding a brand’s purpose—especially as it relates to competitors—is a critical step towards properly communicating its core values.
What is the brand’s mission?
The second question that should inform a company’s brand pillars: What is the brand’s mission?
Not every brand has to be a Starbucks or a Nike. A brand promise doesn’t have to be overly aspirational—you don’t need to “leave the world a better place than you found it.” But you should have a strong understanding of what your business is trying to accomplish. And, as a hint, it shouldn’t be to grow revenue by X or Y percent.
Think deeply about the product or service you offer, what that product or service allows your customers to accomplish, and how that fits into the company’s macro-level goals.
Maybe you offer the best prices of any product in your niche. You’re not trying to sell the most units. Your goal is to lower the barrier for high-quality service in your vertical. To bring a more affordable solution to a large segment of customers that need it.
Whatever your brand’s mission is, make sure it’s genuine, and make sure it reflects a deep understanding of how your brand fits into the big picture—not just in your vertical, but in the lives of any customer who would conceivably use your product.
What does the brand offer that the competition does not?
The third ever-important question that defines your brand pillars: What does your brand offer that the competition does not?
Obviously, in order to adequately address this question, you need to conduct competitive research and analysis. Let’s briefly discuss each of these in turn.
Competitive research is the process of gathering and organizing information related to your industry rivals. (For maximum ROI, this should be done automatically and in real time.) According to Crayon’s most recent State of Competitive Intelligence Report, your competitors’ websites and your colleagues are the sources from which your most valuable intel will come. To learn more, check out:
- How to Gain Valuable Insight From Your Competitor’s Website
- Why Your Coworkers Are Great Sources of Competitive Intelligence
Competitive analysis is the process of connecting the datapoints you’ve gathered and, from there, drawing actionable conclusions. Essentially, you’re trying to answer the question, “So what?” Competitor A addresses a narrow range of use cases. So what? Competitor B positions their products as small business solutions. So what? To learn more, check out:
- Master Competitive Analysis With These 3 Frameworks
- How to Create a Competitive Matrix (Guide + Templates)
Competitive research and analysis enable you to validate what you already know: that the benefits your customers receive as a result of using your product or service are wholly unique.
Describing those unique benefits in detail is a key step in identifying your brand pillars.
What is the brand’s vision of the industry or vertical?
The fourth question that defines brand pillars: What is your brand’s vision of the industry or vertical?
The answer to this question defines a brand’s direction. And direction plays a big role in defining whether or not a customer would want to attach their names to said brand for the foreseeable future.
What problems do you see facing your industry in the future? How does your brand operate as the natural solution to those problems? Maybe you’re innovating your product to hedge against regulations or restrictions that are coming down the line. Or maybe you’re drastically scaling your workforce to keep up with growing demand in the vertical.
Whatever the case, your company’s vision and understanding of the industry at large defines how you fit into it. Let your customers be informed about that vision, and let your team know that you have a unique plan to adapt to any challenges that may face the brand in the future.
Leveraging your company’s brand pillars
OK—now you know the questions you need to ask in order to understand, refine, and communicate your company’s brand pillars. The question then becomes: How do we use them?
Write them on the pillars that hold up your office (literally!). Use them to develop a set of core values that all of your employees are expected to uphold. Use them in growth presentations to stakeholders and investors. Cite a pillar when you’re giving your elevator pitch to a potential customer or client, or when you’re writing your monthly customer newsletter.
The use cases are innumerable. The bottom line: If you allow your brand’s mission, reason for existence, and vision of your industry to inform the above conversations, you’ll establish a brand that doesn’t just strive to be best-in-class—you’ll establish a brand that actually is.
Informed brand pillars through competitive intelligence
We’ve mentioned that brand pillars—at least at the mid-sized and enterprise levels—aren’t really meant to be created. They’re meant to be refined and communicated.
You can and should take your competition into account when refining and communicating your company’s brand pillars. Because while your reasons for doing business will overlap with those of your competitors, you will do yourself and your colleagues a great service by ensuring that they’re as unique as possible.
Want potential customers to rush to your product over its alternatives? Want your team members to feel like they’re a part of a culture that is completely unique in the space? Want your executives to feel uniquely driven by your brand’s mission?
Invest in real-time competitive intelligence. You’ll have a better understanding of the companies you’re going up against, and as a result, you’ll get a sharper understanding of the values that make your own brand truly unique.
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