Practical Branding for Agency Owners Struggling With Differentiation
People judge by appearances. We simply can’t change that.
When clients are deciding between you and your competitor, they will inevitably—maybe unconsciously—judge your website, your social profiles, your office (if any), and possibly even yourself.
I don’t have to tell you that your company must strive to look good at all times, in every sense of the word.
Your client’s first interaction with your brand (which might be online or offline) will plant a seed that will certainly affect the rest of the relationship.
Yet how many hours have you devoted to your branding in the last 12 months?
Let me guess: not many.
Also, let me guess why: “nobody has time for that,” right?
The problem is, by most agency owners thinking the same way, we start to see thousands upon thousands of agencies with similar offerings, similar websites and similar messaging.
The market grows more price sensitive and loyalty is nowhere to be found.
The need to differentiate your company as a unique brand skyrockets.
Logo? Check. Brand? Not yet.
First off, let’s start talking about what a brand is NOT.
A brand is not your service, your company name or your tagline. It’s not a logo, a color scheme or a catch phrase either.
While those things matter, as a business owner you should be focusing on the big picture of brand building.
Ashley Friendlein, founder of Econsultancy, describes branding as follows:
“Brand is the sum total of how someone perceives a particular organization. Branding is about shaping that perception.”
Sergio Zyman, the author of The End of Advertising As We Know it, defines a brand as “a container for a customer’s complete experience with the product or company.”
In others words: what people think of when they hear about your company? And how you can influence those thoughts?
It’s such an abstract concept, but here I’ll point out 5 specific aspects million-dollar brands have in common that you can implement to your business right away.
Purpose beyond profitability
Besides non-profit organizations, every business on earth has profit as its goal and it should.
Cash is the lifeblood of any business. It’s what allows businesses to stay afloat on their own without an infusion of cash from investors or third parties.
When you have a small business, money is likely the primary driver. It can certainly inspire you and a few folks, but when you grow beyond yourself, there needs to be more to it than that.
In his TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, Simon Sinek talks about why some organizations fail to inspire action and others don’t.
He reiterates again and again, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” He also adds that, by communicating these reasons why, “we’re talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior and decision-making.”
Why do you get out of bed every morning? Why did you start your business in the first place and how far would you like to take it? More importantly, why should people care? People want to know.
We admire brands that emphasize a purpose beyond profitability and make it clear for everyone.
Being clear and communicating what you stand for can be a point of differentiation for your agency, inspiring action both internally (people that work with/for you) and externally (people that buy from you).
A layer underneath the high-level purpose
The so-called ‘why’ we’ve just talked about can end up being too high-level and hard to use as a differentiator in prospects’ conversations.
So, on top of that, we need to add a piece to that puzzle and that’s where your unique selling proposition comes in.
If you want to become the absolute choice for your clients, what you offer as a service needs to be different in some way, even if slightly.
It’s hard to point out what exactly is a unique selling proposition. Its attributes can vary widely from industry to industry. Nonetheless, here are some common ones to get you thinking:
Specificity: do you talk to a specific target audience in your messaging and offer?
Reputation: does your agency have a background and a proven track record? Have you worked with well-known brands?
Cost ambiguity: do you show your prices in your website or not?
Specific deliverables: is there something you offer that your competitors don’t, like complementary services?
Pricing model: is your pricing model different? Do you charge a fixed fee while your competitors charge per project, or based on performance?
As you can see, you can influence some aspects of your proposition right away, while others are intangibles that take years to develop.
The point is, you can’t rely on a purpose to differentiate your agency. There needs to be something actually different, whether that’d be in your agency’s positioning or your actual offer.
The story everyone talks about — and how to tell it
When you started your business, were you searching for a similar solution and couldn’t find one with the level of quality you wanted (check out SPP’s story for reference)?
Or were you successful with an app, a beautiful website or a 1st-page ranking and then people started to ask you to do these things for their business?
Again, people care about these things more than you think, but having a story is not enough, you need to tell it the right way.
The way you tell your story can be the difference between making your brand stick and being forgotten a second later.
A great example is Neil Patel.
He does an amazing job talking about how he got ripped off by other agencies as a 16-year-old kid.
Such agencies gave him no results other than an emptier wallet and a relentless desire to figure things out on his own.
Don’t be afraid to get vulnerable and talk about your beginnings—whether those are humble (no money), selfish (wanted to build a 8-figure agency) or selfless (wanted to help others businesses grow).
In each case, a story will help you build a stronger connection and relatedness with people, making your chances of attracting, converting and retaining more clients higher.
If you take away only one thing from all this information it should be this: how you tell your story matters.
But design matters just as much
KlientBoost, an agency that grew from 0 to one-million in 12 months, took an unconventional approach to differentiating themselves in the market.
Johnathan Dane, the owner, attributes his success to brand building and design more than I’d like to admit.
Before having a single client, and despite having to pay cash out of his life savings, Dane convinced a designer to join him as the first member.
Bear in mind, we’re talking about a PPC and CRO agency, not branding and design.
That same theme that kept coming up. When asked about how his business grew so fast he said, “caring about the brand building and the design of it.”
Would you guess what his second hire was? A project manager? A salesman? Nope, another designer.
Most people believe that once you’ve created a logo, you’re done, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Every visual communication—from a lead magnet cover to content thumbnails and infographics—should remain consistent with your brand, making it “identifiable” across all channels.
Entry barriers to start an agency have gone down so dramatically, that clients can actually feel relief when they see that you invest in design and are not simply a bystander.
Design is the way an agency’s brand comes to life to represent who you are and what you stand for. This is the execution phase, where all the high-level concepts are turned into actual, high-quality visuals.
If you have an easily-recognizable brand that grabs people’s attention and it can convey your mission and your story then you will stand out. Without question.
What’s left is adding a final ingredient to the mix and you have the perfect recipe for a long-lasting brand.
A human touch
Humans have always been used in marketing and advertising. It successfully gets attention. It stands out. It’s simple and effective and the reason behind that is relatedness.
The ultimate purpose of a brand is to humanize a business and what better way to humanize a brand than to, literally, put faces to it. Faces that connect and engage with your customers.
From employee and leadership pictures on your site, to gifts in holidays, to a plain “thank you” letter every now and then, showing that there’s a human being that truly cares can foster retention within your clientele.
For that purpose, a human touch can always give you that competitive edge you need.
Rinse & repeat
The marketplace is in constant evolution and while we sometimes resist change, the truth is we’re always secretly searching for alternatives.
That’s why you should always keep an eye for major changes—in customer preferences, in your business direction, in trends—and make adjustment if necessary.
Start allocating more time, energy, money and resources to your brand so it doesn’t become outdated and it’ll be a matter of time before you start dominating the space you participate in.