Look under the hood of any successful brand, and you’ll see most are built on five brand pillars. Following in their footsteps is a good idea.
The problem is, it takes awareness, planning and discipline. And most brands (especially small business brands) are built in a tactical – not strategic – way, adapting to their circumstances, pivoting as needed.
The brand-building advice you see online reflects this tactical mentality. Here are some results from a quick scan of ‘brand-building tips’ I conducted:
- Be (consistently) transparent
- Build and create quality content
- Keep your ears wide open
- Offer quality products and services
- Include customer testimonials
- Look to industry-leading partners
Certainly, these are all worthwhile endeavors. But they’re just tactics. Fall into the tactic trap, and you’ll find yourself forever executing without quite knowing why, endlessly pivoting, and confusing your customers.
Brand pillars are the solution. In this post, I’ll explain what they are, what foundational pillars you need to incorporate into your brand, and how to get started.
What are brand pillars?
In a nutshell. brand pillars define the character of your brand. You can call them the 5P’s:
- Purpose – the reason your company exists.
- Positioning – how you differentiate yourself.
- Personality – the human characteristics that define you.
- Promotion – how you communicate your personality.
- Product – the experience wrapped up in your actual offering.
Let’s make the individual pillars a bit more tangible.
Brand pillar 1: Purpose
Your purpose is best defined as your mission, vision, values, and brand promise.
Mission: What impact does your brand want to have on the people you serve? How do you want to improve their lives? It’s important to note mission should encompass not only the people you sell to, but the people who are helping build your company every day – your employees. It’s core to defining your company’s culture.
Vision: This is where you want to be in 10 years.
Values: How do you and your employees live out your mission? Aligned with your company values, your brand values shape your identity and messaging.
Brand Promise: Raise your right hand, and state how you’re going to fulfill your mission to make your customers’ lives better through the actions of your brand.
Brand pillar 2: Positioning
Positioning is how you differentiate your brand. Generally, your positioning reflects what you do best, that solves a genuine pain point for your customer, and that your competitors don’t do as well as you.
Graham Robertson has a simple, humorous way of defining great positioning as finding your ‘winning’ zone, vs landing in the risky, losing or dumb zone.
Positioning requires that you understand both your customer and competitors well. This, in and of itself, is a worthwhile reason to engage in a positioning exercise – customer and competitor insights can inject new ideas into everything you do!
Brand pillar 3: Personality
We tend to gravitate toward people who share our personality traits. The same applies to consumers choosing brands.
Your brand’s personality is defined by the human characteristics and attributes you assign to it. As a starting point, you might consider a personality archetype – as defined by pioneering psychologist Carl Jung:
- The connection builder
- The trailblazer
- The stabilizer
- The freedom and knowledge seeker.
Brand pillar 4: Promotion
Brand promotion is about how you communicate your brand purpose, positioning and personality.
From an identity system (logo, graphics) to your advertising, promotion brings your brand to life. It’s critical that your promotion system be consistent, and communicate without inundating the consumer. Simplicity, clarity and charm are the watchwords here.
Brand pillar 5: Product
The entirety of your brand pillar system is most evident in the actual product / service / experience the consumer gets.
All too often, the product falls short of the promise. Worse than disappointing the consumer, this disconnect creates resentment. After all, the consumer has put their faith in the brand. Like a friend who cons a friend, the consumer feels betrayed and hurt by a product that falls short.
Strengthening your brand pillars
The 5P’s are the brand pillars a good marketer works to incorporate into their brand. However, there are additional factors that can make your brand pillars sparkle: relevance, differentiation, and legitimacy.
This cuts to the core of what every brand should be: 50% understanding the expectation consumers have, and 50% delivering a promise that fulfills those expectations.
Sounds simple. But in my experience, brands often drive into the ditch right here. The problem is, they look at the world from the inside out. Instead of sitting back and listening deeply to as many consumers as they can, and truly pressing those consumers on their pain points, they get impatient, assume they know what consumers want, and charge forth. Their brand looks terrific to them. And very few others share the sentiment.
The solution is, well, listening. In fact, I’d refer anyone to the well-worn process of customer discovery to get a template for listening at critical phases of your product and brand development.
My personal preference: asking customers about their pain points off the top. Then circling back to share ideas on how you might help them with that pain. Then several more go-rounds as you bring them ever more refined versions of your solution, collecting their objective feedback along the way. Time-consuming? Yes. Rewarding? Very much so.
If you have a halfway decent product or service that addresses a well-known pain point, you’ll be awash in competitors. This isn’t a bad thing, unless you believe that simply saying what you do will be enough to set yourself apart.
Truth is, consumers have a very small head, with a lot of very disparate thoughts crammed in. In order to lodge your brand in their brain, you need to push another thought out.
The way to stake your claim in the consumer’s brain is to differentiate your highly relevant product.
Volumes have been written on differentiation. My advice would be to go to the ur-document, Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout.
Differentiation, like relevance, isn’t a tactic. It’s a deeper strategy that requires a bit of analysis and brainstorming. Again, the insights you gain along the way into how your competitors differentiate themselves (and try to position you into a place of weakness) is fascinating. Take your time. Observe and learn. The result will lend inspiration to not only your current brand, but the brand you want it to grow into.
Here’s where things get a bit funky.
Any brand builder will nod sagely when you talk about relevance and differentiation. But bring up legitimacy, and you start to step outside the realm of their reality.
That’s because legitimacy isn’t a brand attribute. It’s a corporate attribute.
You can create the most charming, differentiated brand in the world that does exactly what consumers want it to, but still lose if your company isn’t trustworthy.
Case in point. British Petroleum’s Beyond Petroleum brand. Remember the Alaskan pipeline spill? Remember the Deepwater Horizon spill? These disasters were brought to you by the folks who famously claimed to be moving rapidly Beyond Petroleum. Here’s the full story, and it’s a good one.
Moral of the story. You need to back your brand with good faith actions and character. Anything less, and you’ll leave all those consumers feeling betrayed. Never good.
How to create brand pillars
There are a variety of ways to build your brand pillars. But the simplest place to start is with the person you’re trying to reach: your customer. You need to understand how your customers and prospects think and feel now, how you want them to think and feel, and how you’re going to get them there. For this, there’s simply nothing better than interview research with your customers, and brainstorming with your team.
I’m a visual thinker. To me, a wall with 5 large post-it notes denoting the 5P’s at the top, and a cascade of thoughts on smaller post-its that are brainstormed, then edited, sorted and developed helps me see progress. It also makes it easy to turn building brand pillars into a team sport.
For a bit more structure, consider Lindsay Pedersen’s method in Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide.
- Orient: Determine your target customer and your competitive frame of reference.
- Listen: Deepen your understanding of your target customer through research and insights.
- Examine: Look at the data and channel it into your brand building by identifying uncommon denominators.
- Ladder: Specify the promise within the uncommon denominator zone, support it with fact, and leverage it to provide a large emotional reward.
- Characterize: Define the character of your brand, and articulate the qualities of your business as if it were a person.
- Stage: Apply the brand strategy elements according to where your customers are in their journey with your brand.
- Activate Creative: Develop creative messaging to communicate your brand for your audience.
- Zoom Out: Identify how you will deliver on-brand throughout every customer experience.
Brand pillars vs brand values
Brand values are the guiding principles your company follows. If that sounds a bit esoteric, turning them into ‘always / never’ words makes them tangible and ‘real’:
- We always deliver on time, even if it means working nights and weekends.
- We never turn customers away, even if they show up at closing time.
Brand values are actually part of your brand pillars, under the first ‘P’ – Purpose.
Brand pillar examples
Not surprisingly, great companies reinforce their brand strategy in their brand pillars, delivering an overarching experience that is both creative and consistent at every touchpoint. There’s no doubt in my mind that they didn’t get there overnight. But their example provides great inspiration and a template for you to get your own brand pillar exercise started.
Patagonia brand pillars
Brand strategy: build a company that embodies Patagonia’s 4P’s – people, planet, purpose, profits.
Purpose: Make the best products. Cause no harm to the environment. Use profits to implement positive environmental action.
Positioning: To people who are active outdoors and love the planet, Patagonia is the clothing manufacturer that combines amazing quality with an innovative approach to environmental activism – making it one of the few companies that completely walks the talk.
Personality: Patagonia is politically engaged, passionate about saving the environment they love, relentlessly self-improving, and smart. All without a whiff of self-superiority or smugness.
Promotion: Perhaps Patagonia’s best-known messaging medium, brand ambassadors are people who embody the Patagonia spirit, help the company improve, and are recognized leaders in their chosen outdoor sports.
Product: Patagonia products are famously durable and perfect for the pursuits they’re designed for. But the products that personify Patagonia’s ethos are the Common Threads used and repaired products.
Apple brand pillars
Brand strategy: To stand alone by creating an ecosystem of technological lifestyle products that echo Steve Jobs’ mantra of simplicity, creativity and humanity.
Purpose: To enable people to be creative in their work and play with products that enable more creative expression, simpler user experience, and human-centric design.
Positioning: For people who want their technology to enable them to work more creatively, Apple is the company that delivers an amazing ecosystem of products that personify simplicity, creativity, and humanity.
Personality: Friendly, smart, and hip – without arrogance.
Promotion: Everything about Apple’s design and communication – from packaging to Apple Stores to commercials – is brilliantly produced, highly creative, and smart.
Product: Apple products are innovative in their own right. Best of all, they’re an ecosystem; they work seamlessly with each other, enabling users to focus on their creative expression, not making tech work.
Company brand pillars vs personal brand pillars
Brand pillars are the foundation you build a professional, thoughtful brand with. At the end of the day, they’re little more than tools that give you a disciplined process for a job that might otherwise be unfocused and frustrating.
As such, they deliver great results for both corporations and individuals building or tuning their brand.
In fact, using brand pillars to sharpen your personal brand will likely inspire you to become more singular in your positioning, and more expansive in your promotion and product. Brand pillars are, to quote the title of Andrew Morgan and Mark Barden’s book, a Beautiful Constraint. The discipline they impose drives you to more creative, fulfilling results.