Branding strategy: Use a three-step brand audit

Developing your branding strategy and building your brand’s foundation can feel very conceptual and lack the tactile outcomes and actions that entrepreneurs crave. In this article, I share a three-step branding strategy that I use with MaRS startups to help them conduct a brand audit. This brand audit helps them identify “quick win” branding opportunities and larger strategic challenges.

As a branding strategy, what does the three-step audit achieve?

As a branding strategy, the audit provides structure and focus around assessing and mapping a brand and helps demystify the basics of brand building.

This exercise will force you to take inventory on your current brand and it will expose ways you can clarify your brand messaging and differentiate yourself from your competitors.

Getting started on your brand audit

Before you can begin your brand audit, you need to put together an audit form to help organize your research. Use this sample template to develop your own brand audit.

At a minimum, the audit form contains the following fields for brand elements:

Customer segments Emotional benefits Product offerings Strategic partnerships
Value proposition Core brand associations Company values Integration partnerships
Key messaging Strengths of brand Communication channels Vulnerabilities of brand
Functional benefits Brand endorsements Foundation story Thought leadership

To ensure the form meets your unique needs, add in fields that specifically address the branding challenges you face. For example, I find that many of my early-stage startup clients struggle to establish the credibility of their product. For their audit form, I would add in the additional field “How does Company X convey credibility?”.

Step 1: The internal brand audit: Reflect on your current branding

The first step is to audit your own brand. Work through your brand audit form, filling in corresponding details about your company. The aim is to take stock of your foundational brand elements. Be brutally honest with yourself. If you haven’t yet considered one of the elements, that’s okay. Leave it blank. This is your chance to start brainstorming on how you could potentially incorporate that element and consider why you haven’t yet prioritized it.

The completed audit gives you a document that summarizes every area of your brand. In addition to dissecting the different aspects of your branding so you can examine them, this exercise can help you reflect on how these elements all work together to present a cohesive brand identity to your customer.

Discussing the results

Convene your team to complete (or at least discuss a draft of) the internal audit. This exercise provides a fantastic opportunity to unite your strategic focus and can lead to vigorous discussion and debate. Ask representatives from across your entire team to participate. Your team members are the ones that bring your brand to life, so it is vital that everyone be on the same page. This includes technical teams that otherwise might not be part of the marketing discussion.

Step 2: The external brand audit: The reality check

Now that you have an inventory of your different brand elements, it’s time to make sure it matches what you actually communicate to your customers. The external audit should cover all of the same elements you addressed in the internal audit and provide you with direct points of comparison for your analysis.

For this step, your website will act as the main research input as your website should convey your brand holistically and thoroughly to your customer. The guiding principle here is that regardless of how you engage with your customers, or where the actual point of sale takes place, having a strong digital presence is critical for your brand.

In order for the external brand audit to be useful for your analysis, it needs to be as unbiased as possible. I highly recommend you engage someone who is NOT on your team to act as auditor this exercise.

Tips for picking your external brand auditor

Your auditor should:

  • Have a basic understanding of branding in general (i.e., possess some basic marketing background)
  • Not be invested in your product offering or its brand communications (e.g., don’t ask your copywriter)
  • Feel comfortable being brutally honest with you about your website

Tasks for the external brand auditor

Ask your auditor to transcribe the messaging from the website to the corresponding field on the audit form. The most effective way to tackle this is to have the auditor to review the website completely and absorb the content and key messaging. They can then work through the audit form and identify how the website addresses each of the branding elements (e.g., core value proposition, functional benefits) and transcribe the correlated messaging. In addition to considering what the website communicates, the auditor can zero in on what messaging is being prioritized.

This exercise should take about two hours for the auditor to complete.

Branding opportunities: What Step 2 reveals

Step 2 reveals not only areas where your website may need updating, but also what key assumptions you’re making about the information your customers value. The gaps/differences between the internal audit and external audit will highlight some immediate opportunities for you to strengthen your brand.

Examples of gaps/differences to explore:

  • Do you effectively prioritize messaging throughout the website to draw your viewer to key messaging?
  • What proof points do you provide on your website to support the value claims you make?
  • Do you communicate your value proposition using language and tone that will resonate with your customer?

Step 3: Competitive analysis of your branding strategy: Use (stretch) benchmarks

It’s now time to compare your branding strategy with that of the competition. Here you want to identify who else is speaking to your customers and evaluate how they are positioning their brand.

Deciding which competitors you want to use as a benchmark is not a simple task. Challenge your assumptions about who you should compare yourself to and consider “stretch” benchmarks. While it is important to understand your direct competitors and how they connect with your customers, it is equally important (for this type of exercise) to pick a “stretch comparator”—i.e., competitors who target similar customers, but have more established and polished brands. I suggest you pick two direct competitors and one stretch comparator for your initial research.

Picking a stretch comparator

To help my clients pick a stretch comparator, I ask them:

  1. What major brands do your customers also engage with?
  2. Who do you think is best in class for branding in your industry?
  3. What brand do aspire to reach the same level as some day? What about that brand is attractive to you?

Example: I was working with MaRS fintech company recently and we used Visa as a stretch benchmark. While the branding challenges Visa faces may appear to be worlds apart from my client’s, ultimately they are speaking to the same customer. And Visa demonstrates a world-class branding strategy. By using Visa as benchmark, I was able to show the power of concise and emotion-based messaging. Other potential stretch benchmarks that I’ve considered for my clients include Shopify, Cisco, SAP, Medtronic, Microsoft, IBM and GE.

Once you’ve identified your stretch benchmark(s), ask yourself what about them you admire and, as part of your research, examine what tactics they use to achieve those qualities. Add fields to the audit form if necessary.

Conduct this research for Step 3 in the much same way as the external brand audit. Use your competitors’ websites as the research inputs on how they employ different brand elements. While it is always beneficial to have a non-biased researcher, it is not as critical for Step 3 as it was for Step 2. You can do this research yourself and it should, in fact, become an ongoing exercise for your competitive research.

When researching, remember that you are pretending to be a curious potential customer—and that you will do yourself a disservice by being overly critical of your competitors.

Tips for conducting the competitive analysis:

  • Compare the findings from your external audit to your competition, as opposed to your internal audit. This will keep you accountable for updating your website to best reflect your brand.
  • Return to and consider the specific branding challenges that you identified when creating your audit form. E.g., if one was brand credibility, look at ways that your competitors convey this.
  • Explore the similarities and differences between your messaging and your competitors’. How can you further differentiate yourself?

Next steps in building your branding strategy

A useful framework for brand identity development is David Aaker’s “Brand Identity Model” (see below). Using the three-step brand audit outlined above, you will work through two of the three parts of Aaker’s “Strategic Brand Analysis”: Competitor analysis and Self-analysis.

A critical next step, if not already completed, is to build an in-depth knowledge of who your customers are.

The “Strategic Identity System” helps you understand the different levels of your brand and how they work together. In his book Brand Leadership, David Aaker describes these frameworks and looks at case studies in brand leadership.

Additional reading on branding strategy