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The Case for a Bottom-up Brand Strategy


October 4, 2023


October 4, 2023

There’s a point in every company’s life where someone utters the words, “We need to get serious about our brand strategy.” Cue the whiteboard and sticky note sessions, multi-stakeholder meetings, a brand agency search if you can afford it, and a company-wide reveal and roll-out (and possible backlash). 

That’s usually followed by a creative refresh to make sure all ad creative performs just as well, if not better, with the new brand messaging, tone, and identity. This is one approach—top-down branding—and for some, it might be the very best option.

But for others, especially if you haven’t done a serious deep dive on your brand yet, a bottom-up approach could be a smarter way forward.

Starting at the bottom often gives you the opportunity to move faster and bring testing into the branding process to organically create a brand that feels true to the company and resonates with your audience.

What’s a “Good” Brand?

A “good” brand should exist at the intersection of who a company is and what resonates with the people they’re trying to reach. That’s it. Good for the company. Good for the customer.

How you bring a brand to life varies from company to company, but here are a couple of key elements (among dozens) worth thinking about.

Your brand strategy should include brand values, a brand story, brand persona, visual identity, and brand positioning.
  • Brand values—The DNA of the brand. What you stand for. Locking this down helps inform your next choices.
  • Brand story—Why you exist. The particular way you solve this problem. The way you want people to feel.
  • Brand persona—A helpful shorthand for the overall vibe and parameters of your brand, which guides decisions and informs asset creation. Think of it as a “brand test.” For example, let’s say a company’s brand persona is Reese Witherspoon. If you can picture Reese doing or saying it, it’s on-brand.
  • Visual identity—How you communicate your values, story, and persona in a visual way. It includes your logo, color palette, iconography, illustrations, and typography.
  • Brand positioning—How are you different from every competitor and alternative out there? Why are you better?

In addition to making these choices as part of your brand strategy, there are a few common approaches for a mature brand. Namely:

  • ConsistencyHow a brand shows up in different places should make sense as if it’s the same person. Things like tone and style can change based on the context (we’re not the same at work as at home) but the shifts should be conscious instead of accidental.
  • A defined identity—How the brand comes off has to be internally consistent. But it should also be distinct from others around you in the space. If people can’t understand how you’re different (and hopefully better) from alternatives, there’s no good reason for them to choose you.
  • Authenticity and integrity—People are slow to trust. Brands generally want something from people, so it’s on brands to prove that they’re being honest with their customers and not just saying things the customers want to hear.

Brands often consider the audience as an afterthought when developing and establishing an identity, but if you bring them into the process early, they can help define the brand, assuming you’re measuring the thing you actually care about.

In other words, if you need high-performing creative, it won’t help just to run focus groups on how a new brand makes people feel. If you care about driving signups, measure signups.

Who Should Try Bottom-up Branding?

This bottom-up brand strategy approach is worth considering if people don’t know your brand, since you have a lot of leeway to try different approaches before making it canon. Generally, this is usually Series B and earlier, but there are, like with everything, exceptions to that rule.

Odds are you’re already testing versions of your landing pages, copy, static ads, and everything else. There’s no need to lock yourself into brand elements that will stretch across all parts of your marketing without getting a heat check on what’s landing for people.

Another thing worth considering: how many people have to get comfortable with the testing process? Fewer cooks in the kitchen means less coordination and faster iteration.

Choose Your Variables for Finding Your Brand

We’re used to testing creative, but what’s the level above that? Your brand messaging, design, and tone are all up for grabs. As the old adage goes, test branches, not twigs. What are the parts of your brand that if you can get a good signal on, it’ll make everything else clearer later?

One possible structure to follow:

  1. Messaging—What are the three biggest non-overlapping pain points for customers? Do they hate the status quo because it’s expensive? Difficult? Boring? In that case, your three messaging buckets would be cheap, easy, and fun.
  2. Tone—What are the different ways (again, using the above example, serious, empathetic, funny) you can communicate our message?
  3. Visual identity—Visuals are harder to change than copy, so it’s important to know what you’re saying and what you want the audience to feel first before exploring how best to bring that to life visually.

Setting Up Guardrails

Good for the customer and the company is key. If there’s a brand element (say, something offensive to stakeholders) that somehow customers might respond to, you can keep it out of the test because you wouldn’t care if it won. You want the overlap of who you are as a company and what the audience responds to. Nothing more, nothing less.

Having these guardrails agreed upon with stakeholders (along with length and cost of the testing process) goes a long way to giving you a free hand to test boldly.

Testing for the Right Metrics

Whatever your testing process, when picking a channel, you’re looking for a place where you can measure the thing you truly care about with enough volume to trust the results quickly.

There could be two main metrics you care about—something that includes an initial response and something more down-funnel to give strong evidence that the audience really does like what you’re showing them.

The “Good Enough” Brand

As you embark on your bottom-up brand strategy journey, focus on solidifying some key brand elements (design, tone, messaging, etc.) that you and your audience connect with. That’s enough for this phase—from here, you can make better creative assets knowing you’ve given yourself a fighting chance in your brand choices.

Remember, as long as it’s in that overlap of good for the company and the customer, nothing you make has to be perfect. Within two years, odds are you’ll outgrow elements of this brand and continue evolving in the future.

Do you want to try a bottom-up brand strategy but don't know where to start? Drop us a line at growth@rightsideup.co to connect with our expert team.

Ezra Fox is a creative director, writer, podcaster, and accidental marketer. He has created thousands of TV, podcast, and digital ads across multiple startups. He freelances for Right Side Up and works out of his boutique creative studio, Chaotic Good.

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