Starting An Apparel Brand – Part 1: Your Identity And Your Audience

What is your brand? Is it your company name? Your products? Your packaging? Your logo? Your website? Is it a few clever words that describe what your company’s all about?

The truth is it's none of those things. And all of them. I know, I know. That’s super confusing. Read on, and let’s see if we can make some sense of it. 

Identity & Message

Starting a brand – any brand – is about have a clear identity. In fact, forget “brand” for a second, anybody starting any company in any industry has to know what their company is all about. What is your vision? What do you stand for? What is your company’s reason for even existing at all?

Now zoom back in, CSI-style, past brand and into "apparel brand." Think about what you're asking people to do. You don't just want them to get on board. You're asking them to put your message on display, on their person, and walk around flashing that message for all the world to see,  over and over again. That’s a pretty big ask. And if you don’t know what your brand’s message is, how can you expect your customers to opt-in to being a disciple of that message?

Having a clear identity is going to be at the very center of your brand. It will affect literally everything you do, every decision you make. A good brand identity will be like a core principal of your business and it gives you the ability to check yourself as you start, as you evolve and as you grow. At every point, you should be able to ask yourself, "Is this on message?" It doesn't matter if you're asking that question about a design, a fabric choice, a sales channel, or a tweet – if the answer is ever ‘no,' then it's time to re-examine that decision and find a way to get back on message.

Authenticity & Specificity

One potential way to help establish a clear message, or hone an existing one, is to take a look at your competition and figure out what they are doing and saying. And more importantly, what they are NOT doing and NOT saying. 

This is your opportunity to set yourself apart. To zig where others are zagging. Having a clear message isn’t just about knowing that message back to front and integrating it into your decision-making, it’s also about making sure that message can stand out in the crowd. The more specific and unique your message is, the easier it will be to recognize, therefore making your brand easier to recognize as well.

The other thing the goes along with that specificity is authenticity. If you are saying the same or similar things as some of your competitors, not only will you come across as unoriginal, you may end up looking like a copycat or a knock-off of somebody else’s message. Maybe you think, “yes, our message is similar to our competitor, but we're doing it better/right." Your customers may not have such an easy time distinguishing, though. And if there is one thing customers will always sniff out – and turn away from – it is a lack of authenticity.

Consistency

Making your brand consistent has a few different elements to it. First, you need the look and feel (and message) of your brand to be deployed in a consistent way across all aspects of your brand. That means packaging, website, logo, business cards, newsletter emails, etc. – all of it will be immediately recognizable as your brand and nobody else’s. It may seem trivial to ensure your clothing labels mesh with the banner on your Facebook page, but failing to do so could result in customers legitimately not knowing whether or not the two come from the same company.

The other major aspect of consistency is in execution, especially of your products. If you have one killer product that blows up, everyone loves, and it sells out everywhere you put it, that's great. But you need to be able to do that again and again. Building a brand isn't about having just one great product, it's about showing your customers that you are full of great products and great ideas. That they can rely on you for great products over and over again.

Quality

Speaking of great products, don’t make the mistake of thinking that a great design or a solid core message can make up for/overcome a lack of quality at any point in your process, whether that be the stitching in your t-shirts or the functionality of your website. Any element of your customer’s experience where they come into contact with poor quality (whether real or perceived) will be perceived as a reflection on your brand as a whole. And that is an incredibly difficult hole to dig out of.

Audience

One of the reasons why a clear central message is so crucial to your brand is that there is a straight line between your brand’s message and your audience. Your brand’s identity will determine what the makeup of your audience looks like, as well as how intensely that audience connects with your brand.

Identity and audience are tied together like two twisted strands of a branding DNA double-helix. The “what” of your company will both determine “who” is going to be interested in buying your wares, as well as “how” to reach that audience.

Culture & Dichotomy

Ideally, your audience will form a culture around your brand that matches what you feel like your brand is all about. The idea isn’t just to sell products that people like, it’s to form a community. You want your customers to feel like when they buy your products they are investing in something, buying into a set of ideals. Customers who purchase your goods suddenly have something in common, a bond with their fellow customers. But that bond will only form if you ensure that “buying in” means something. That way, if one of your customers passes by another on the street or the subway or in the office, they can take a bit of pleasure in knowing that they are in the presence of a fellow member of “the club” (i.e. your brand).

To that end, the brands with the strongest loyalty and recognition manage to position participation in their brand as a dichotomy. A choice between only two options. You’re either with us or against us. You’re in or your out. Consider some of the strongest brands you can think of and you’ll find this to be true. Coke or Pepsi. Apple or Samsung. Xbox or Playstation. Is it possible to enjoy whatever soft drink is put in front of you? Sure. Can consumers choose to own more than one video game console? Of course. But ask fans of each brand and you'll find that to not pick a side is sacrilege.

Apparel companies do this too, though more frequently the brand is positioned as an immediately recognizable status symbol (think Nike or Guess or Christian Louboutin). Either way, the concept is the same. When consumers look at your products they don't just see a t-shirt or a pair of jeans or shoes. They see an exclusive club which they can be a part of, or not.

Look out for the rest of the series in the future and if you need help branding your company, contact us today for a brief consult.