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An approach for authenticity in branding

December 2021
Diagram showing the steps 1. define 2. live 3. communicate

Great brands are built from the inside out. In other words, a successful brand defines what it wants to be, lives by it, and then communicates it to the world. But often, brands skip the defining and living – and jump straight to communicating.

When this happens, we see a few things:

  • Brands that are dishonest, intentionally or unintentionally
  • Brands that aren’t clear on what message to send, how to send it, and who to send it to
  • Brands that regularly change their tune according to what feels current or popular – and possibly mistake this for being genuinely innovative or timelessly appealing.

In this entry, I’ll outline some questions that will help you define your brand’s core and brainstorm how you can behave in line with this core. As a brand designer, my end goal is to craft a brand identity around this, which is central pillar of a brand’s communication strategy. A quick definition:

Brand identity. The visuals of a brand – like logo, colour palette, illustration, typography, and layout – wrapped up in a functional system for use.

A brand identity can be professionally crafted, aesthetically interesting, and technologically advanced – but if a brand doesn’t put (at least) equal focus into its behaviour, it will still be hollow. So, I use some variation of this process with every client, going more in-depth with those who need it most.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you, let’s get into it.

Set up

I suggest using a good old-fashioned pen and paper, or a tablet with stylus. If an answer doesn’t come to you immediately and confidently, then you might need to explore ideas via a mind map or other brainstorming method – try to think nonlinearly, explore ideas, go wide, and not worry about getting everything perfect. Then, distill your best ideas into a concise answer.


The first questions you should ask yourself will provide context later. Depending on how far along you are in developing your brand, you might immediately have answers to these questions. Regardless, give yourself some time and notebook space to ensure your answers are crystal clear and current.

  1. Who are you and what does your brand do?
  2. Are you solving a problem, providing something essential, or creating something for the sake of beauty or fun? Determine how exactly your offering fits into people’s lives.
  3. Who do you sell to? You can consider their demographics, but then go further. What are their values, interests, attitudes, and opinions?

The meaningful stuff

Once we’re 100% comfortable with these answers, we head into more meaningful (and sorry, possibly sentimental) territory. The answers to these questions are essential in building a substantial and genuine brand, and are the sorts of things a brand has to live by as well as communicate.

  1. Why do you do what you do? This is your brand’s purpose. Then take a step back and ask: do your short-term goals and business strategy allow you to be true to this purpose? How or how not?
  2. What beliefs and principles do you embrace? These are your brand’s values. Instead of thinking about your values as a person, consider values that are foundational to your brand and how it operates. I recommend starting with a long list of about 10 words, then grouping together similar words and reducing your list to a maximum of 5 words. Once you have your list, ask: does your brand adopt these values day-to-day? If there’s room for improvement, how can you improve?
  3. How will the world be impacted if your goals are reached? This is your brand’s vision. It’s okay if your vision is simple or humble – brands don’t exist to save the world. Be sure not to inflate its role or importance. Then ask: is your vision on track to being realised? Why or why not? Is anything getting in the way?

Final points

Lastly, we use what we’ve brainstormed and distilled to think about two final points. These are best considered last because they will be informed in some way by your answers in the previous sections.

  1. How does your brand fit into your industry and the world? This is your brand’s positioning. How are you different from your competitors? Are you traditional or innovative; approachable or premium? Then consider: how might your positioning affect your communication style or marketing touchpoints?
  2. If your brand was a person, what would they be like? This is your brand’s personality. Feel free to have some fun and hypothesise about real people whose traits your brand might reflect. Then consider: is your personality shining through? Why or why not?

And voilà – we have the basics of your brand core. I encourage you to begin with one session, then come back later to review the authenticity and completeness of your answers. You can also freestyle a bit and come up with more questions to reflect on, because every brand is different. Remember the principle of going wide, then refining down.

When working with a client, I only begin working on identity concepts once these foundations are established. This is because 1) I’m passionate about authentic expression and believe every brand has the responsibility to be honest, and 2) I believe contemporary audiences can see through appearances. There are no shortcuts in creating a successful brand.

Emily Stevens is a brand, graphic, and web designer based in Aotearoa New Zealand, working with worldwide clients. Get in touch at studio@emilystevens.co.