Defining Your Brand Identity
Aja Singer is the former founding Creative Director at Of Mercer, where she helped grow the brand from its initial concept into a multi-million dollar company. Prior to that, she was a cofounder of womenswear brand Alex & Eli, responsible for brand strategy and visual identity. She currently runs a branding-focused newsletter, For the Love, and helps companies with creative and brand strategy. To chat with Aja about your branding needs, book time with her here.
You’ve been the creative force behind two early-stage womenswear brands - what did you get right and wrong with each?
With my first brand, Alex & Eli, I really pushed myself from a creative and business perspective -- trying out new things and experimenting to see what worked and what didn’t. I’ve tried to carry that attitude through to all of my startups. The mistake I made was listening to advice from too many people.
Just because someone has extensive industry experience does not mean they know what’s right for your business.
With Of Mercer, I really prioritized getting to know our customers and having an ongoing dialogue with them through emails, surveys, phone calls, and even in-person consultations. This gave me huge insights into their lifestyles so I could better serve their needs. I’d recommend this to every founder, even before they have a product to sell.
What does a good startup branding plan look like?
Branding encompasses so much more than just a font or color; it’s the soul of a brand. First, you need to understand what the brand stands for, it’s value proposition, who it’s serving, and how you want your customers to feel when interacting with it. The visuals and messaging are a reflection of those ideas.
To get started, I recommend going through a few branding exercises with the whole team. A brand expert can take you through them, but if you’re looking to nail down your brand before you’re able to partner with one, it’s ok to work through them on your own. Start by defining your perception of your brand, your customer, and what your brand stands for. A great way to do this is to give everyone post-it notes (which you can also do virtually with a tool like Figma) and have them write down words they associate with each category. This allows you to quickly see where thinking is aligned and where you need more clarification. By narrowing these words down to three per category, as a group, you’ll have a good initial understanding of your brand and customer.
When I work with clients, I’ll walk them through this series of exercises. Once the core identity of the brand is defined, I take a similarly collaborative approach to developing the visuals. We’ll discuss what colors, fonts, and aesthetics team members are drawn to, other brands they like, and brands they don’t, and talk through a number of other visual cues until we’ve all agreed what form the brand should take. I’ll then create a few options to discuss, experiment with (to make sure they fulfil all the needs of that particular brand), and fine-tune, until we’ve defined the visual identity.
When should startups decide on their branding?
All the branding elements should be fleshed out very early in a startup’s lifecycle -- a thorough understanding of them will inform every aspect of your business. As for the brand’s visual identity and voice, having this clearly defined and articulated shows potential customers what you offer and what you stand for, which is especially beneficial for direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands. As a DTC startup, branding is the only way to convey your message and value proposition to customers, so it’s crucial to have that fully realized from launch.
What should go into that decision process?
I usually start with the series of exercises mentioned above. From there, it’s an ongoing dialogue and refinement process, getting to the core of what a brand looks and sounds like based on those defined core tenets.
For an early-stage startup, when things are changing quickly, it’s best to revisit your brand identity (especially the voice and messaging) every six months or so to make sure it’s aligned with your business goals and trajectory. As for an entire re-brand, you should consider it when hitting other milestones, such as a high-impact sales target, or a new round of funding.
This generally means your business has had meaningful growth, and your brand identity should evolve along with it.
What tools do you use with or recommend for your clients?
If you’re just starting out, a shared Pinterest board is honestly a great tool for collecting inspiration. Once you’ve honed in on a few themes, you can collect them in Figma (which is fantastic because it’s collaborative) to further define the vision. And if you’re looking to translate your ideas into a logo, Upwork has some cost-effective graphic designers. However, if you aren’t working with a branding expert yet, make sure you’ve clearly defined your brand so that any freelancer you work with thoroughly understands your brand’s identity.
Has your creative process changed now that meetings are mostly remote?
My workflow has not changed that much (although I do miss in-person meetings). What has changed is that I used to gather inspiration from all the cultural activities available in NY, so I spend a lot more time exploring online now. I miss the serendipity of wandering around New York -- seeing new things and meeting new people with new ideas, but there is still so much available online. Social media is a fantastic resource (I check both Instagram and Twitter regularly), and I subscribe to a number of mailing lists and newsletters for the purpose of discovery. I love Sight Unseen (for all things design), Thingtesting (for new brands), Typewolf (for font inspiration), to name a few.
What inspired you to start your newsletter and how did you get your first subscribers?
Truthfully, I wanted to get some practice writing regularly! Also, during my time as a founder and while in the e-commerce space, I had thought a lot about startups, branding, and consumer trends but hadn’t had the opportunity to share that knowledge. A newsletter seemed like a great way to do that. The first few issues went out to around 100 subscribers. I told everyone I knew that I was starting a newsletter and it just grew organically from there, with people sharing with friends and on social media. Writing the articles is definitely a lot of work, but I really enjoy diving into topics that I’ve either thought a lot about, or am curious about. Knowing that founders and marketing and brand professionals find it helpful makes it all the more rewarding.
Which companies do you think are getting branding and messaging right?
Apple and Nike are incredible examples of brands that have a clear, concise brand vision that’s consistent, yet effectively adapted to every brand touchpoint. As for startups, I think Pattern Brands has done a fantastic job at taking a belief system (enjoying daily life) and building a family of brands around it. And I love Starface’s brand and incorporation of their mascot, Big Yellow -- it’s bringing a fun, welcoming and judgment-free attitude to the skincare space.
What have you been reading lately?
What’s a great piece of advice you've received?
Don’t overthink it. (Although I usually still do!)
How do you unwind these days?
Yoga (especially Sky Ting!), going for walks with my husband, and reading. Hopefully I’ll be adding travel back to that list sometime in the future!
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