This is part eight in my blog post series “From 0 to 10,000 customers”, documenting everything I did to grow my first eCommerce business. If you’re new here, take a look at the whole series or start with Part 1: How I started my eCommerce business.

Whenever I talk about branding a business, I recognise how difficult it is to teach.

To be clear, it’s not because it’s a talent that can’t be taught. 

Far from it. I think most people can learn it or already innately know it.

It’s because branding is created by your customers, not by you.

Trying to teach two people how to brand a company requires two completely different ideologies, purely because of the differences in the audiences they serve.

So while sharing what we did with Trefiel may be beneficial and help you “get” branding, it won’t teach you how to brand your company. Because my customers are not your customers.

There is something that I can teach though, and that’s using the psychology term mirroring.

Mirroring is the behaviour in which one person subconsciously imitates the gesture, speech pattern, or attitude of another. Mirroring often occurs in social situations, particularly in the company of close friends or family.

Branding is the same.

Good branding will reflect back what your customers like and enjoy.

That’s where I think a lot of businesses go wrong. I know it sure as hell is where I went wrong with Trefiel.

I thought branding was what you wanted your company to be.

But the further and further I went into building Trefiel, the more I realised it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with your customers.

In order to be at the helm of a brand and control how that brand is received, you have to be a deeply empathic person. Why? A deeply empathic person won’t put themselves before the customers. Ever.

That’s invaluable for a brand.

If you’re thinking “oh crap, I put myself before my customers every time” – don’t worry. It’s a really common mistake and one I made too.

It’s a learning process and you’ll find the more time you spend reflecting back to your customers what they want from you, the better you’ll become and the more customers you’ll attract.

If you can’t learn to be an empathic person or a “brander”, you need to hire someone who is.

Whoever you do hire to control the brand and the customer-facing touch points needs to be soft and strong at the same time.

Because when you hire a creative to bring your vision of your business to life, you have to be able to hold their ideas and your customers in two separate hands and make a decision that doesn’t compromise either.

We worked with a lot of creatives at Trefiel. Every single one of them was incredibly talented.

But I did a terrible job of standing up for my customers in the beginning because I just wasn’t a strong enough person. To be completely transparent with you, I wanted to create one version of the company –

The incredible Sara Tansy created these stunning black and white images for Trefiel's re-launch.

While my customers ultimately ended up responding well to this –

Adding reliability to our brand ended up helping us look and feel more like our customers wanted to purchase from.

Ultimately, if you aren’t able to maintain consistency, you’ll hire the wrong creatives for the wrong projects.

I did this time and time again with Trefiel, spending money on creatives who I personally loved (for my own style) but whose output was completely off-brand for the company.

We never hired a bad creative.

Every single person we worked with was incredibly talented and gave us an awesome output. But… they weren’t always the right fit for Trefiel and that was ultimately my fault for not protecting the brand and our customers.

In saying all that, there is something you can do to avoid wasting time and money and making the same mistakes that I did.

Why you need brand guidelines

While you’re growing your business and acquiring that initial thousand customers, I think it’s important for you to remain fluid in how you represent yourself.

Once you have those initial customers, I also think it’s just as important to start locking down who you represent and how you represent them in a more formal way.

This is where a brand guideline comes into play.

What is a brand guideline?

It’s a document that you create and use to uphold the structure of what makes your brand the way it is.

They help you communicate:

  • The value of your brand (how you serve your customers);
  • What your brand is (so you can hire people to help you bring projects to life);
  • How to deliver brand-aligned assets or how to be consistent with what you’ve already created;
  • How you want your brand to be perceived.

They’re really important and something that every brand should invest in once you have a database of customers and a deep understanding of why those customers align with your company.

I never invested into a brand guideline for Trefiel.

It was all in my head and this ultimately lead to an inability to stay “on brand”. This then meant we were inconsistent to the outside world and our customers, the people who needed us to remain consistent most.

To help you out, I’ve created a template of what should be inside a brand guideline template for you to start filling out.

Download our brand guideline template

Start building consistency in the way you present your business with a brand guideline.

Gain Access

Keep in mind that your brand guideline is always a work in progress.  As your business becomes more established, more connected to your customers and deeper as a brand, you’ll add nuanes of your customers that only you, as the business owner, could know.

A question I’m usually asked at this time is –

How do I collect more data about my customers?

  1. You ask them more questions.
  2. You listen.
  3. You create plans to action what you think would make them happier.
  4. You deliver.

It sounds simple. It is and it isn’t.

Creating surveys and adding incentives to encourage participation in surveys is time-consuming.

Our best insights came from our complex survey forms. I think they’re absolutely critical to getting structured information from your customers at very important growth phases of your business. I talk about this more in Part 4: How to Successfully Launch Products.

But even if you don’t have time to do structured surveys and parse customer data, you do have time to get to know your customers on social media. And truly, if you’re a business who is trying to grow, social media is the gateway to a world of immense opportunity.

The relationships with our customers were created and cemented using social media, specifically Snapchat.

The on-going refinement of who were serving, on a day-to-day basis, was thanks to social media. And because we understood more and more who our customers were (and could quite literally see it in their snapchats), we were able to create better strategies for our creative projects.

But, not before I made some major mistakes.

The 10 key elements of a successful strategy brief

Don’t do what I did.

  • I rushed hiring.
  • I rushed briefing.
  • I rushed the creative process.

I never felt like I had enough time.

That’s because I always over-committed myself in the quest to do more and grow faster.

If I could go back and speak to the Lucy that was trying to grow Trefiel, I would tell myself to slow down and do everything properly.

  1. Hiring the right person for your brand is important.
  2. Making sure they stay on-brand is important.

But I still think the most important part of any project is knowing why you’re doing it and what you need to achieve or end up with.

You can do this with a strategy or brief document.

What you need to have inside your strategy brief

  1. Describe your company
  2. Summarize the project
  3. Explain your objectives
  4. Define your target audience
  5. Outline the deliverables you need
  6. Identify your competition
  7. Include details on the tone, message and style
  8. Provide the timing
  9. Specify your budget
  10. List the key stakeholders (who needs to be reported to)

Thankfully, a lot of this work you will have already done in your brand guideline, so it’s matter of elaborating on what you want to achieve and then finding the right person to help you do that.

Out of all the experts I worked with when building Trefiel, this is the one thing they all said when I interviewed them for this series.

You must have a clear strategy yourself on what you hope to achieve with your project. Then you must have a clear, in-depth brief for the creative you’ve hired.

And it’s true.

If you don’t do both, you end up with a result that doesn’t fit – for your business, your brand and your customers.

With that said, now I’d like to introduce you to some of the creatives we worked with to build Trefiel into what it was.

I want to start with the person and company who helped us take Trefiel from bootstrapped to proper company.

Meet Mark O’keefe from Studio Alto

When we came to Mark, we had some of the ugliest packaging I have still, to this day, ever laid eyes on.

Lucy Bloomfield co-founded Trefiel and grew a successful eCommerce business, despite her terrible packaging design choices.

I still don’t know how we arrived at this solution, but we did.

Thankfully, Mark lifted us out of Ugly Packaging Land and helped us transform Trefiel into this.

So when I asked Mark to be a part of this series, I said:

“What would you say to the Lucy who came to you for help with her start up’s packaging?”

And this is what he shared.

What he shared in this post is exactly how he helped us in-person, from start to finish. That’s what a really good designer and agency will do for you –

They’ll help you figure out what you need and then deliver that to you.

I remember when our four-mask range launched and we picked up our stock in the new packaging, feeling full of excitement.

Not just because we had taken a huge step in our order volume –

I felt excited because the team at Studio Alto helped turn our company from a startup to a real brand. For that, I will always be grateful.

Mark also helped us connect with other, equally talented creatives, one being the photographer who helped create the images above.

Meet Jason Reekie

It’s true what they say –

Good photography elevates a brand.

When we received our new stock with brand new packaging, we were beyond excited. Here we were, stepping out of MVP (minimum viable product mode) and stepping out into the real world.

But we had no imagery to support our re-brand and being an online company, this was critical to our product launch success.

Jason is an incredible photographer having worked on major brands campaigns, including T2 and creating pure magic for them.

When we had the opportunity to work with Jason, we jumped at the chance because we knew he would do the same for our business. And he did.

So, when it came time to write this series, I knew that he could teach you what you need to know before hiring a photographer.

Because let’s face it –

Hiring creatives is hard because creativity isn’t fixed. It’s subjective.

Getting a fantastic result for your business requires you to communicate so effectively, that another person clearly understands your vision and has the tenacity to execute it.

Jason taught me how to do this when we worked together and naturally, I had to have him in the series to help you too.

One last point on hiring photographers which I learned from personal experience –

You need to be on set to be the customer advocate.

There’s no one representing their interests and their needs from the photos, which will help the creative resonate more with them.

That’s a sentiment that resonated with our stylist who worked with us on the same shoot that Jason did.

Meet Rebecca Howell

  • “What’s a stylist?”
  • “How did you become a stylist?”
  • “What… do you do?”

This is me peppering Rebecca with questions when I first met her on the Trefiel shoot.

This is because I had never had a stylist on a shoot before and I didn’t know why they were so important on a big photoshoot. I also didn’t didn’t realise how important a role they play in achieving a great result.

The truth is, you can hire a great photographer but having a stylist on set to take care of how everything looks is critical to creating stunning photos that last the test of time.

Rebecca helped me not only understand what a stylist is, what they do and why you need one, she taught me more about working with creatives effectively than anyone else.

Which is why it’s probably no surprise to you that I asked her to be a part of this series too.

Have you noticed the recurring theme yet?

The biggest part of creating great creative assets falls on you, the business owner.

Being prepared, creating a great brief and knowing what you need to achieve is crucial for successful creative projects.

The work that Mark, Jason and Rebecca did for Trefiel was a fantastic base to build off of and continue on with our internal team.

While we’re being honest, let’s talk about actually having and making time to do briefs and strategy for creative projects. If you’re an eCommerce business owner and your business is taking off to the point where you need people to help you with branding, you’re run off your feet.

I get it, I’ve been there.

This is one of the reasons I hired creatives internally because it meant that beyond an initial bringing up to speed of the company and brand, they could intuitively follow along with our journey and learn about our customers as we went.

This is one of the perks of employees – they start to know your customers just as well as you do.

Which means you spend less time creating strategies and more time briefing your team and leaving them to work their magic.

Some of my favourite memories from growing Trefiel are seeing each of my team blossom. In particular, one team member grew from a junior to a mid-weight designer, taking on responsibility and coming to deeply understand our customers.

That person was our designer, Christina, who played such a core part in creating our brand, that I had to have her as part of the series.

Meet Christina Spinazolla from Chris Cross Design

When Christina first came to us, she had an obvious talent but lack of miles in the saddle. I could see from a mile away that she was a much better designer than I was (or ever would be), so I made a decision early that would ultimately effect the progress of our brand –

I decided to give her creative free-reign, as much as I could.

What happened was nothing short of spectacular.

Giving your internal creative employees responsibility and ownership of the projects they work on is the quickest way to accelerate their growth, skill and empathy.

  • Yes, there needs to be trust established.
  • Yes, your designer needs to stick to the brand.
  • Yes, you need results.

But if you can clearly articulate that to your team, then set them free to create and get out of their way, you’ll achieve a much, much better result.

Christina played a core role in taking the customer insights we were learning in our customer service emails, surveys and social media private messages into visual and public form.

So naturally, she had to be a part of the series.

Let’s Pause Here

Branding is important but if you’re in your early stages of business, I don’t think it’s where you should spend your time.

A perfectly curated Instagram feed is not going to grow your business.

You don’t even know who your customers are yet, so how can you know what they want from your company?

I know a lot of creatives will say that Trefiel was successful because of the brand we created. It’s true (partly) –

To stand out in a saturated niche like skincare, you need branding.

But branding isn’t what got us dollars in the bank initially. Until you run a business, especially an eCommerce business, you won’t understand that.

I say all of this because I didn’t do it like this and I wish I had of.

I spent too much time on the beginning trying to make Trefiel loveable, likeable and deep as a brand. I wasted the first nine months of the business doing this, where we barely made any money.

It wasn’t until my business partner stepped in and helped bring a strong business strategy into Trefiel that the business really took off.

You have to be focused on sales in the beginning. The brand can come later… and it’s better when you do it this way because you have enough money to work with incredibly talented individuals to bring to life your vision.

In saying all that, I am grateful I invested in building a brand my customers loved. Because without that investment, I would never have had the 40% retention rate (or return customer rate) that I am so proud of.

But more on that in next month’s post.

Want to learn more?

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There are 13 posts planned out – from starting an eCommerce business to influencer marketing, brandingwholesalehiringfiring, customer retention, shipping and the mistakes I made while growing my own eCommerce business.