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Want to Build a Cohesive Brand? Start With the Cornerstone

Brand Building Brand Building
Once Again Nut ButterNOW Private Label

Want to get the rest of the conference room nodding in agreement and believing you must have taken at least one correspondence course in marketing over the years? Simply point out that the upcoming campaign should have a cohesive look and feel across all of its components. Easy, right? A cohesive brand represented the same way through messaging, PR tactics, online presence, content pieces and advertising should be a given. In reality, many companies hoping to cast themselves in a new light by rebranding and rebuilding their identities struggle with a hodge-podge of messaging, visuals and marketing tools. The result of this varied bag of marketing strategies and resulting tactics is a mixed message to consumers that never clearly communicates the problem the company solves for potential customers.

This issue of confusing brand messaging rarely exists when launching a new company. During the exciting ramp up to the launch, logos are designed, websites are built and they typically all fit together to support a central brand story. Using one color scheme on a new brochure and then changing it up completely on the website makes sense to no one. The problems come into play the day after the company launches. In the careful preparation of a new brand, team members across the organization have time and resources to carefully consider how their new organization will be represented to customers, competitors and the industry as a whole. Once the company has moved its attention to landing sales presentations and shipping orders, the brand has the potential to get lost in the day-to-day.

As larger companies spread marketing initiatives across several team members and possibly outside agencies, the potential to lose control of the brand message increases. While a few off-target ads or a content campaign that looks differently than anything else in your marketing toolbox may not seem like a big deal, it becomes a dollars and cents issue once you consider the chance of that messaging breaking through amid the endless barrage of content being published in our industry every day. Capturing someone’s attention is only the first step. Your marketing materials ultimately lead a prospect down the path to a purchase. Keeping this in mind, a cohesive message that continuously builds recognition and leads to deeper exploration of your product or service will keep prospects engaged.

Having worked on the client side of the business for most of my marketing career, I saw this happen and was responsible for it happening time and again. Branding is eroded by small decisions that occur everyday across marketing teams. Many times, new technology or a new campaign idea causes materials to be created without a clear reference point to the established brand voice or deeper company objectives. Other times, new design trends are followed without tying in the existing creative standards. My branding offenses were usually web-related.

As a digital marketer for a small division of a very large corporation earlier in my career, the pace of change in our little department was non-existent. While web technology evolved at a blistering pace, it was hard not to get excited about the myriad of possibilities a refreshed site and new digital content offered. Meanwhile, I stared at an embarrassingly outdated website every day, including a visitor counter on the homepage long after anyone thought that was a good idea.

As a two-year team project was started to gain budget approval, vet possible development partners, reconcile the needs of every division in the company and finally, somehow, wrangle all of these pieces into a new site, I began to look for a temporary solution. In the end, we built a series of “mini-sites” that updated the look and feel of individual product websites, but badly fractured the branding. When it finally came time for development partners to pitch for our business, they all talked about the need to create a cohesive web experience instead of the mismatched multitude of websites they found when reviewing the company’s request for proposal. We knew this already, yet we all nodded, agreeing that a cohesive brand presence was indeed a good idea.

The Cornerstone Document

Re-branding is expensive. There are the obvious costs, such as new websites and trade show booths, but it’s the more incremental costs that will quickly diminish budgets, like brochures, letterhead, sell sheets and business cards for the entire organization. Given the expense, it’s important to ensure a method of vetting new marketing projects to make sure they tie back to the brand and reinforce the core goals of the organization. In our organization, the tool we use is a brand cornerstone document.

The cornerstone document is simple by design. Typically one or two pages long, the document quickly spells out the basics of the brand, including messaging, visual style and communication strategies. The document exists as a PDF and is shared across marketing teams, sales teams, agency partners and anyone else who may be in the position to create on behalf of the brand.

Many marketers are familiar with a brand style guide, which maps out the details of a brand, including fonts, brand colors, imagery and other helpful details to build new materials to brand specs. While style guides and cornerstone documents are both intended to keep marketing efforts “on-brand,” style guides are most helpful once a new piece of content is being built. Brand cornerstone documents are instead used to determine if a project should be undertaken in the first place. The document serves as a litmus test for determining if a potential initiative fits the brand.

The cornerstone document is the first tool to be developed as part of a rebrand and represents the truest expression of what your company does, the audience it serves and how it communicates its value. From there, new marketing assets are developed and old assets are examined to see if they should be kept and updated or left behind.

Used correctly, the cornerstone document keeps branding intact long after the rebranding effort is completed. It aids in day-to-day decision making, which is the very place brands begin to erode. For example, many of us have received calls from publications or media websites offering a huge discount on remnant ads. The offers can be enticing: a 75 percent discount on a one-time print ad in a magazine you haven’t advertised with before. The ad rep explains that it’s the chance to reach an entirely new audience for a fraction of the cost. With the help of a cornerstone document, it’s easy to quickly run down the proposition and determine if the ad will reach your audience in a way that contributes to your overall communication strategy instead of being a momentary distraction and a waste of money.

Building a brand cornerstone document typically starts with exploring your company’s core beliefs and reasons for existing. As an agency, we typically explore this through one-on-one meetings with key executives, sales reps, customer service staff, customers and anyone else who has a high stake in the brand. We find personal conversations bring out insights and brand attitudes that often don’t appear in larger-scale surveys. However, there are multiple ways to assess a brand and each internal team will want to find the most efficient, yet insightful method of collecting this data. From there, the many brand insights that emerge are work shopped among the marketing team and company leadership to revise, refine and publish in the cornerstone document.

Producing a one to two page cornerstone document that maps out the brand message, the visual direction and ways of communicating both is hard work. Oftentimes, the most difficult task is gaining consensus and editing the document down to no more than two pages. The importance of brevity here lies in the document’s usefulness. Just as an “elevator pitch” forces its owner to get to the essence of a proposition, the cornerstone document forces brand team members to drill down on the essence of the brand. It’s too easy to drift from simple, straightforward messaging to include multiple sub-points and objectives, which ultimately muddy the brand and produce a document too long for anyone to realistically use on a frequent basis.

While building a brand cornerstone document may prove to be one of the most challenging two-page writing assignments you take on, the upfront work brings big benefits. Used correctly, the short PDF will save thousands in off-brand marketing assets that deliver mixed messaging and ultimately detract from delivering new customers through a strategic marketing and sales experience. NIE


Ready to Get Started on Your Brand Cornerstone Document?

While each brand cornerstone document will contain unique details pertaining to your brand, here are a few questions to help you get started building each key section of the document.


• Who are we?

• What do we offer?

• Why do we offer it?

• Why does our offering matter?

• What is our brand personality? Our unique voice?


• How do our marketing/advertising visuals communicate our message?

• How do the visuals we use reinforce our brand personality?

• How do our visuals endear us to our target audience?


• What actions will we take to get our message across?

• How do our actions connect with our core audience’s needs?

• How are we communicating in a way that aligns us with our audiences broader values and truths?

• How do our communications further the sales conversation?

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The Shelton Group is a boutique public relations and marketing agency working exclusively in the dietary supplements and natural products industry since 1990. Todd Pauli works with clients to develop comprehensive marketing strategies that integrate social media, advertising and content marketing. Prior to joining The Shelton Group, Pauli led marketing communications efforts for several well-known businesses, including NOW Foods, one of the largest supplement manufacturers in the natural channel. Contact him at todd@sheltongrouppr.com.

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