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Ecommerce Branding: How to Build a Brand That Lasts (in 6 Steps)

Let’s talk about ecommerce branding. In a crowded online marketplace, having a strong brand identity can set your online store and social media channels apart from your competitors. But what is your brand? And how do you figure out what branding strategy will resonate with your target audience? 

In the early 20th century, legacy brands like Coca-Cola and Procter and Gamble defined branding as an act of emphasizing the functional benefits of the product

The hope was that speaking about a product’s quality would help build trust and a strong reputation with potential customers.

However, in the 1960s, the idea of branding began to evolve. Rather than focusing on a product’s functional benefits, branding became more about the social aspects it could provide. Holding a can of Coca-Cola became more of a status symbol and brands became a form of social currency for customers to express their values and personal aspirations

Brand strategy became less about the functional benefits of a product and more about the intangible feeling it would impart: whether it was happiness, instant sex appeal, or an aura of coolness hidden behind a veil of cigarette smoke. 

Branding is often mistaken for a company logo or attractive color palette or typography. Although all these things can contribute to how a brand is perceived, branding is so much more than a collection of design elements.

It’s all about how you are making the customer feel every time they interact with your brand, and forming a strong bond with the intended target market. 

What is a brand?

A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn a reputation by trying to do hard things well.

Jeff Bezos

Taking the necessary effort to build a strong brand is a critical part of your ultimate success. Not only will it help capture a potential customer’s attention, but it will also keep them hooked and, ideally, make them become your brand advocates (literally wearing the T-shirt).

Really, your brand is everything! It includes:

  • Your brand story with a unique selling proposition. 
    • What makes your ecommerce business different or special from other competitors in your market? 
  • What customers are saying about you.
    • How are customers talking about your ecommerce store on social media and in online forums? Are they raving about their customer experience
  • How your employees feel about the brand.
    • Does your team identify with the brand mission? Does it motivate them to bring their best selves to work?
  • How your competitors talk about you. 
    • Do your rivals envy the way you are able to connect with your customers or create hilarious content?

How to develop your ecommerce branding strategy?

As someone clever once said, it takes 20 years to build a reputation, but five minutes to ruin it. Your brand is your baby, so treat it like you would a child (i.e., nurture and protect it at all costs).

Step one: Understand your target audience and brand identity

If you’re struggling to understand your target audience, I would recommend reading AND1’s brand history. Most notably about how AND1 sought to dethrone Nike in the shoe industry with their grassroots footwear and clothing brand. It’s the typical David and Goliath story that has us rooting for the underdog.

With a shoestring budget (no pun intended), AND1 knew that they had to zero in on their niche and market their brand in a way that didn’t drive them into debt. Instead of putting out splashy billboards and filming expensive commercials, they focused on finding the best streetball players in major US cities and handed out a mixtape (a short highlight reel set to music) that combined their love for hip hop and streetball.

A screenshot of AND1’s Instagram video featuring clips from their infamous mixtape collection
A screenshot of AND1’s Instagram video featuring clips from their infamous mixtape collection.

AND1 understood that they weren’t trying to reach the masses. They were trying to reach a very specific target audience and were able to form an emotional connection they needed to be seen as an organic part of the streetball community. 

Their mixtapes became a coveted item since they stirred up a conversation, turned local talent into streetball heroes, and had NBA players copying their moves. What started off as a mixtape became a multi-city tour across the US, called the AND1 Tour, where local ballers would compete with each other in different cities, making it one of the hottest events and eventually filling stadiums like Madison Square Garden.

Not only were they adding something fresh to the conversation but all these tactics aligned with their brand identity: streetball was an art, a performance. And we celebrate creativity and spontaneity. Through their efforts, they were able to position themselves as a brand for the people and gained loyal customers across the country and then worldwide. 

Step two: Have a brand story worth telling and sharing on social media 

Too Good To Go is an app I’ve been using a lot lately. With inflation being at an all-time high, any chance to save on groceries and takeout is an automatic yes from me. But what sets this brand apart is its social mission.

In an effort to reduce food waste, this social impact startup partnered with local restaurants and grocery stores that will offer nearly expired food at a discount. Rather than throw it away, anyone with the app can show up and save on their food bills!

too good to go mission screenshot
Screenshot of Too Good To Go’s mission to reduce food waste.

Have a peek at Too Good To Go’s brand message. This "Why It Matters" section provides a brief summary of the problem (food waste) and how their app solves this problem (saving on delicious, unsold food).

Not only are they passing on these savings to the customer, but they’re inviting users to also join an anti-food waste movement. Not only do I feel good about saving a few dollars, but I also feel great about helping the planet as well.

For those who care about sustainability and the environment, this does a fantastic job of building a positive relationship with a brand. The checkout process is fast and easy, plus pickups are convenient. And all items are put into surprise bags so you never know exactly what you will get, allowing them to delight their customers. 

Their brand message is not only something I identify with, but it's also one I'm happy to share with others on social media. I like to know that I'm "doing good" and many others feel the same. We are being rewarded twofold: by satiating our appetite and helping make the world a better place.

Step three: Create a brand color palette and typography 

Once you know what audience you are trying to reach and the story you want to tell, now is the time to start building out your brand persona and set some style guidelines for what your brand is all about. Try asking yourself what your brand is not or how you want your brand to make others feel.

If you are a meditation coach, perhaps you would want to go with a calming blue tone to match your services. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Orange comes off as more playful and energizing.

Having a clear idea of what values you want to convey will make creating a logo and developing a brand voice and design guide more clear-cut. 

If you are still in the early stages of deciding what your brand should look like (or if you are in the middle of a rebrand), a great way to decide your brand color palette is to use a tool like Coolors which allows you to create a color scheme easily, taking the guesswork out of what your primary and secondary brand colors should be. Color templates can be downloaded and saved for future reference.  

Let’s look at a successful brand like Chamberlain Coffee, for instance, a business venture started by popular Youtuber and influencer Emma Chamberlain.

This LA-based ecommerce business gives the public a chance to buy high-quality coffee that is sustainably sourced and “doesn't feel pretentious” compared to other coffee brands. 

Their ecommerce website pops with playful and fun colors but is still clean and easy to navigate. And the packaging features multiple different colors with images of cartoon animals sipping their own morning brew, adding to the brand’s playful aura. 

Their chosen colors and imagery do a brilliant job of marketing toward a younger demographic, and the brand feels like a very natural extension of Emma Chamberlain who often talks about her love for coffee on her social media channels.

An image showing a post on Instagram for a marketing campaign by Chamberlain Coffee
An Instagram post that features Chamberlain Coffee’s playful packaging.

Step four: Form connections online (or offline) for your ecommerce business 

Not all ecommerce branding needs to be done online. Going offline and orchestrating meet-ups or events can help build a rapport with customers and allow for some face-to-face interaction. 

Brands like Netflix often do activations to hype up their latest shows. With their hit show Squid Game, a deadly Korean drama, the brand invested in different activations around the world to build hype and gave people the chance to immerse themselves by also becoming participants in the show's iconic games. 

Providing an immersive experience can turn casual fans into super fans since they now become part of the storytelling. Participants were asked to post on social media to receive a branded gift. 

image of squid game activation in seoul station
An image of a Squid Game activation in Seoul’s subway station.

Step five: Deliver on your brand promise

Satisfaction guaranteed. This is a brand promise that a lot of ecommerce brands make to reduce the amount of risk from purchasing a product or service online.

Ecommerce brands like Casper, which focuses on all sleep essentials, offer customers a 100-night trial period to test out their bedding, mattress, and pillows so it can ensure that you get a good night’s sleep with their products. For more tactile customers, getting a chance to test and feel a product before pulling the trigger can help foster a sense of trust.

They also give you an option of booking a nap appointment on their website at any of their brick-and-mortar locations or you can chat with a Snooze Specialist in their instant messaging feature. The checkout process is easy to navigate and is transparent about extra fees for oversized items. 

All of these thoughtful additions to their ecommerce website demonstrate that their brand is highly customer-oriented and makes their visitors feel safe in splurging for a sleep set.

When it’s clear that a brand has a strong customer support system, customers can relax knowing that any questions they may have or assistance with returns and exchanges can be done painlessly, allowing Casper to deliver on their brand promise. 

casper homepage screenshot
A screenshot of Casper’s homepage that shows off its excellent branding with an online chat feature.

Step six: Reinvent yourself to survive 

The best brands in the world understand that, in order to remain at the top, reinventing yourself is a necessity. When Nike was battling with streetwear brand AND1 for the attention of shoe fanatics, they decided to invest millions in a commercial to gain the public’s interest.

Their Freestyle commercial, featuring NBA superstars and up-and-comers, is now known as one of the most influential commercials that has been spoofed countless times. The reception to the video was immediately praised for its creativity and nod to hip hop’s influence on streetball without uttering a single word.

Reflecting on your brand and what it stands for can also help you avoid the pitfalls of other brands that have succumbed to cancel culture or the "forgotten pile." Customers are more savvy than ever and ecommerce brands who don’t pass the brand name test won’t survive. 

Think of a few brands you know and love and put their brand name into a search engine.  

  • What are customers saying about this brand? 
  • How are the online reviews?
  • Are customers concerned about the quality of the product going downhill or less than responsive customer service, or is there currently a subreddit forum praising your latest product launch for being inclusive? 

Keeping a pulse on what people are saying is key.

As your brand gains more recognition and more customers, it will become harder to steer the online conversation, so it helps to take a temperature check every now and then to see if there are any pre-emptive measures that need to take place. 

Social listening tools like Hootsuite and Buffer can allow you to track all brand mentions across different social media platforms so you know if customer sentiment is changing for the worst or for the better. 

E-commerce branding is worth the investment 

Ecommerce branding can feel intimidating, but taking the time to evaluate what is your brand story can save you from falling into a brand identity crisis in the future.

Having a strong brand identity helps customers form an immediate connection and make a strong distinction between your ecommerce branding and all your online competitors.

Whether you are selling a product on Shopify or Amazon, customers need to know what makes your brand feel personal and unique. Embrace what makes your ecommerce branding special and tell your story in a way that resonates with your community.

Who knows, it might even go viral!

By Frances Du

Frances is a marketing strategist and writer who brings brand stories to life. You can connect with her on Instagram @frannytravels.

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