If you're looking for a useful marketing mantra for your startup, established business, or even your nonprofit, may I suggest this one?

My brand is more than a logo.

When I speak to audiences about brand strategy, too often they think, "Oh, I have this covered. I have a great-looking logo and visual identity." But that's only part of the equation.

Your brand is your core promise, essence, story. Your logo should convey the brand, but it's not the same thing as your brand. Brand forms the foundation for your marketing efforts, but it also informs many other organizational aspects, including operations, hiring, and partnerships. Brand is the story you tell and the position you occupy in people's minds. Do they file you under "high-end bespoke couture"—or "fast fashion?"

There are markets and target audiences for everything but it's your job as a business owner or marketing leader to be crystal clear about the image for which you're aiming and how that influences everything from pricing to distribution to customer experience to—yes—visual identity.

Brand is a three-legged stool: It is conveyed visually, verbally, and experientially. "Visually" is the easy part: your logo, your colors, your design, your packaging. "Verbally" is how you talk, what you say, and which messages you convey. For example, do you lead with price, or do you lead with value? Does your company speak in conservative, authoritarian tones, or are you more playful and whimsical in your copy? Ideally, your visual and verbal promises should align and lead to where the rubber hits the road: experience. In other words, once you've promised me, the potential customer or client, something verbally and visually, does the experience match that promise? If everything about you screams high-end luxury, is that what I'm going to get? Will I get innovative and cutting-edge if you don't spend wisely on R&D?

The biggest gap for many organizations is getting the messaging (verbal) component right. They tend to either mimic their competition or speak in an inconsistent way. How can you convey messages that attract the right buyers, speak to their buying drivers and needs effectively--and, even more so, enable you to stand out in a crowded marketplace? The goal of the brand-building game is to get prospects to know, like, and trust you so that when the need for your product or service arises—when they are most ready to buy—they think of you first. Messaging can make or break that relationship.

Here are three tips to consider when crafting messaging so you can pique interest, create a relationship, and stand out from your competition.

1. Paint a picture

Too many companies get caught up in talking about they do, sell, offer, or provide. They dazzle prospects with talk of whiz-bang features or a laundry list of services. But customers don't care about you. They care about what's in it for them: How does your product or service make my life better, my family safer, my body healthier, my business more successful, my job easier, or my bottom line bigger?

Lead with benefits from the customer's point of view, not just bragging about features. If they have to ask, "What does that do for me?" then you have not landed on the benefit yet. I like to play a little game with my clients called "So what?" For every supposed "benefit" they cite, I continue probing with the question, "So why does that matter to them?" until we finally land on the true benefit. Amazingly, they often go from starting the sentence with "We offer" to "You get," and that's how you know you're there.

Create a vision for what life or work will be like when they use your products or services. Then you can link them to proof points about why you are able to make those claims through the features you offer. Remember, make your messaging about them, not you!

2. Walk your talk

When you throw a brand promise out into the world, you'd better deliver. As I like to say, don't write a brand check your business can't cash. Always back up benefits with proof points. Why can you make those claims? What capabilities do you offer that make me believe you can lower my costs, increase my sales, remove my wrinkles, lower my blood pressure?

Proof points can be your actual features or offerings, but they can also be industry statistics, press accolades, awards, customer testimonials (social proof), or specific tests or ROI studies done on your products or services.

Back up your benefits with proof points and clearly state your differentiators from "the other guys" so we know you are more than empty marketing promises.

3. Be human

As a scarred veteran of Silicon Valley tech marketing—I now work with not just tech players but other B2B and B2C industries—I dream that one day all websites, marketing collateral, and press releases will actually sound like human-speak and not meaningless jargon. I mean, really, "best of breed solutions to maximize human capital and innovation?" Who really talks like that? What does it even mean?

Einstein once said, "If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself." Your copy and messaging should speak directly to the person reading it in a brochure or on a Web page. What kind of human does your company sound like? What is your brand personality? Formal and conservative? Perhaps that is appropriate to your market or audience. Or maybe you're whimsical and sassy.

You can use brand voice to stand out from the masses and engage a prospect on a more human level. Sure, you may have to adapt to the language of your audience or industry, but that is why your brand strategy should reflect your ideal customer in sharp detail. That way, when you "speak" through your messaging, you immediately connect with the person more intimately and you can stand apart.

* * *
You may want to perform a messaging audit of your website, materials, and sales presentations to determine whether you are leading with benefits or features and you are backing up larger-than-life claims most effectively for your audience.

You can also take a look at your ideal customers and competition and attempt to discover an authentic brand voice that helps you stand out and connect better than the other guys do.

If you work with various writers or content creators, you may have to conduct such a messaging audit often to ensure you're on the right track. It also helps if you document your brand voice and messaging platform in your Brand Style Guide so everyone's working off the same playbook and you can consistently reiterate the right messages over and over again, regardless of the creator.

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Develop Your Brand Voice: Three Keys to Killer Messaging

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image of Maria Ross

Maria Ross is a brand strategist, author, speaker, and the founder of Red Slice. She advises entrepreneurs, startups, and SMBs on how to create an irresistible brand. The second edition of her Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget launched April 1, 2014.

Twitter: @redslice

LinkedIn: Maria Ross