Having a professionally designed brand has many benefits, but the practical reality is that in the beginning of your freelance career, you may not be able to afford it.
If you’re still experimenting with your business, investing in a professional brand right now may not be the wisest choice – you might find in a few years that you need to change it because your vision has evolved.
I’ll give you some tips how you can bootstrap your own brand, until you’re ready to hire a pro to do it for you. Some of these tips you might have already heard elsewhere, but I promise there’s a few tricks you haven’t thought of before.
1. Start with your core values
Most people don’t consciously think about their core personal values, but they’re the reason behind all our actions, aspirations and desires.
Dig into the “why” behind the things you do and how you do them, and you will discover what’s most important to you, and what drives you forward. Be honest with yourself.
While other parts of your business may change with time, your core values remain the same because they’re an integral part of your personality. Basing your brand on them will insure that your brand grows with you.
2. Refine your unique value proposition as you go
Your unique value proposition defines how your way of serving your clients is different from other similar service providers on the market. It’s the essence of your brand story. It’s your mission summed up in one simple sentence that you can use to describe what you do to a person sitting next to you on the bus.
You probably won’t settle on the perfect value proposition statement right now. It’s OK to experiment and see how people respond to different statements you use.
3. Stick to a simple typographic logo
During my career I saw logos created by engineers, lawyers, developers, writers, restaurant owners and visual artists. In 99% of the cases they were pretty bad, because they were trying too hard.
The common mistakes non-designers make when creating their own logo are:
- picking a font that’s curly and unreadable
- using several fonts that aren’t harmonious
- using too many colors
- tacky clipart
- cramming the logo with too many details
For a start, you just need something to put on your website header, business cards and invoices, so keep it simple:
- Choose a single font family that’s easy to read when printed very small. You may combine two font styles (like bold and regular, bold italic and light, etc.)
- Use one dominant color (plus a neutral color, if you must).
- Avoid clipart graphics and icons.
If you think that’s too simple, I assure you that you’ll be in good company. All these logos use Helvetica:
I don’t recommend Fiverrr to commission a cheap logo, since a lot of plagiarism happens there, and you can never be sure you’re getting an original design. (I also believe that if we expect to be paid fairly for our work, we shouldn’t use services that encourage undercutting freelancers when it’s convenient for us.)
4. Choose a dominant color and a basic color palette
Colors subtly affect human emotions and behavior. You can use color to craft a mood for your website visitors.
If you have well-known competitors, pick colors that are distinct from theirs, so people don’t confuse you with them.
Pair one dominant color with 1-2 neutral colors such as black, grey, beige or dark blue. The dominant color will be the basis for your logo and your visual brand. With a few neutrals, you’ll be able to contrast different areas of your website and guide attention to where you want to.
I also recommend choosing an accent color for your website that you’ll use for links, buttons and other clickable elements.
A common mistake people make is to use the same color for headings and buttons, because they’ve only picked one dominant brand color. A well-defined palette has a range of colors that enables you to visually distinguish different types of information.
5. Document your brand elements in a style guide
A style guide contains your logo variations, color palette and typography, so you can easily find this information whenever you need it, and share it with your team.
You can create a style guide as a word document, presentation, or a one-page graphic in Canva. Keep it online so it’s accessible to you from anywhere.
5. Customize your templates
You probably have proposals, contracts, invoices, questionnaires and other documents you send to your clients. Business documents don’t necessarily have to be all black and white – using just a bit of color is good.
Go through the advanced settings of your newsletter, invoicing software and other applications and customize typography and colors so they match your website and your marketing materials. Also change the default language to make it sound like you.
The purpose of customization is not only to make your stuff look better – it’s to instill trust. If your clients receive a booking email confirmation that has a completely different color palette from the one on your site, they might doubt they’re getting legitimate communication from you. Don’t give them a reason to doubt you.
6. Go beyond the stock photo trends
How many arrangements of golden paper clips, washi tape and a Mac keyboard on a white desk does the world need? The first person who did this discovered something unique. Everyone else is just riding the bandwagon, and their images are drowning in the ocean of “same old”.
To avoid using the same stock photos as everyone else, you have several options:
- Use stock resources that are rarely used in your niche. Try DeviantART, Creative Commons images on Flickr, or cheap paid stock photos like PhotoDune.
- Forgo photos, and use simple graphics like The Noun Project icons
- Take your own photos – even if you only have a phone.
7. Buy fancy stationery
This is a simple way you can quickly add a pinch of your own brand to your communications that people often miss.
If you send any paper correspondence, don’t just get the cheapest, plain envelopes, folders and bags – browse around the store and see if there are options that are more compatible with the color palette you’re using, and are within a reasonable budget.
This will make an impression on your clients, as most of your competitors don’t take that extra step.
8. Fix glaring off-brand details
Details matter, especially if they’re in contrast to your brand values. If you’re not careful, they can ruin the image you’ve been trying so hard to build.
Here’s an example I’ve personally encountered: a health food store chain that only offers plain white plastic bags for your groceries – there’s no recycled paper bag option. I assume that paper bags cost more than plastic bags, so they wanted to save money. However, if your whole business revolves around selling food at a higher price because it’s grown in an environmentally friendly way, being a cheapskate when it comes to packaging makes me wonder whether you actually care about the Earth, or is the “eco” label just a trend to cash in on.
Check all your communications, packaging and delivery options, and see if there’s anything that goes against your values. Also keep an eye on people you hire to do certain tasks for you.
Protecting your brand and your reputation is your responsibility.
People notice consistency
Even if some of them don’t consciously think about it, it works on a subconscious level. But the people that do think about it will tell you. I hear stories from my clients all the time how their clients and prospects comment on their brand and refer to their marketing materials as something that impressed them.
Do you want to hear this from your clients? Then get your visual brand in shape.
It takes just a bit of effort to rise beyond your competitors and peers. Doing even a few of the things I’ve mentioned will be worth it. Try it!