A quick online search for any product or service will reveal countless competitors in every category.
Yet even saturated markets contain numerous examples of businesses that have built thriving customer bases.
Their secret? Developing a strong ecommerce brand with a distinct identity in the target market that unlocks more efficient growth.
There’s no foolproof formula for building an ecommerce brand, but you can follow in the steps of established direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands in competitive markets for guidance on how to build your own.
Steps to build an ecommerce brand
- Research your customers and competitive landscape
- Craft your ecommerce brand strategy and messaging
- Design your ecommerce brand identity
- Apply your brand consistently across your business
- Build brand equity through positive customer experiences
- Grow a community around your brand
- Make it a lifestyle, not just a brand
- Manage your brand’s reputation
- Evolve your ecommerce brand over time
What is an ecommerce brand?
An ecommerce brand is the sum of the symbols, names, colors, emotions, voices, values, stories, messaging, and other traits and assets that leave a distinct impression about your products and business in the minds of consumers.
More than your logos and fonts, an ecommerce brand is how your market identifies and connects with your business and products.
Building an ecommerce brand beyond the things you sell makes growing your business easier on the whole:
- Customer acquisition becomes cheaper as more people trust, love, and advocate for your business
- Customer retention is stronger as customers become loyal to your brand
- Co-marketing and influencer partnerships come to you as your own brand equity becomes an incentive for partners
- Press coverage becomes easier to win and shape with a brand story for audiences to latch onto
- Search engine optimization captures more branded searches as people discover your business through word of mouth or brand recall after seeing an ad
If you want proof of the power of ecommerce branding, look to the beverage industry, in particular the seemingly saturated bottled water market in the US.
Dominated by four incumbent brands—Aquafina, Glacéau Smart Water, Dasani, and Nestlé Pure Life, with little in the way of differentiation—the past decade has still seen many direct-to-consumer ecommerce brands rise to take a slice of the growing market.
Liquid Death, founded in 2019 and projected to earn $130 million in revenue in 2022, is a recent example of how competition is more a reflection of market demand than it is a reason to stay away from a market, and of the power of effective ecommerce branding.
Inventing a product or service that’s never been done before isn’t just hard, it’s unnecessary—if you take the steps to strategically build a unique ecommerce brand instead.
1. Research your customers and competitive landscape
Understanding your market is a must for creating an informed and effective ecommerce brand strategy.
Skip this step and you risk committing to a brand that looks or sounds like another company’s, or missing out on your individual brand proposition to go to market with.
Two questions that can guide you through this process are:
- Who are your potential customers? Take a shot at defining your target audiences. Even if you think your target audience is “everyone” (e.g., you’re selling water), many ecommerce brands have found success by focusing on a niche market.
- Who are your competitors? Conduct a quick competitive analysis to get the lay of the land of direct and indirect competitors, as well as the status quo (how your market currently fills the need for what you sell).
Answering these questions, you can discover gaps in the competition, competitive advantages for your products, or underserved customers in your audience.
For example, The Nue Co. found synthetic fillers dominated the supplements industry and created an alternative that was “pro-science, pro-clean, and pro-planet” for eco-conscious consumers.
Learn more about building customers personas to focus your brand on the Learn with Shopify YouTube channel.
2. Craft your ecommerce brand strategy and messaging
“Brand” is often associated with design and aesthetics, but much of the work actually falls into the bucket of strategy.
Especially with your brand’s messaging.
Messaging reinforces both your competitive advantage and what sets your products apart, in a manner that resonates with customers.
Gibson Biddle, a former VP of product who helped Netflix dominate the streaming market, believes building a great brand helps you build great products, and vice versa.
His branding framework can help you go from what you sell to what and who your ecommerce brand stands for:
- Product attributes. The standout traits that make your products unique. This could be anything from the materials used in production to the technology to specific features most of the competition lacks.
- Product benefits. The practical value propositions you make to customers. What needs do your products fill, and how do they solve your customers’ problems?
- Emotional benefits. A story or cause that your customers feel good about participating in. Are there ways your product or business can make a positive contribution to the world?
- Something bigger. Your core message to customers that ties your product benefits and emotional benefits together. How do you leave a lasting impression on your customers that goes beyond the product and its benefits?
You’ll know you’ve arrived at your messaging when you can see the through line from your products’ features to the benefits your target customers receive from them.
Let’s reverse engineer an example by analyzing how BAGGU arrived at its messaging as a brand that “makes simple playful things for everyday living.”
- Product attributes. As few materials as possible, recycled canvas, ethical manufacturing process.
- Product benefits. Vegan, durable, quality craftsmanship, environmentally responsible.
- Emotional benefits. Fun, playful conversation-starting aesthetic, minimalist.
- Something bigger. Playful everyday living.
Messaging matters because it influences both your product development and every other area of your ecommerce brand, such as the brand identity.
3. Design your ecommerce brand identity
Your brand identity is how customers recognize you against your competition in a crowded market.
It gives people something to latch onto as they interact with your brand, such as:
- Business name
- Color scheme
- Packaging design
- Voice and personality
- Language and style
A distinct brand identity may seem like a nice-to-have (you can always change your logo later, right?), but even superficial similarities between two brands can cause confusion.
Dove Chocolate and Dove the beauty brand, despite the differences in branding and product categories, are similar enough to confuse consumers as they compete for ownership of the “Dove” brand name.
The more distinct your brand identity, the easier it is to avoid situations like this. That’s why emerging ecommerce brands often turn to design and creative agencies or hire in-house designers and marketers for help with their brand identity before they roll it out across their business.
Sapsucker, for example, worked with creative agency Vanderbrand to craft a brand strategy and identity to help it take over the fast-growing sparkling beverage market with its sparkling tree water drinks.
The brand now draws on its Canadian roots, organic ingredients, and simplicity in its messaging, product development, packaging, and marketing.
4. Apply your brand consistently across your business
Your brand identity will extend beyond your logo and name into the copy and design for all the collateral customers will see.
Consistency in ecommerce branding doesn’t just mean using the same colors and fonts. It also means eliminating hypocrisy:
If minimalism is one of your brand values, your website design can reflect that too. If your products promise to create more inclusion, embracing accessibility guidelines across your online store and ads is one way to put action behind your words.
Girlfriend Collective offers a great example of this, weaving its ecommerce brand values around sustainability, inclusion, and transparency into the tiniest details:
- Homepage. “Quality clothes from recycled materials in sizes XXS-6XL” reflects its values as a slow fashion brand for all bodies. An About page is linked prominently in the navigation and on the homepage, which it uses as an asset to publicly share how it operates as a business and overcome consumer skepticism.
- Design. The olive green accentuates its branding, giving it a welcoming tone while supporting its values around sustainability and inclusivity.
- Copywriting. The brand has a “slow fashion for whatever your speed” badge that it features on its website and in its emails, reminding shoppers it stands opposed to the destructive fast fashion mindset, while still being a brand for everyone. It also comes through in clever copy, such as “Don’t make waste. Wear it.”
- Social media. The Girlfriend Collective brand extends beyond its website and onto its social media presence, through the Instagram highlights, images, videos, and influencers it partners with.
- Packaging. The product packaging is 100% recycled and recyclable, which embodies its sustainability values without compromising on quality. It’s just one way the brand can make a tangible impact on the planet while maintaining a premium customer experience.
As Girlfriend Collective demonstrates, it’s not just consistency across aesthetics, but consistency in your operations and actions that makes the difference between a “brand” and “brand equity.”
5. Build brand equity through positive customer experiences
An ecommerce company’s brand equity, not unlike equity in a financial sense, is the sum total of a brand’s assets and liabilities, both tangible and intangible. Except equity for a brand is measured in its perceived power, value, and ability to command its price in the market.
Brand equity is built through reach and awareness, the brand consistency we mentioned earlier, positive customer experiences, and advocacy.
Brand equity is the reason:
- Word of mouth referrals spread
- Customers rush to defend a brand when it’s under fire
- Press coverage about a business contributes to the brand
- People rave about brands on social media and in private conversations
Naturally, marketing and customer experience are key drivers of brand equity:
- Content marketing educates your target audience and helps you grow a following on social media
- SEO gets you more discoverability
- Advertising pushes your messaging into the market
- Email marketing nurtures customer loyalty through discounts, updates, and rewards
- Strategic partnerships let you borrow the equity of other established brands
- Customer service builds 1:1 relationships and helps customers navigate their purchasing decision, and troubleshoot any issues that could lead to a negative experience
Though not an exact science, brand equity can be measured through both quantitative and quantitative means, such as by analyzing search trends around your brand on Google, monitoring brand mentions in the press and sentiment on Twitter, Reddit, and other discussion forums, or with a customer survey or focus group.
Social proof is the most obvious signal of brand equity.
CROSSNET, for example, has developed not just a brand, but a new category within recreational sports, which has been covered by many mainstream media outlets and played by more than 1.2 million customers with positive reviews.
All of this indicates a high-value ecommerce brand.
6. Grow a community around your brand
Increasingly, brands embrace loyal customers as supporters and co-creators. It’s a community-led approach to growth.
From customer loyalty programs to livestreams hosted by the founders to user-generated content, there’s no shortage of ways to make customers feel closer to a brand and each other.
As powerful an asset a community is for an ecommerce brand, authenticity is an essential aspect of it that’s difficult to nail.
Charlie Gower and Jules Miller of The Nue Co. shared a founding story on Shopify Masters that resonated with customers and that they could rally around. “If you can build a solution that speaks to a problem as an individual, going out and being able to then market that, create a brand around it, becomes far more real. And people are far more engaged in the fact that you’ve then developed a product for your own problems that could potentially also solve problems for them.”
“If you can build a solution that speaks to a problem as an individual, going out and being able to then market that, create a brand around it, becomes far more real.” Charlie Gower and Jules Miller, The Nue Co.
When customers feel connected to real people and stories—not logos and products—is when community is created.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t scale this impact as The Nue Co. does with its ambassador program #PLANETNUE, where ambassadors get access to $90 worth of products each month, affiliate commission on sales they generate, exclusive discounts to share, access to upcoming product launches and events, and promotion on its social channels.
7. Make it a lifestyle, not just a brand
Not every ecommerce brand can create a successful lifestyle brand, but the ones that do become integrated into the lives of customers and generate demand by showing products in action through photos, videos, and other media.
Outdoor Voices has established a lifestyle ecommerce brand around a mission to “inspire others to get moving,” which comes across in the imagery and language it uses across its website and marketing. The branding focuses less on their products and more on the people in action or getting ready for action while wearing Outdoor Voices products.
The brand becomes a mirror that lets existing and prospective customers see themselves in others using the products in their daily lives through:
- The Doing Things Network ambassador program that rewards user-generated content
- The Recreationalist, a magazine that publishes lifestyle content focused on physical activity and recreation
- The branded hashtag #DoingThings for customers to share UGC with Outdoor Voices
- An iOS app where customers can not only shop but browse community events and local meetups like running clubs
8. Manage your brand’s reputation
At the end of the day, your reputation is your brand and becomes more important to monitor as you grow.
A single negative comment about a customer’s experience with your brand, left unresolved, can sour your reputation in the entire discussion.
Proactively managing your brand’s reputation means actively monitoring all the places where people talk about your brand, responding to negative reviews, and nurturing goodwill from positive ones.
Some key places to monitor beyond your owned channels and website include:
- Trustpilot (you can claim your business profile and get basic monitoring features for free)
- Google Alerts for your online business and Google Business profile for retail locations
- Any online marketplaces you sell on like Etsy or Amazon
As your brand grows, you might notice more branded searches in the form of “brand + reviews,” such as Nomatic, with about 70 searches a month in the US for “Nomatic reviews.”
Luckily, its strong brand is reflected in the results, with no shortage of blogger reviews and a high Trustpilot rating to back its business up.
It can get overwhelming to cover so much ground with your brand, which is why it may be worth investing in a brand monitoring or social listening tool to streamline and automate the process.
9. Evolve your ecommerce brand over time
Your ecommerce brand is a living asset that will develop as you update your messaging, refresh your visual identity, or even pivot to other markets.
From changes in strategy to new products and customer segments, your brand will evolve as your business grows.
The good news is your brand equity compounds with it and a strong ecommerce brand can become a moat around your growth that keeps your business thriving for many years to come.
Ecommerce brand FAQ
Why is it important to build an ecommerce brand?
Building an ecommerce brand is important because it helps your business stand out and capture market share in competitive markets. A strong ecommerce brand can also help you attract press, investors, and other partners.
How do I brand an online store?
To brand your online store, start by researching your target customers and competitors to define your brand’s positioning. Then, create a brand identity that conveys what makes your business unique, and create a cohesive brand identity experience across your website and marketing channels through the design, copy, and imagery.
How do you create a brand from scratch?
Start by researching your target customers and competition to define your positioning. Then, craft a brand strategy and story that conveys what makes your business special. Take that and design a recognizable brand identity with visuals, colors, and fonts that align with your brand story. Finally, apply your brand to your website and marketing channels.