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What Is Your Brand Saying About You?

Growing a brand is a journey. Do it right, and you'll be rewarded.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

What's 's symbol? What's its slogan?

Unless you've been cryogenically frozen for the past 50 years, you can probably answer both of these questions without thinking. Nike is one of the most well-recognized brands on earth — it even earned a place in the Smithsonian Institution for its outsized influence on American culture.

Nike's success was no accident. In his memoir, Shoe Dog, Nike founder Phil Knight describes the highs and lows he experienced during the long process of building his company from a small operation importing Japanese shoes to a full-blown sportswear empire. As a runner himself, Knight spent the company's early days at track meets, talking with other runners and selling shoes out of the back of his car. Why, he wondered, was he so much better at selling shoes than any of the other goods he'd tried to peddle in the past?

"Because, I realized, it wasn't selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in," he writes. "People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves. Belief, I decided. Belief is irresistible."

Read More: 5 Marketing Lessons We Can Learn from Nike

As Nike grew, it expanded its reach beyond running, netting athlete endorsements from everyone from John McEnroe to . But it never strayed from its focus on athletes, nor from Knight's core belief in the power of sports. What makes Nike so appealing is that it appeals to all athletes, from twice-a-week runners to globally famous sports stars. Its branding — everything from its classic "swoosh" to its emotionally charged commercials — taps into something felt by everyone who has ever laced up a pair of trainers.

Branding isn't just important. It can make or break your company. Here are a few ways to start thinking about yours.

Be real

As demonstrated by Nike, even the biggest and most expensive branding campaigns have to tie back to something authentic.

Being real — which stems from consistency — is incredibly important to consumers. Recent data found that 90% of customers identified authenticity as a top factor they consider when choosing which brand to support. The earnings of highly respected companies back that up that data: Take outdoor retailer , which Harvard Business Review ranked extremely well-regarded by consumers. In keeping with its values, REI announced in 2015 that it would no longer be open on Black Friday, traditionally one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year. Its gamble paid off: At the year's end, REI reported a nearly 10 percent increase in revenue. Walking the walk matters.

Read More: What the Color of Your Logo Says About Your Company (Infographic)

Be intentional about your brand's voice

Like people, brands have personalities. And given that a brand is basically how the public perceives your company, it's important to develop it the right way.

In the early days of my company, , our brand grew organically. This worked fine when we were small, but as we grew to more than 300 employees serving 10 million users, I realized we needed to be more intentional about the message we were sending. After lots of brainstorming over two separate hack weeks, we debuted our rebrand in December. The new Jotform look features clean updates to our logo, tagline and interface; changes that reflect the ease, usability and personality of what the company is now while staying true to its roots.

To think about your brand's personality, it can help to ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your company's mission? In other words, what are you doing, and who are you doing it for?

  • What are the benefits and features of your products or services? Why is yours different from the competition? What sets it apart and makes it unique?

  • What is the public's of your company? Don't guess. It's hard to have an accurate read on your own company. Instead of assuming, do some market research to find out.

What qualities do you want people to associate with your company? There's how your company is perceived, and how you want it to be perceived. Figure out where the gaps lie.

If you're struggling to translate your answers into an identity, try imagining your brand as a fictional character. What are they like? How do they behave? Keep your target customer in mind as you go through this exercise to see how they align.

Read More: The Thing About Branding That Successful Companies Understand

Get outside your bubble

In Knight's early days, getting feedback on his shoes meant physically going out and talking to runners to find out what they wanted. His close contact with the community afforded him invaluable insights when it came to getting into the minds of his target users, and also helped stay on the vanguard of new technologies: When tracks began to change from dirt to synthetic material in the 1960s, Nike was right there to develop shoes that worked with the new surface.

As entrepreneurs, it's easy to think we know how people see our company. But the truth is that it's impossible to view our own ventures objectively. In order to find out what people really think, spend time listening to feedback, both solicited and not. Once you have it, use it, even if it's hard to hear. Especially if it's hard to hear.

Developing a brand doesn't happen overnight. It takes time, and it also requires making an honest evaluation of your company, its goals and what sets it apart. But it will also help you define your values, and shape how people feel when they think about your company.

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