Successful companies have to juggle lots of moving parts: product, sales, logistics, operations, financial metrics. However, the most important driver of success is something that many organizations fail to focus on: their own brand.

Originally, a brand was a symbol that differentiated one rancher’s livestock from another. Today, a brand is the sum of the characteristics that make its service or products recognizable. It’s so much more than a logo, and includes everything from the layout of your store to what you talk about (and how you talk about it) on social media.

Peter Thiel, in his fantastic book Zero To One, describes a brand as the one thing that a company or organization can monopolize. It’s your identity, what makes your company unique, and the face or personality your customers interact with. It’s what attracts new customers and develops loyalty in repeat buyers. For many companies, brand equity is one of the most valuable assets on their balance sheets. Despite this, branding is often the first thing that companies choose to dilute or neglect.

So, in the fast-moving and ever-changing digital world, how do you make sure you protect and grow your brand? Here are five ways we believe companies can improve their most important asset:

1) Identify and remind your team what your brand actually is.

Spend time with an outside consultant or agency (like us!) to help define your brand. An internal team might see your brand through rose-colored glasses, giving a skewed view that doesn’t match up with what customers actually see. Outsiders have the emotional distance necessary to understand who your customer base actually is and what they think of you, resulting in a brand that represents your company and appeals to your target audience.

2) Critically question how your brand is different from your competitors.

Be honest with yourself about the magnitude of your differentiation: is it just a few additional features, or is it a whole new way to operate in your industry? Being intellectually honest about your brand will help you set realistic expectations for how well it will perform in the marketplace.

3) Ensure your product is substantive and reliable.

A restaurant’s brand may look and sound great online, but if the restaurant has bad service or food, its brand will suffer. Customers will tell their friends, or worse, write scathing online reviews. Though we have years of experience in ORM (online reputation management), no amount of reputation management can overcome having a product that’s inherently bad.

4) Make sure your brand’s online tactics align with your audience.

If your brand wants to talk to millennials and young professionals, your brand should be on social media platforms that are popular with that audience, and push the envelope on emerging platforms. Your messaging and voice should probably sound young, hip, and a little edgy. But if your brand is focused on professional baby boomers, your brand should pursue more traditional platforms and have a more buttoned-up voice. Your branding depends almost entirely on the audience and personas you are trying to reach.

5) Constantly invest in your brand.

We all know that startups (and larger companies) sometimes want to cut corners, and we understand that 99Designs is a cheap place for logos and design assets. However, to preserve, grow, and maximize your brand equity, you need to invest in design, messaging, and online aesthetics worthy of your most valuable intangible asset.

User experience, quality assets, messaging, core values, and, yes, a logo, are all part of your brand. If you invest in your brand now, you’re much less likely to find yourself defending or diluting your brand in the future.