We’ll design a brand identity, but branding is up to you

Mark Busse – No Comments

Your Brand Here | Brand Identity

Recently a prospective new client asked us some rather pointed questions about the nature of what we provided as brand designers, the difference between branding and marketing, brand identity, as well as some other rather insightful queries. This client was a privately owned, relatively young company experiencing success and growth in their industry, but recognized the need to raise their game and present themselves with marketing and communications in a way that better reflected who they are—or who they wanted to be. But they had very little experience working with a brand design consultancy like ours and wanted to better understand us and what we could offer them. These questions are often on the minds of many who consider hiring us, so I felt it beneficial to reproduce that dialogue as it transpired via email:

What is a brand anyway? And what is the difference between branding and marketing?
Terrific question. To be successful, a brand must consistently provide quality and satisfaction; it must meaningfully distinguish itself from the competition to create customer preference; it must be relevant, convenient and easily accessible to its target audience; and it must appeal to their individual lifestyles, attitudes and beliefs. A successful brand is one that generates loyalty and affection because it provides a level of quality, trust, convenience, assurance and allure for which the audience is willing to pay a premium.

Marketing is more about the planning and execution of the concept, pricing, promotion and distribution of ideas, goods/services to create satisfactory exchanges. Marketing most often involves translating the idea of a brand essence and brand identity down to something practical or tangible to its audience, whereas a brand is a living organism that is built up or torn down in the minds of your customers over time—sometimes by way of a thousand seemingly insignificant gestures or experiences.

For example. if you think about a city, here are some examples of one of the thousand small gestures that might contribute to its brand: The condition of the roads, reports on crime, calibre of the buildings, events and activities on offer, reputation of the police, proximity to other places, ease of transportation, economic viability, etc…Businesses locate in, people move to and travel to places that are friendly, interesting, dynamic and provide advantageous conditions for their needs.

What happens if we have an inconsistent brand?
This question a little flawed. I understand what you’re asking, but assuming the quality of your product and service are unwavering, there really is no such thing as an “inconsistent brand”, just inconsistent delivery of the brand (promise)…or a brand breakdown. Remember, it’s the consumer perception of the elements that comprise their impression and that make up your brand identity. Thus, you are in control of consistency.

If your products are known to be highly functional, beautifully styled, reliably made and supported by friendly staff and a terrific service support, then what happens when a customer experiences a product failure and calls in, only to speak to a rude, inexperienced call centre employee in Manilla? That is not technically a breach of your brand quality or promise, but it places you at terrible risk. People love to talk. And word of mouth is not only a powerful way to build a brand, but perhaps the fastest way to bring it to its knees. It used to take significant effort to write letters to companies or newspapers to complain about a company, but these days the immediacy of publishing to the Internet and social media can result in PR nightmares for companies who don’t respond quickly.

Why rebrand? What are the benefits of a current, consistent and positive brand?
Very often the trigger for a rebrand by an organization or company is that the existing brand identity and other elements are dated and no longer reflect the products/services on offer. Essentially, there exists what is referred to as a “brand gap”, which is the difference between what is portrayed/perceived and reality/your aspirations.

There are many examples of successful rebranding in the civic realm. A recent example is Moosejaw, Saskatchewan. They recently went through a full branding initiative, retiring their tired old city crest and creating a terrific new logo and tagline “Surprisingly Unexpected” to better position the city as a great place to live, work and play. A bit of info and background on the process and results can be found here:

What process do you take a company through when they come to you for help?
We have a design process we’re very proud of—but so does everyone else. Descriptions of process are a dime a dozen and reduce methodology to rhetoric. For us it all starts with ignoring assumptions, asking smart questions, and listening carefully. We like to start with a “phase zero” exploration of the context of the situation, immersing ourself in your company so we can thoroughly audit the current health of your brand and identify real opportunities before making any sweeping promises about what we can do to help.

Once engaged, we take our clients through a comprehensive brand discovery, which involves a series of interviews, exercises and explorations as we work together—with the client—to identify who the client really is, what they stand for, and what they aspire to become. Comparing this with the initial research work, often including preliminary research interviews with staff and customers alike, we then identify any gaps between where the client is now and where they want to be.

Once a truly core expression of the company’s brand essence has been established and agreed upon, we convert this to a series of simplified questions that test the core attributes of any marketing or communication initiative. If client stakeholders can’t agree that something meets those brand filter questions, then it doesn’t belong in the brand universe. Simple as that.

In the end, like John Jay of Wieden + Kennedy says, there is no one proprietary process that anyone can claim works best and we must not impose our style onto our clients. The greatest thing we can offer to our clients is to listen carefully to them with empathy, explore their situations thoroughly to understand their truth and their soul, and then offer an expression of their true essence in a way that is relevant to a greater number of people. If there is a better way to express this, I’d love to hear it.

What are the core traits of a brand design firm we should be looking for?
There are a thousand ways to answer this question, but I will defer to Alina Wheeler’s book Designing Brand Identity, which posits that there are 12 traits that the best brand identity design firms have in common:

  1. Strategic imagination. An ability to understand and align business goals with creative strategy and expression is critical.
  2. Process focus. A disciplined process is used to foster collaboration, build trust, and ensure responsible decision-making and results.
  3. Design excellence. Reducing a complex, meaningful idea to its visual essence requires skill, patience, and unending discipline, whether the endpoint is a symbol, a look and feel, or an integrated brand identity system.
  4. Irrefutable logic. Creating a new system or brand architecture requires an ability to communicate a compelling case for change to any decision-maker, from the CEO to the director of marketing to a division head.
  5. Alchemy. An ability to synthesize vast amounts of information and reduce it to a big idea. Also, an ability to cut through the clutter and see the “gold” in a marketing audit.
  6. Empathy and insight. An ability to be collaborative and understand the perspectives of all stakeholders, to suspend judgment and transcend politics.
  7. Flexibility and humor. An ability to keep an eye on the big picture despite constraints and challenges. A sense of humour always helps.
  8. Mindfulness and curiosity. An awareness of what is going on in the wider world and insight into best practices and the branding landscape.
  9. Tenacity. Boundless energy and the perseverance of a marathon runner are required to develop and refine key messages, new names, taglines, and branding guidelines.
  10. Organization. Phase by phase, email by email, presentation by presentation, file by file, tracking and documentation are key.
  11. Focus. First and foremost, the process must stay focused on the customer and their experience.
  12. Passion. Passion fuels excellence and inspires brand engagement.

I think this list is quite accurate and feel good about the fact that most, if not all, of these traits can be found at Industrial Brand. But I acknowledge that it is often difficult for business professionals to assess these attributes when selecting a creative partner and “fit” is often a driving factor that is so hard to quantify or even sometimes describe. If we’re not going to have fun working together, we probably shouldn’t.

What do you expect from us during this process?
Another terrific question! First, we expect you to do some due diligence and make sure you choose your creative partner wisely. Hopefully there’s a great fit between our organizations, but if there isn’t, that’s OK if there isn’t. We can help you find the right design firm if we’re not it. We also request that you be as honest as you can with us and trust us as objective external experts.

The ROI and value in what we do relies on you giving us access to key stakeholders and decision-makers, as well as your staff and clients—otherwise it’s difficult for us to truly design a brand strategy or identity that will resonate internally and externally. Of course we also request that you provide us with timely responses and approvals, respect our production management process, and pay your invoices in a timely fashion—we’re not a bank.

What if you provide branding for us and things don’t improve?
This reminds me of a pet peeve about graphic designers—especially those who specialize in identity design. They often act as though they suffer from a mild god complex, as though they are “chosen ones” destined to save clients like Neo in the Matrix. Even the most talented communication designer, capable of producing spectacularly gorgeous logos and collateral, can’t guarantee that all your business problems will be saved with a new identity or marketing strategy. It’s super important, obviously—hell, we argue that it’s the ticket to the dance—but we’re not going to pretend that the secret is a new logo. Anyone who tells you that is full of shit.

As discussed earlier, we can work hard on your behalf to bore into the heart and soul of both you and your customer. From this learning we can use our training, experience, and intuition to design a strategy and brand identity that will hopefully resonate and be relevant to your audience, but at the end of the day branding is really up to you. Until the day comes that we have complete authority and control over the quality of your product or service, and the way all your staff treat your customers, then we can’t truly provide “branding”. If we work together and things don’t improve, well then it’s likely that we missed something far more sinister than the look and feel of your logo and visual language used in your communications and marketing materials.

Client: I understand now, thank you. When can we get started?