Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

The most important question in branding

The most important question in branding
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Branding is a funny subject—particularly for small companies. Although it’s commonly discussed, it’s still so vague that most are confused by what exactly it means. I’ll even go a step further: I think that most branding efforts are flawed from the outset because people are simply not asking the most important question.

The varying levels of “branding”

On the lowest level, branding is confused with the creation of a logo. This is a perverse – yet surprisingly resilient – falsehood. An icon, monogram, or wordmark is in no way a brand—thinking so is akin to believing that a hood-ornament is a car. Yet, this is where a great number of brand projects start: “Yay! We’ve started our company! Let’s brand it with a logo!”

Some are savvier, and even if not, most brand design firms are able to effectively steer their clients clear of this misunderstanding and help them see that a logo is just one piece of an identity, which has a number of equally important touch-points. (I talk about these in greater detail in my upcoming book: Speak Human.)

They will also ask clients to step-back and look at strategy. In doing so, the process becomes exponentially more valuable. It’s critical to determine just what the organization wants to achieve, and create a plan for how to go about doing so. The visuals are as important as ever, but as a result of proper planning they can serve a defined purpose.

What’s missing…

Some designers aren’t exactly excited with this word “strategy”—except for when they employ it in their marketing literature. In fact, a few even reference it in a pejorative fashion, implying that it kills the “art” found in design. Others simply dislike having to work with words so much. Both are flawed positions and illustrate blindness to the real function of design. Design isn’t about art or visuals; it’s about effectively planning an outcome. Without that it’s just decoration.

There are, of course, firms that excel when it comes to asking questions about your company and helping you craft a strategy. They’ll take the time to build an effective plan that’s well tailored to your organization, and as such will afford great value to your company. My argument, however, is that most just don’t go quite far enough. They’ll ask about goals, values, and the marketplace – which are all important things – but we need to step-back even further yet.

A brand design firm might craft a functional identity system and brand strategy for your company, and still have it fail miserably. Why is that? Because they didn’t ask enough about the primary catalyst in any of these situations: you.

Your brand needs to fit your life

Although many will claim that I’m wrong, the most important question in branding is: What do you want to do all day? Without your personal needs determined, your company’s will not be met. An analogy: A brand design studio can effectively put you into a Porsche, but if all you want to do is haul stuff, you’d probably be better-off in a pick-up.

Before any brand design firm can craft a functional strategy and identity for your organization, they need to know what your individual long-term plans are. Where do you see yourself personally in ten or twenty years? Do you mostly want to take-on projects of your own interest? Are you more excited about working with really nice people? Would you like to build something big, so that you can sell quickly and lie on a beach? Or, do you think you need to address a social issue of some sort? These are all fine aspirations but each will likely result in quite different strategies for your brand.

I should also note that while I write this mostly for smaller companies, these questions are just as important to those in large ones. If you’re a leader who’s not aligned with the company’s direction, you’re in for a battle. Perhaps it’s time to move to something else?

Not asking these questions can cause huge mis-alignment for your brand. Curiously, some of them may even necessitate abandoning the development of a brand strategy and corporate identity. In really looking at where you want to go, it might become obvious that you just need to shut down your company and get a job. This may initially sound a little rash, but it really isn’t. You need to know where you’re going in order to get there. Figuring this out now will save you a lot of pain in the long run. For most of us the destination is less about what we have at the end, but rather, what we’re able to spend our days doing.

What’s “easy to sell” versus what needs doing

When I talk about this, a lot of people tell me that it sounds more like life-coaching than branding. I appreciate this, and in some ways agree. Frankly, it’s a lot easier to sell a corporate identity manual than a plan. Nevertheless, the value of a good designer is found in the plans they devise, regardless of how difficult they may be develop or, for that matter, package for sale.

Not so long ago we worked on a project in which the “brand” had been prepared by another provider. Upon starting the project, I contacted the original designers asking for strategic planning and positioning documents as well as the corporate identity standards documentation. Instead I received a ridiculously lengthy booklet primarily noting how to use (and not use) the logo. The accompanying email was almost apologetic—clearly, no actual branding had been done. As a result, our client was left with little more than a pretty shape. Evidently, a vast number of design firms are selling “brands” but are really only creating extensive logo documentation.

Branding is an invaluable process and one that can crystallize your personal needs as well as those of your organization. Let’s be perfectly blunt though: if you and your company are moving in different directions, no visual treatments will solve your problems. You have to insist upon establishing a plan that aligns all of your interests in a single stream. That way every subsequent decision will be made in a consistent and lucid fashion.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Giles Dickerson says:

    Word. The deeper truth I've found (as a brabd designer/creator/consultant) is that great creative needs constraints. Sparkling ideas must be born somewhere, and in a dry rocky field of "do anything" they don't grow. But in a narrow trough well watered with "We're this not that", and a little bit of "this characterizes us perfectly" and a dash of "here's what we believe in" great creative ideas can be born.

  2. Zinni says:

    Solid article about an all too true scenario. You are exactly right that it is really easy to avoid these fundamental strategy discussions and move into decoration rather than design. The post has once again renewed my interest in your upcoming book, and I can't wait to grab a copy.

  3. Thanks--we're really working to make it as good as we can! If you're curious about our progress on the book, you can find some notes here: http://bit.ly/jtIBf

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  5. Joshua Horoshok says:

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who cringes when he goes to a firm's website and sees examples of logo designs under the 'branding' page.


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  7. Good article - it's a painful process convincing people!

  8. I believe, the best way to grasp branding is to handle identities as if they were made up of all types of marks that determine experience, verifiable and imagined. These are physical, linguistic, gestural and conceptual marks. In other words and in relation to specific brands, all the tangible and intangible aspects of the experience of an identity.

    Any discrete identity can be usefully held as a brand.

    Brands are 'things' made up of different kinds of marks and so, can be handled by determining, coordinating and manipulating these marks. In fact, all things in existence can be usefully handled as brands. All that varies between brands is scope, depth and complexity of value.

    Brands enable people to make their way in the world.

    In business terms a brand is the business strategy made experiential. The brand is every aspect of the experience of that business, internally and externally, and spans the whole gamut of the identity from product and service, culture, intellectual property, and market and mind share. The more articulated the business and the strategy the more 'branded' the identity and the experience associated with that identity.

    In brand consulting, strategists configure and designers give form to the marks of a brand. The client provides an imperative identified by the marks that make up the fundamental components of the business ie. the raw material of a brand identity. The more articulated all these marks in combination, the more branded the experience and the more effective the brand is likely to be.

    Effective brands are the brands that prevail.

    Effective brands are the brands people care about for whatever personal or social reasons. It is with these brands that they have the closest and most emotionally and intellectually robust relationships.

    So branding...

    Funny? Not at all. Fundamental? Absolutely!

    A brand is a logo?! Fuck off...


    Permalink: http://bit.ly/7YMM7

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  10. This is a great topic because I think there are many people who misunderstand the term brand or branding. I think you hit the nail on the head when you you write that branding needs to fit your life. This is so true, if you can develop a brand that fits your life and you have others who believe that it fits their life you are on your way to building a brand.

  11. You can’t/shouldn’t create a brand identity until you’ve crafted your brand strategy. Yet most agencies and design firms claim they are selling “brands” when they are really selling “brand identities.” They typically don’t do much (if any) strategy, and if they do, they generally suck. They only do it because it helps disguise their art project as something more "strategic" than it really is.

    The best brands are built when the CEO “gets it.” If the CEO isn’t engaged or leading the effort, it’s pretty much doomed. But when he/she has an appreciation for the importance of branding (i.e., using all available tools to manage your reputation to achieve a goal/outcome), you’ll have the best chance at success.

    But it’s hard to get people to get CEOs to speak candidly, openly and objectively about their goals and motivations. Most people just aren't that in-touch with who they are and why they do what they're doing. What you often hear is corporate cliches and branding bromides about “growth challenges," "competitive pressures," "innovating for the future," and all that other crap. Getting people to be honest -- especially about themselves -- is extremely hard. Corporate types love to keep the real, underlying, emotional reasons behind their decisions a secret, cloaked in corporate bullshit and buried under rationalizations like the bottom line.

  12. henry says:

    design in all case is the conscious effort to utilize graphics and art in a structured manner to communicate a message across to an audience.

    for many 'designers' they don't see past the pretty graphics and understand that even things that seem abstract like strategy or communication mode are also part of a designer's job scope.

  13. Great post Eric. I'd like to add that "Brand" and "branding" may be losing equity as designers and agencies use these terms interchangeably with logo design and advertising. However, this doesn't mean the branding is dead, just that the term branding is overused.

    Out of all the companies claiming to do "branding" few practice what they preach or even understand what they're saying, often confusing brand identity for brand strategy. It's not difficult to understand why many designers don't understand the difference. Their frame of reference reflects the scope of work for which they are engaged.

    It's not arrogance it's ignorance. We must work to educate both our clients and those individuals and firm who are claiming brand expertise.

    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®

  14. James says:

    I've always been under the impression that Branding was not something that a designer or a marketer / strategist can actually "Do."

    I see brand as the perception of reputation that a company earns over time. I find it somewhat troublesome when we try to "Brand" a company, when in fact all of the real branding is done over time, via the consumer.

    We can try to shape that perception, and that's where I think the strength of identity comes in. Where Eric and I do agree, is that a company has to do some serious soul-searching and find out what their company really means to them. The results tend to reflect their actions as a whole, and help shape their public brand perception. This tends to help us create identity work as designers, because a lot of initial brand perception is communicated by the identity of the brand itself.

    Good brands tend to have CEOs who understand the impact of the companies actions as a whole, not limited to actual identity but also public relations, advertising and just making a decent product, ethically.

    Unfortunately, well done identities for businesses can quickly turn into bad brands, only by virtue of the actions of the company alone. See AT&T, Enron, etc.

    I think it's noble of us to try to tackle the grander strategy of how a brand is represented in the real world, but I think it's also important to recognize that it is guidance, and that the real work of brand sustainability rests with the client alone.

    I think we could all agree, that companies that tend to make good products, and have a great reputation rarely need detailed brand strategies.

    Designers who claim to practice "Branding" in my opinion are doing their clients a great disservice. I would prefer to create identities, and help the client shape their brand perception. The rest of the work is really up to them.

    You can lead a horse to water...

  15. Craig Hooper says:

    This article contains one of the best summaries of what "design" is, at it's core. I found the line so effective, that I fuckin' Facebooked it, and goddamn Twittered it.

  16. @James: Even the best designers and strategists can only work with what's there. If a company makes a crummy product, few strategies will solve their problems. That being said, plenty of great things (and companies) are left undiscovered because they don't know how to effectively articulate their value and spread the word.

    That's where people like us come in, and yes, you're right: we largely shape what's already there. Without someone to help do that though, a lot of groups would just make haphazard efforts and spin in circles. At smashLAB I like to think that we're editors of sorts; mostly, we help our clients figure out which stories to avoid and which to amplify.

    @ Craig: Bitchin'. :-)

  17. I disagree with James to some extent. Yes, designers and their work only play a limited role in the shaping of brand perceptions. But to say, "the rest is up to them" is a disservice to the client, and is dismissive of the role an experienced branding consultant can offer.

    To me, "branding" is the act of managing your reputation. Inasmuch, everything you do, everything you say, everything you sell contributes to how people perceive you. A brand strategy should address these things, along with other areas such as a "Brand Position" and "Personality Attributes." An experienced brand consultant should work with their client to create a cohesive brand strategy where all these components complement each other. An experienced brand consultant can help the client avoid cliches and undifferentiated features/claims.

    And if the client doesn't have anything special, then it's the consultant's job to point that out and work with the client to find something (aspirational?) that the client can work towards. The act of branding does not simply involved "working with what you've got." Most of the time, changes -- sometime BIG changes -- are required at an internal-, cultural- or operational level.

    Ultimately -- and this is where James is right on -- it is the client's job to live out their brand. The perceptions people have about a brand are not created by what an organization says (in its ads and marketing). It all boils down to what you do and the experiences you deliver.

  18. yael miller says:

    I'm not a fancy branding person but I'm called upon to create brand identities a lot. It comes with the territory I guess.

    My view of what the term 'brand' means is analogous to a person.

    To illustrate: saying a logo is the 'brand' is like saying your friend's nose defines her whole persona.

    Various touch-points are comparable to various aspects of a personality - appearance, attitude/style, 'voice', habits and more. These can be expressed in a brand as name (including how it sounds and reads), logo, associated visual elements, copy with a distinct 'voice', etc.

    Not only that, but it's the things you 'do' that make you who you are as a person. So, to carry the analogy further, we'd say that a brand's marketing and consumer interactions should also be crafted to 'fit' with the brand personality. If you're a 'sophisticated and refined' sort of brand, you wouldn't do guerrilla stunts; if you're a hip, fun brand, you'd make sure your brand has an easygoing, with-it spokesperson on twitter for instance.

    Yeah, that's how I see it. I don't know how they teach this stuff in college, but that's my philosophy for branding.

  19. Yael: It's funny--I use precisely the same analogy in Speak Human.

  20. Marc says:

    Hi Eric

    Oh dear, you've got a lot of yes-men in your comments here. Tough audience! =p

    When was it, do you think, that the word "brand" and "business" became interchangeable? It certainly wasn't always the way, and if you look up "brand" in a normal English dictionary you'll find it does, by definition, relate to that "lowest level" or "falsehood" that you mention in the opening of this article.

    Mine says:
    "a type of product manufactured by a company under a particular name, eg a new brand of detergent" and there are a bunch of other definitions, including of course "a mark burnt on to livestock", but none suggest that it is a synonym for business, company or enterprise.

    So, maybe we can all agree that the word has morphed since the dictionaries were written? That it means more now? I certainly wouldn't take the holier than thou high water you're taking ("Yay! We've started a company! Let's brand it with a logo!") with people who have a different viewpoint though.

    Because back in the old days (oh, say 5 years ago), the things you're talking about were called business strategy. You're choosing to call them brand strategy, but is it "branding"?

    I'm in agreement with James (somewhere above). You find the old "mark on livestock" concept old fashioned, and I'm finding your idea that you control the branding kind of old fashioned. Like him, I'm not sure "the brand" is something you "do".

    But let's assume that you can control people's perception of your company, the way they feel about it, the way they interact with it. The "Your brand needs to fit your life" part of your article? Warning bells!

    Really? Business goals need to be the same as your personal goals? Your own long term plans and the long term plans of your business need to align?

    Apart from the fact that your business, its marketplace and the world around it will probably evolve so fast that this is almost useless... you (the small business owner) will probably do the same.

    I agree with you that "the visuals are as important as ever, but as a result of proper planning they can serve a defined purpose", but that's always been the way, nothing new there. And really, for everything else I think you're:
    1. over-complicating it
    2. over-estimating the control you'll have over the outcome
    3. wasting (your client's) time and money on planning that is likely to be irrelevant in a short time
    4. treating your clients as if they don't understand their business

    Sorry, not a personal attack. Just my thoughts on the subject of this article. For some reason some professionals have decided branding, advertising, business strategy, public relations etc are all the same thing.

    Thought provoking.
    =) Marc

  21. Karthik says:

    "...Design isn’t about art or visuals; it’s about effectively planning an outcome. Without that it’s just decoration...."

    Simple and effectively put.

  22. Kristof says:

    I agreed with your thinking right up to "Your brand needs to fit your life" - then it fell apart. Yes, too many people think creating a logo is a brand but creating a brand strategy shouldn't be confused with creating a business plan.

    The important question you're talking about is NOT about defining a brand. It's about;

    A) Defining what kind of business you should build based on your lifestyle goals and

    B) Creating a business plan that helps you achieve "A".

    Neither of which are part of creating a brand.

    Once A and B are finalized then, and only then, can you move forward with defining a brand strategy.

  23. Steve says:

    Great article Eric, hurry and get that book finished eh! ;-)

    I recently had the (mis) pleasure of dealing with a company who had a lovely visual identity. However, dealing with the people within that company has been one of the most stressful to date.

    They had obviously put effort into the visual, top-level identity -- or outer skin level -- but had put no effort into their internal affairs. Their internal communication is appalling and in no way matches their outer, initial personality.

    To continue with the automobile analogy. It's like putting an underpowered, un-reliable engine and horrible plastic interior into a wonderfully designed Italian hyper-car exterior. Looks lovely from the outside but when you get into it you see it for what it is. All looks and no substance. One ride in this car and you will not be back for another.

    Businesses, like cars, have to be 'branded' as a whole. From the cleanliness of their customer loos and pleasantness of their staff, through to the visual exterior. All must be in harmony. This requires a lot of thought, a lot of probing questions and indeed a lot of strategy.

  24. Dwight says:

    Clearly, one of the best branding articles I've read in a while.

    The reality being portrayed is unquestionable and must be addressed by professionals in the field of branding.

  25. Plain and simple: a clear, well-defined traditional view on branding.

    Those out there who define branding as a design carrot dangling in front of them, representing a design solution for their latest logo project are clearly off the mark.

    A brand is the sum of an organization.

    An organization = corporation, company, business, non-profit, etc.

    A brand = One centralized idea/strategy that defines the organization.

    Idea = A strategy that helps either build or maintain the brand's position. This strategy is usually drawn out in a marketing plan. From the plan, marketing communications are selected. These are tactical means to execute the brand work.

    Strategy: This could include print, web, or broadcast. Slogan developed, logo and identity pieces developed which lay the foundation for the brand.

    Tactics: Print, Web, or Broadcast creative executed.

    Execution, Measurement, Modifications: measure results of campaign. Make modifications accordingly. Implementation of ongoing tactics like website.

    Unfortunately a whole new crop of so-called, self-proclaimed "strategists", "full-service studios", "specialists" have entered the industry with absolutely no sense of history, bearing on terminology, or respect for properly stewarding the industry.

    It pains me to see so many web dev studios, little upstart web and design studios proudly cladding their sites with promises of stellar copy writing, branding and strategy services when they in fact, have absolutely no real world understanding of it.

    Highly recommend that designers take an accredited marketing education. Especially when venturing out with your own business, it's paramount to understand what your studio REALLY offers. There could be nothing more insulting to you, or catastrophic to your business than proposing a service you know little or nothing about. Pretending doesn't count, and will quickly scar your business.

    If you want to enter the ring of branding, detach your thinking from cool colour palettes, neat, new dingbat sets, and the design idea you thought, should fit this upcoming client project perfectly. Starting thinking first of what the organization is, what it means to its consumers and vice-versa, and consult with the client about your findings before ever diving into design.


  26. Lennon Seno says:

    Very nice article Eric!

    I think a lot of people are misguided and confused by the different terms that all relate to branding. Most often, we see people use the term 'Building a Brand' when in fact, especially in the web world, they are just building a 'Brand Experience'.

  27. I agree with the part about designers irking at the term 'strategy', but when put in the context of simply the entire image in which you are trying to portray, it doesn't become too scary. Branding is certainly a difficult thing to master. Thanks a lot, I really enjoyed the article!

  28. Erik Jarlsson says:

    Think you are confusing the terms a little. Your "brand" is how you are perceived by your customers. "Branding" is what you do to influence that perception. A logo is most certainly considered branding, as is advertising and signage etc, any customer contact is a chance to influence their perception, and it’s all “branding”.

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  30. zacknine says:

    seems like the core of this was is part about the porsche versus the pickup truck. which I agree with.

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  33. Brad Hardie says:

    I couldn't agree more - we done. I agree with this so much that I recently took a very extensive Coaching Certification Course so that I could better assist clients in the goals of the company and outcomes that matched their aspirations. It is critical to look at the bigger picture and determine, as you said, what they want to be doing on a daily basis. Thank you for you insight.

  34. Sik says:

    Brands are 'things' made up of different kinds of marks and so, can be handled by determining, coordinating and manipulating these marks. In fact, all things in existence can be usefully handled as brands. All that varies between brands is scope, depth and complexity of value.

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