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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