Before choosing someone to work with on your brand, it’s important to be clear what you want from brand and branding.
If you believe a brand is essentially a logo, then visual design will be all you want and expect from branding. However, if you believe that a brand is about more than a visual identity – for example, if you want to find your north star so the brand becomes a tool to guide your business journey – then you’re going to need more than just a visual identity.
I have been through a number of branding exercises in my time, which just gave me visual designs, even though the designers talked to me about mission, vision, values and so on. With the benefit of hindsight and experience, I now know that I would avoid embarking on my branding journey with a designer who offers visual identity services if I were in the market for branding services.
If you’re unclear about the difference between a brand strategy and a visual identity exercise, then read on. If what you’re after is a brand that can guide your business journey long term, and help you to win, then you will ultimately not get what you’re after if you start your branding journey with a visual identity designer.
Visual identity should actually be the last part of branding, not the first. However, due to the widespread misunderstanding about what ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ mean, many businesses I come across or who I interview on the podcast have, like me, just had designs created for them in the name of branding.
How can I tell? Well, the brand seems largely irrelevant to how they ran their business after branding. They don’t mention making strategic decisions guided by their brand strategy. It’s all too clear to me that they just got a visual identity rather than a strategy by which to live the brand..
It’s important for businesses to understand their options because the right supplier who is appropriate to their needs and wants will make a huge difference to the outcome from branding.
Why The Widespread Misunderstanding Around Branding Exists
The reason there is this lack of understanding around branding is that in our collective consciousness as a society, we have come to associate brands with designs. What should be the last step in branding has become the first thing we turn to because we are not aware that a brand could be about so much more than visual designs. As I explained in Branding – The Terminology a brand is not a logo. It is much more profound than that.
A comprehensive branding exercise should provide you with a strategy that is a central, unifying idea around which all behaviour, actions and communications of your company can be aligned. Your brand strategy can be a powerful leadership tool.
Brand is a large subject.
Later in this blog, I outline how to develop your brand strategy. Once you’ve done so, it should be clearly incorporated in a brand book that is more substantial than the usual brand guidelines designers provide after they’ve created your visual identity.
What Moves the Needle in Branding?
I have been curious to understand what moves the needle in branding for some time now. What would an improved brand offering look like? I have asked myself whether I could provide such a service affordably to smaller businesses, to the type of businesses that come to us for IP audits or other IP support?
Business success is much more about how effective you are in running your business than it is about your visual designs. Do not get me wrong, the visual dimension matters hugely. It is just that the right time to design the visual appearance of the brand is much later than most people imagine. If what you want is true branding then wait till you have a clear brand strategy before turning to visual identity. Stay with your existing visual identity.
I did not personally know any designers who provide the kind of strategic branding services I was wanting. So to work out my brand strategy to guide our business decisions in the Azrights business, I decided to brand my business myself by plugging the gaps in my own branding.
After working for some time on my brand strategy, by reading books, and doing some Google research, I thought I’d reached the end of the road. So, I wanted to address the visual design side of my brand. I wanted a proper logo rather than to continue with just a word mark. After several designers failed to come up with ideas for an icon, I had to conceive the logo myself.
I came up with the idea of a ram as symbolic of cattle that were burned with a branding iron. Branding has always been a strong focus of the Azrights business, albeit that for many years we only dealt with brand protection. Indeed to symbolise the huge importance of branding in our business we were even using a bull icon to symbolise branding. So, I asked a talented young designer to implement it. She did a brilliant job of it. Here it is:
I thought I was now ready to ask a designer to create my style guide to reflect the changes I had made to the visual identity. However, I was stumped when she said she would need my brand book to do this work. I had already sent her my old brand guidelines so she could adapt the new designs into the style guide. Clearly she needed more than this. So, I realised there was much more work to do on my branding. I had to create a brand book.
That’s when I decided to purchase a few branding courses to learn more about what a brand book should contain. While I am still writing my brand book, I have learnt a huge amount from the exercise, which will feed into the new book I am writing.
In the meantime, I have a pretty good idea of what a full and remarkable branding service should look like.
In previous posts I might have mentioned how branding must be treated as an inter-disciplinary exercise that incorporates intellectual property in the mix. If you’re thinking of rebranding, then it’s doubly important to consider your IP position first, and to hold off on the visual design front till you’ve found someone to work with on your IP and brand strategy. That person should provide you with a comprehensive brand book at the end of the exercise because it supports you to live the brand. At the end of this blog I mention what a brand book would include.
Understanding Your Market and Positioning
Your brand strategy is essentially about creating a way for your business to develop and grow.
A lot of thought goes into it, so that once you emerge from a strategic branding exercise you should be clear about who your brand is to be and where you’re headed in terms of the end goal of your business.
The starting point is to consider your customer and your category. Who is your customer and who competes with you? This is not just about your direct competitors. It’s also about the behaviours and substitutes you compete with from the customer’s point of view.
Understanding your market is not easy to do but is worthwhile so you can assess your customers to know their problems or challenges when they buy from you. You should have a good idea of the alternative options they considered, how they looked for solutions to their problems, what led them to you. What are their hopes and dreams?
Considering your competition involves identifying both your direct competitors, and your indirect competitors. These might have similar offerings or entirely different ones that enable customers to achieve similar outcomes in different ways.
In identifying your audience’s needs, wants and values—and how you factor into them, bear in mind that people are generally looking to make their lives better, so it’s appropriate to talk about those hopes and dreams in your communications.
My Reflection on Understanding the Market
The more I thought about this and observed customers, the more I realised that we do not just compete with intellectual property lawyers or business lawyers. We also compete with designers and marketers who offer branding services.
The customer has a range of problems and is often unclear who to listen to or how to manage their budgets to get their brand in place and to protect it. I realised that we are in a much stronger position to support business owners with their branding than they realise. By incorporating intellectual property in the mix, we can provide them with a full and remarkable solution. That’s when we decided to move into the branding space to offer brand strategy services, referring clients to trusted designers for the brand identity – designers who understand our strategic work and brand book well enough in order to be able to take the work forward from there rather than starting a new and expensive exercise.
Our aim was to make branding affordable, not to add an extra layer of cost. We want clients who start the intellectual property and brand strategy service with us, to get a brand identity (using one of our trusted partners) so that the overall cost to them would be lower than going straight to a visual identity designers, and yet their brand would also be protected by the end of the exercise..
Clarity Around Positioning is Key
Start by considering your category. Then think about what problems you are good at solving and what problems your direct competitors are also really good at solving. That is the category benefit you offer. However, to position yourself in a distinctive way involves solving a problem your competitor is not solving.
In our case that insight led to our decision to offer brand strategy services.
I know how important it is to start any new venture or project in the digital economy by considering the impact of intellectual property. I could see the confused thinking around brand, branding and intellectual property.
Customers were rushing around to deal with their branding at the very same time as they were coming to us to address their IP, often quite unaware of the impact of IP on those separate decisions they were making during branding, such as what name to use.
I had noticed the lack of attention to IP that characterises the branding industry, who often start with design and leave IP for the client to address later. So, I knew we had something unique to bring to customers which other branding strategists could not offer.
This step is the most important one to make for your business before moving on to decide your vision mission and values.
Understanding the customer’s core challenges, pain points, fears and desires enables you to know the emotional messages that will cut through to them.
What Your Brand Strategy Involves
In previous posts I’ve outlined at length that your brand strategy revolves around your overarching ambition and vision for your brand. From there you go on to determine your mission, and values. These underpin your branding and guide your decisions, including what your business will and won’t offer, and how it will approach everything. These fundamentals involve having clear answers to seemingly simple questions such as:
- What do you do?
- Who do you do it for?
- Why does it matter? and
- what do you stand for?
Vision, Mission and Values
What you want the future direction of your brand to comprise sets the parameters of your vision. How you define that vision to yourself and to your team, as well as to external audiences enables them to know what your business is all about. It provides a tool for leading the organisation.
Your brand purpose is all about why your brand exists. As I explained in my post How To Consider What Your Brand Purpose Is if your vision is to create a nationwide online flower store enabling customers to subscribe to regular flower deliveries, and your purpose is to spread joy,that purpose should then guide every aspect of your business. Your purpose is about the difference you want to make in the world
Since Simon Sinek wrote his book, Start with Why, people have tended to emphasise the importance of working out their purpose.
You may have personal reasons that matter to you, such as caring for your family, but in terms of branding your reason for being, why you exist as a business, needs to be bigger than your personal why, or your product. If there is one thing you’re trying to accomplish what is it?
Some businesses don’t distinguish between their purpose and their mission. For example, for Airbnb their purpose and mission is one and the same thing, namely to create a sense of belonging.
Your mission is all about what your company aims to do.
Your values on the other hand form the basis of your mission and vision statement. Working out your values involves thinking about your beliefs. What is so important to you that you would never compromise on it to achieve your mission for your business?
These values need to be relevant to the business and meaningful. For example, belief in the importance of trustworthiness is fluff. That’s because nobody would opt for the opposite of trustworthiness as a value in their business. So, think of meaningful values that your business will do its utmost to uphold. Is customer service your highest value? Then you need to ensure that every aspect of your business is created to enable that objective to be met.
Zappos is an example you could look to emulate as their manifesto reflecting their top10 values underpinned how they built up their successful online store for shoes.
The aim is to create a culture where your values are aligned towards your mission or purpose. The way you live your values and work towards your purpose is how you become known for the attributes you want your brand to gain recognition for over time. It’s how you create the whole brand experience, including how your team will strive towards that purpose. Your brand guides everyone in the organisation to know the role they play.
This aspect of brand strategy takes you into a different realm, that of leadership and running an organisation, creating a culture. This is the true value of setting your brand strategy.
Your brand book will articulate these strategic decisions. If the strategy work is done well, and at the right time, the brand could be your north star, navigating your business journey and providing a route map for managing the development of the company.
Strategy is something you use long term to inform your decisions. It’s very important for building a business because internally your vision, mission or purpose and values -those you want the business to live by, are the foundation for motivating and directing your team. Knowing how you want to leave customers feeling equips you to make decisions in recruitment and also in thinking through your customer journey. The ultimate aim of branding is after all to become known for the brand promise you offer your customers, to get the right reputation, and to achieve that involves making ‘on brand’ decisions day to day.
The brand associations you decide to attach to yourself are how you create a mental shortcut to the brand meaning, and to encapsulate the company’s brand promise. They act as a quick reminder of the brand.. Typically, you’d come up with a concept to reinforce with customers, and then work with a creative firm to develop ways to express it. New associations can be added over time, building up a rich set of touchstones to the concepts behind the company’s brand.
Associations include the logo, an icon and other visual signposts that will ensure you are remembered and recognised. So, there is an element of the brand strategy which needs to be dealt with when you commission the visual identity.
The aim is that your visual identity should support the brand you have created and are building, that the mental shortcuts will be useful. Your brand book will have a range of keywords within it, which will make it easier for your designer to design the visual identity.
Benefit of a Brand Book
A comprehensive brand book would drill down into the language you would use, words you would or would not say even. It would include your core messages, so you have a foundation for consistent messaging.
Your messages would speak about the core benefits you offer and what your competition provides in comparison. These messages are founded on your positioning, your vision mission and values, so that you constantly reinforce the difference you make to your audience’s lives, the value you offer.
Your brand book should detail all this work including your key competitors, your positioning and messaging, and also your own brand archetype and personality, as well as your audience’s archetype too.
Your communications need to reinforce the outcomes you bring to people, and to communicate with your audience in appropriate ways, such as talking about what your product or service will do for the customer. What it will make them feel.
You would also have your brand story, which is actually not your story as such. It is your customer’s story, their fears and dreams, the obstacles they face, and the guidance that you provide. It is not about your reasons for setting up your business, which I had wrongly assumed was what the brand story needed to focus on. This is a widespread area of misunderstanding in branding.
Knowing how to talk to your audience from the perspective of the value your product or service brings to their lives, the outcomes they can expect from using your product or service gives you a framework of consistency and cohesion to your messaging.
By recording this information in your brand book, you have a valuable tool to ensure your company’s personality is conveyed in a way that will always be recognizable and distinctly attributable to your brand.
This should help in driving sales and make your brand more valuable. Byron Sharp in his book How Brands Grow, highlights the importance of a brand being available to buy wherever your customer is looking to make a purchase, and being remembered from past interactions they may have had with your brand. That is the reason to strive for consistent use of brand elements.
To get cut through for your business bear in mind the limitations of the human mind for taking in more and more information.
Our minds just can’t cope unless the messages we receive are simple ones that fit with what our minds already know and accept. Therefore, we have to simplify our messages, and then simplify them some more if we want to be heard. It is also important to repeat messages in various different ways, such as customer testimonials, case studies and other updates so that the material that has the best chance of getting through to your audience is seen by them.
For similar reasons it’s important to make sure your brand elements are all recognisable across different platforms and activities.
What a Brand Book Should Include
A brand book should include
- a brand style sheet section that is purely focused on the visual aspects of the brand, so you use the brand identity consistently. This should include use of logo, colour palette, and anything core to the identity, as well as guidelines for how to use brand elements consistently on social media.
- everything else that you decide upon as part of your brand strategy.
My experience with brand guidelines is that are not always comprehensive enough in scope to guide others in all the different situations when the brand need to be used in a consistent way.
As well as detailing how to use the logo and typography, you would expect to also see photos, illustrations, graphics, templates incorporating use of imagery, and explanations as to when and how to use them, edit them, which colours to place them with on social media or in campaigns for Facebook or other Ads.
In conclusion, the brand book should help you to use your strategic thinking to drive your business and to do so by achieving brand consistency. Among other things, the brand book should help you to write your communications, be it press releases, email, blog posts, or advertising campaigns. and provide guidance to your marketers, sales teams and any other departments that will be involved in messaging and communications. You’ll then have a road map to inform your business decisions day to day.