Your brand identity is one of the most important investments you can make, in terms of both time and money—and yet, traditional marketing communication doesn’t go far enough.
Design professionals often don’t dig deep enough (and sometimes clients don’t allow the time) to uncover your real organizational DNA. They barely scratch the surface of what is most important and true about your organization. Why does that matter? Admittedly, almost anyone can create a brand identity. But a brand identity is meaningless unless it is effective. And it must be effective in the way that you want it to be. Superficial communication yields superficial results (in other words, junk in, junk out). The only way to generate real engagement, connection and advocacy from your target audiences is through communication that is authentic and sincere. Your special sauce, or inside truth, is the critical ingredient for creating truly resonant relationships. And you must fully understand your inside truth. You must align it with the big picture, the context your organization is operating in—market conditions, competition, target audiences. This way, the essential elements of your brand—look and feel and messages—will sing together and create the impact you want. Without a robust process to create an authentic brand identity, it is almost impossible to generate the real impact you need to achieve your mission.
“We need a brand identity.”
If you’ve found yourself uttering those words, ask: what are you really saying? What do you really need? How do you know that’s what you need? And how do you know that a given solution will produce what you need? If your organization doesn’t currently have a brand identity, it needs one. If your organization does have a brand identity, what is motivating a re-brand? Has something changed externally or internally? Do you need to achieve new relevance in your market? Whether you are branding or re-branding, if you are looking for a new way of expressing who you are, what you do, how you do it, where you want to go, and whom you need to reach, you are on the right track. These elements are all things your brand identity should project.
So, how do you get from “here” to “there”?
It all starts with a strategy that is specifically tailored to your organization’s goals, inside truth and external context. Strategy then drives the design that is the unique visual expression of those elements. Connecting strategy to design is the only way to arrive at the solution—the one that will have the impact you want. This four-part process delivers the impact that matters.
Explore: the first step in this process
This is where we dive in to better understand your organization internally and externally. What is the culture? What are the behaviors, intentions, relationships, principles and standards? What about the work, structure and context? What are your short- and long-term goals? How do market and competitive forces impact your organization?
In short: what’s your organization’s inside truth, and how does it fit into the bigger picture?
Let the following questions guide your exploration.
Where are you now?
Every organization is at a different place in its journey. Yours may just be starting out or have years of success behind it. Every organization has an inside truth—the organizational DNA that makes it what it is. This truth (or DNA) comprises culture, mission, vision and values. It’s the core of why you do what you do and contains all of the ingredients that you need to connect with your target audiences. These elements need to be deeply examined and expressed truthfully because they are the very framework of your organizational identity and messages. There can be no connection without authenticity.
Where do you want to go?
To develop the right solution for your identity, you must identify short- and long-term goals and the approach and course of action for achieving them. You must define each marketing communications vehicle needed. The designer must understand these marketing vehicles as well as where you’re going in order to ensure that the visual solution works. This information helps create not only the strategy, but also the marketing elements to which the visual presentation will be applied, to form the new brand identity.
What stands in the way?
Any organization faces challenges: market conditions, competition, issues with the business model, budgets, staff, and the bandwidth of what’s possible. Examining each barrier sets the framework for both the strategy and the design. For a designer, these are the factors that push down on every decision. For example, competition paints a picture of all of the other identities in your space. Think about color. What are the brand colors used by your competition? Do you want to blend in or stand out? Understanding the landscape ensures that the solution the designer develops is connected to strategy—and that the identity is the right one for your organization.
Who is your audience?
It’s key to identify and understand your audiences—their points of view, values, beliefs, needs and desires. Brand identities with the greatest impact are those where there is significant overlap between organizational and audience value and belief dimensions. In this stage, we explore the details of those dimensions. Communication needs to be a clear, two-way street: you must express your values and beliefs and how you will achieve your mission, so that your audience (customers, clients, partners, and society at large) can understand and engage with it. They need to see themselves in your brand identity and messages.
Extract: building on the information gathered in the Explore stage to set a clear direction for moving forward.
Developing a strategy that drives and frames every design decision is key to creating a brand identity that will connect with your target audience, position you in the market and enable you to achieve your goals. Extraction is the process of identifying the central idea the brand identity will represent and convey, as well as the detailed strategy necessary to fully develop it. Leveraging information from Exploration, this stage should answer the following questions:
- What is the primary perception you want your target audience to have?
- What other organizations are doing the same or similar work as yours?
- Where do you fall in the spectrum of other organizations that do similar work?
- What are your objectives/goals and what are the actions/strategy needed to achieve these objectives/goals?
- What will motivate and engage your target audience at each stage of the engagement cycle? (I can link to the blog on the engagement cycle)
- What are the marketing tools you will need to use?
- What decisions need to be made based on the current external context?
- What are your clearly stated mission, vision, values and beliefs? How can you best connect your values and beliefs with your target audiences?
- Which marketing channels will increase your reach and impact?
- Which marketing communications elements will increase your reach and impact?
- What is the staff capacity for these activities to be performed successfully?
Having a good strategy ensures that internal stakeholders—those inside the organization who need to approve the strategy, from employees to board members—are aligned with all the factors that are driving every design decision. This strategy will also ensure that your inside truth connects to the outside world in the most effective way. Using this framework is key to making sure your investment is the right one and that the result is an authentic visual identity. The only way others can see your organization clearly is if you can see and express your organization clearly.
Translate: design is distillation.
Design is only as good as the information the designer receives and understands. The clarity you give the designer will be the clarity you receive back in the form of visual identity and messaging. The difference between a transformative result and “just-fine” design lies in the way the designer translates the strategy into a visual expression.
Most design decisions are made based on the factors that are “pushing down” on your organization—that is, the constraints and possibilities that will inform the design and ultimately shape your identity: what colors and languages your competitors use, whether or not you want to stand out or blend in. Successful decisions about visual expression are made only when the designer understands the context in which the organization exists.
In translation, the designer focuses on two key components:
- Visual identity: the look and feel (or visual expression) of the organization
- Messaging: the written words that accompany or complement the visual expression
An effective visual brand identity involves consistent use of a distinctive set of visual elements. Making the right decisions for each visual element is the key to success. Many brand identity elements must be considered, decided upon and developed.
- Name: the word or words used to identify an organization, product, service or concept
- Logo: the visual trademark that identifies the brand
- Descriptor line or tagline: a statement that succinctly communicates the organization’s positioning, typically in eight to 10 words. This statement appears graphically in formal organization communications.
- Colors: the official brand colors and how they are used
- Typefaces: the official brand typefaces and how they are used
- Images: the official illustration and/or photography style and how it is used
- Sounds: a unique tune or set of notes that denote a brand (when applicable). NBC’s chimes are a famous example.
- Personality: a set of attributes that reflect the way the organization wants individuals to perceive and experience it
- Positioning: the definition of what makes your organization unique in the market, along with the central idea that you hope to establish in the minds of your audience
Translating these elements into an effective visual design occurs through iteration and the use of two? distinct tools that can help you better evaluate design versions on multiple levels. Each tool plays a key role in ensuring that the translation of strategy into visual expression is on target, works in every way it needs to, and delivers the desired effect.
- Mood boards
A mood board consists of the logo, set of colors, typefaces and image direction, and represents a possible look and feel. It is the first visual expression of the strategy. Seeing options at this high level helps you better evaluate if this direction is correct, or at least on the right path. You can also reach out to others in this stage of the process to get feedback. This is your opportunity to tweak the visual elements, such as shades of colors, different typefaces, and image types. Mood boards clarify what you are saying “no” to and what you are saying “yes” to. Again, the creative process is all about iteration. So, as Thomas Edison famously said, “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” Ultimately, it is critical that you choose one design direction. And when you choose it, you will do so with clarity and the confidence that it is the best solution.
Based on the approved direction from the previous stage, the designer will choose the right mix of all of these visual elements to mock up. This means applying the approved logo, colors, typefaces, images and messages to various media to start to bring the visual identity to life. Applying the design this way is critical, since different marketing pieces have different requirements in terms of form, function and size. This step ensures that the identity work well and be both flexible and expandable across all of your marketing pieces, that they will work in harmony as they convey your new visual identity and support your brand.
Mock-ups are also useful for helping you manage the change associated with a new visual identity among internal audiences. Once the overall identity is approved, the strategy—along with the new visual identity—is presented to the entire organization. This step is key for organizational buy-in. Once the direction is approved, visual identity standards can be written and all marketing communication elements executed.
Execute: fully designing each element with real content.
In this final stage, strategic marketing communication materials are prioritized; budgets and schedules for each item are created. As final designs are completed and approved, they are sent into production and then delivered. Internally, all new marketing materials replace the old materials as they become available.
Depending on the extent of the change to your identity, you may need to manage external audiences, too. Managing this change is much like working with your internal stakeholders: you will need to connect the strategy to the identity and demonstrate why change has happened. You must show your target audiences how you are effectively achieving your mission, vision, and values through this change.
You’ve made it to the end!
Thanks for sticking around. Your reward is that you now know what most others in your position don’t: strategy must drive design. You need this to deliver a transformative solution that will take your brand to the next level.