Lately—well, in the last 20 years or so—we’ve noticed many of the brands we’ve created go astray. All the money, time and effort spent in creating the brand is forgotten as the brand grows older. Recently—well, in the last year or so—I’ve determined to take a closer look at this drift in order to help clients sustain their brands.
Our entire creative team (strategy and design) sat down to review two or three brands we developed with clients recently. We spread out the creative work in front of us as well as on a nearby monitor. Then, in each case, we promptly disagreed on many details that constituted the “brand.” As the meeting wore on, some light bulbs went on, such as…
Insight #1—Newborn brands share a lot in common with babies
As brand strategists and designers we believe we know what we have created but, if our brand review was helpful at all, we learned that the only thing we’d created was a baby. We had no fully-formed notion of what the brand would look like when it was six years old, much less a teenager.
Don’t get me wrong. A baby is a miracle but requires lots of care and feeding to help realize its potential. Sure, a brand has your firm’s eyes and complexion, but there’s more unknown than known. So we realized Job #1 is to take lots of pictures. Literally, spread everything out and create a baby album. See what the brand looks like from every conceivable angle. Analyze the font usage, the relative white space, the type of imagery used. Tickle the color palette. Listen to the voice.
A brand is tough to define. Most people think of it as a logo… . Others think of a brand as a tagline. In fact, for us, brand is really the full flowering of a corporate personality.
And finally, see if it has five toes on each foot. A newborn brand has everything implied in its early shape and form but not every detail has been worked out. For example, imagine the as-yet uncreated small-space charitable ad. How will that future creative application reflect the brand? Your PowerPoint might have the right logo in the corner but does the overall presentation reflect the brand?
Insight #2—Parenting is hard
The disagreement among those present in our meeting only proved that different parents would raise their “babies” differently. If you’ve ever endured a scathing look from a parent as your own child runs amok, you’ll know exactly what we mean. But, in fact, there’s no one way to parent a brand except to seek out the real, living thing that’s there because all good brands are born whole. That’s crucial to understand. You can dress it up in knickers or in a petticoat but it is what it is. And it’s the joint responsibility of the client and your design firm to discover and document it along the way.
A brand is tough to define. Most people think of it as a logo and, to be fair, even designers use the term that way. Others think of a brand as a tagline. But that’s like looking at a picture of your kid: you see the face and can imagine the voice, but it’s not enough. Our technical definition is that “a brand is a distinct identity based on a promise of value that is different from any other.” That’s a pretty good definition of a person, isn’t it? In fact, for us, brand is really the full flowering of a corporate personality.
Insight #3—Look beyond the components of a brand to see what makes it tick
The Germans have a word for wholeness. You know it. Gestalt. Wiktionary defines gestalt as:
A collection of physical, biological, psychological or symbolic entities that creates a unified concept, configuration or pattern which is greater than the sum of its parts (of a character, personality, or being).
And there you have another very good, polysyllabic definition of a brand. Wholeness. Defining wholeness is what great biographers do. Part of your attention as brand stewards must be spent defining the brand’s wholeness and not just its parts. Ironically, this is the point upon which every one of us sitting around the table in this brand discussion agreed: we knew it when a brochure or ad or Web page was on-brand and we knew it equally when it was off-brand, even as we quibbled about the details. In other words, your first job is to pick out your baby in a nursery. Don’t think it’s all that easy!
Insight #4—But catalogue the parts anyway
Many clients expect a graphic standards manual automatically to accompany a logo or developing brand. But a set of brand standards is a time-consuming, complex undertaking. Often the decision is “We’ll pass” when presented with the estimate. The result is inevitably the gradual erosion of the brand. Could be quick. Could be slow. But the brand will disappear because (i) attention will be diverted; (ii) the powerful will run over the brand because there are no articles of faith to pull them up short; (iii) the in-house design staff will turn over; and (iv) the outside design team will have no roadmap. Result: the brand-child runs away.
Insight #5—Call on your brand-parents
Even with brand standards in place, cleaving to them can be particularly challenging when a firm does not have in place a system to monitor the brand or the people vested with the authority to enforce it. On corporate organizational charts, this job function is called “the brand police.” But let’s kindly call the function brand-parenting. Marketing departments, decimated by the Great Recession, are often too overwhelmed to keep an eye on the brand. With every partner an owner and every owner a boss, it can be both dangerous (and tiring on a daily basis) to face an angry, opinionated mob as just one person. Someone must be designated to enforce the brand with the full backing of management.
It may be exhausting to give birth to a new brand, but remember the hard work really begins post-launch, as every parent knows. Here are some final suggestions for nurturing your brand for the long run:
- Visualize the brand personality. Understand it holistically—not just as a set of moving parts—in order not to lose sight of the big picture.
- Invest in and create brand standards that catalogue the moving parts in order to keep track of details.
- Empower a brand-master to keep all communications “on brand.”
And take heart, the best brands are resilient. Short of dropping them on their head, they can survive the first blows of life. But you can’t pound a brand on its head day-after-day and expect it to be a Rhodes Scholar. Raise the brand with love and care and it will return all the joy you ever hoped for.