Branding is a sticky business. There’s a lot of fluff (and hype) for all of the misunderstandings of what branding IS, what it isn’t, and how it works. More than a logo, a design, or a color palette– branding is the outward ‘persona’ of a company/entity. It’s cultivated in the hopes to create a cohesive singular voice and vision for that company, in the effort of making deeper connections with customers. It’s why Diet Coke portrayed in ways that are effervescent and fun, and the new Dr. Pepper 10 doesn’t even advertise that it’s diet–– pushing instead “10 manly calories”. It’s no longer just about a charmingly annoying jingle that gets shoved in your brain, it’s about marketing, planning, and devising a strategy around what you do, who you are, and why you do it. And that, is branding, albeit in a large coconut sized nutshell of confusion.
While I’m sure the process for branding a business can, and will, vary from person to person, the process I’m outlining has saved me innumerably when faced with all of the ambiguities involved in this field. If you’re working in branding, or have a sadistic wish for intellectual torment and hope to go into branding one day, start with whatever process feels good to you, and then evolve as necessary. I’ve found it’s far better to be fluid with a knowledge of the basic framework than it is to have every step meticulously mapped out. That being said– Here’s Branding!
1. Company A Needs A Logo/Rebrand/THE GREATEST IDEA EVER/they don’t know what they want, and that’s why they’ve come to you
Do not dive face first into designs, fonts or anything visual. Figure out what they’re trying to say with what they’re doing, or trying to do. Focus on the emotions they are wanting to convey with their product or services. Collect all information that you can, even if it feels unnecessary, contradictory or ridiculous. The more you can compile in this stage, the better the entire process will go. Creating a wider index of ideas, emotions, or thoughts will provide a better framework to play around in when you’re building a visual execution of these ideas. If the client can’t get there, do it for them. Create mood boards, or style boards that help bridge visual examples with the mood and tone they recreate. Lead the client through these stages and you will have less revisions, FAR LESS frustration (I emphasize this because it is such a luxury) in communicating, and a clear road ahead for the design phase.
Example: A client comes to me wanting to create a brand for his fledgling organic dog treat business. He begins to talk about watercolor treatments, pen effects and brush strokes, and I ask him to think about what he wants to say with his treats. How does he want people to feel when they buy them, or give them to their dogs? In our consult I tell him that the nature of having a pet, and treating them, are all centered around love and giving, so it should feel good and happy. He agrees and tells me that he wants it to feel natural and relaxed and enjoyable. Which helps me understand where he sees the watercolor coming in– but I’m getting ahead of myself! Understanding where the client is coming from with their ideas will help you better to translate those emotions into strong, impactful designs.
2. Be Action Oriented!
Branding, and strategically planning a brand, can be broken down best into small steps that add up to great results in the end. After the great harvesting of information and inspiration, the practical sides of branding take shape. Fonts, colors, and basic mockups of logos are created, and the client begins to judge what they are seeing visually against what was originally discussed in the planning stages. I always like to ask the client first about their expectations for the final deliverables – some clients see icons, or symbols/images to accompany the typography of their name, some just see their initials, and some see patterns and texture and a whole slue of other things to go along with what they’ve got. Figuring out what they see as a “finished” brand will help map out the steps you’ll need to take in order to get there.
If they are wanting an icon or symbol, always refer to the beginning planning stages where the client focused more on message and emotion than objects. Working off of an intangible, ethereal force– such as kindness or growth–should hopefully create more lee way in terms of creativity. If you’re focus is on ‘hands’ for kindness, or a blade of grass for growth, you are stunting the brand before you even begin!
Example: I’m working on the logo for El’s Enlightenments (dog cookies) and I show them to the client. He mentions how he always envisioned an image with the logo, and he throws out an idea for a dog. My immediate thought to this is always to snarky comment, but I ask if there will already be ‘dog’ or some sort of dog labeling within the information. He says there will be, and I ask if it’s necessary to show dog and say dog at the same time selling dog cookies. He gets my point. When working with additional information, images, icons, if you’re already saying it by… well, saying it, then you should show something additional that strengthens what you’re saying. So you’ve got dog cookies, great! Does an image of a dog need to be involved? Nope. Something that speaks about the cookies, or why you’ve created those cookies, absolutely, but doubling down your redundant message with some redundancy? Not necessary.
3. You know what I’m saying? How does it communicate?
At this stage, you and the client should have a pretty solid brand shaping up. Logo work is being refined, iconography is strong and emotionally backing the tone and message brand, and now you can focus on how these elements will work across a variety of fields and applications. Banner ads, web pages, print ads–– or at the very least how the business cards & co. (I like to call it printed collateral) will work together, and how it will feel overall.
Think this as the appendages and maneuverings of the brand. Is it clunky with gaping holes missing or does it flow beautifully from one medium to another? How does your add look amidst a crowded page of ads? Does the wording fit the look? Is it funny, endearing, meant to evoke warm fuzzies or does it challenge your preconceived notions of whatever dog cookies happened to be for you? All of these details are important when working in branding. Everything from phrasing, placement, marketing and endorsements will have its effect. Keeping tabs on all the elements you can (while still maintaining a relative amount of sanity) will help you manage the evolving branded beast, and ultimately help you to deliver the strongest brand possible to the client. If you try and think of everything, then the client has very little left to worry about, aka keeping them happy, and you in control!
Example: During our initial consult, the client told me he wanted the brand to feel “Natural and enjoyable”. Natural is going to come across in the visuals– perhaps using recycled paper, keeping things pared down and minimal. The enjoyable aspect could come from the experience of the product, and perhaps the process of the treat giving is a bonding ritual. Maybe there’s a surprise toy or extra treat in the bag for the dog, akin to a child and a cereal box, or it could involve tips to nurture a dog/owner relationship in a healthy and fulfilling way. Maybe the website features a hidden easter egg linking to a collection of silly mantras meant for the owner to share with their dog– the many experiences ‘enjoyable’ can craft are so plentiful and wonderful it begs for discovery and play. Not all solutions are going to be a cover-all. Leave some room for layering of emotions and experience (ie the visual look of the brand vs the customer’s experience tied in with the visual look) and it will make that brand that much stronger for it.
4. Help! My client likes things that are so completely off base from his market! What do I do?
Here’s where designer meets leader. Working with this stuff for some time has given me quite an advantage when dealing with clients subjectivity. It can be a really challenging road to handle, but sometimes you can absolutely tout that you know best. (Because most of the time, you actually do. I do anyway.) When you’re working with a client who feels their opinion is best, I like to collect images and samples from similar products or industries. Show them to the client and see what their reaction is. If they’re faking barfing or dying, you may have to intervene and see what happy medium there is to be had. If they can let logic and reason seep in, you may have a shot at luring them to your designery goodness. It all depends on the client, your relationship with them, and how far off base they happen to be. Sometimes clients just announce they like things without it really being something they need to you consider. I know I personally think out loud without an ounce of reality attached to it, and perhaps that’s all it is. Either way, it is all too scary to have a client point out a 90’s style grunge font for a child photography studio (this and stranger things have actually happened)
Example: After sending dog cookie’s client that huge sampling of fonts mentioned earlier, he sends back his picks, along with some links to some things he’s found while compiling inspiration resources. Looking through them I see a scratchy grungy font best used for teen angst bands circa 1993-2000, and I grimace. Since I am far more comfortable with my sassiness in this realm, I tell him he can like that all he wants but he can’t use it for this. He laughs and asks why, and I explain that there are certain connotations within typefaces and the feelings they communicate. This particular typeface, I say, looks like the dog itself is the cookie meant to feed some monster in the basement. We laugh and laugh, and of course move on to look at other fonts.
You have to be honest with clients, but honesty does not equal harsh tones and know it all attitudes! It’s important to show WHY something won’t work rather than just say that it won’t, and it will help whittle down any unnecessary whims of fancy that can fly in when you ask a client to show you what their styles are.
5. So Miss Know It All Who’s Not a Know It All, What’s Appropriate?
Depends on the industry! Looking at competitors, either locally or huge international firms, will give you a great framework for your visual wiggle room here. You’re not going to create the same brand for a fashion house in Midtown Manhattan than you would for one in Marfa, TX, even though they’re both the same industry–their markets will be different. You will undoubtedly review the huge NY fashion houses for the Marfa market, but the end result will be different because of the final eye judging the product. Knowing the message is great, but also being aware of where the final message will end up is equally as valuable. If you don’t take into consideration the people receiving and viewing the end product, you could severely miss the mark and risk alienating your client base before you even get to set up shop. On the flip side, if you choose to ignore the industry standards set up, you could risk not being taken seriously. The balance is a tricky one, but the smartest thing to do is to make yourself aware, select the best ways to implement these aspects into your own design for the client, and test the waters.
That’s plenty for right now in terms of the branding process! What brands have really connected with you and why? Do you find yourself drawn to specific brands and repelled by others? Spill it and make the industry that much better with your opinions! That is of course, what fuels the branding industry to begin with!