Ask a room full of 50 people what the definition of “branding” is, and chances are, you’ll get 49½ different answers.
Branding? Yeah! That’s the logo. Or the packaging. Or the whole customer experience. Or the “essence” of a company. Or their social media. Or that ad on YouTube. Etc.
While these interpretations are each partially correct, I would argue that the visual identity is the aspect that most commonly bubbles to the surface were that survey to be run today: the logo, colours, and photographic or illustrative style that makes up the visual representation of a company to the public.
While experienced marketers, brand strategists and creatives know that you can’t get to a good brand identity without solid strategy, competitive analysis, user/customer insights and creative exploration, the initial impetus is often as simple as someone saying that they need a new logo or a new website. While these are certainly key outputs, it might be helpful for business owners, marketing managers, or other key client stakeholders to take a momentary pause to evaluate the bigger picture before they start engaging their agency.
And the best thing is, this practice should already be at least conceptually familiar to business owners in particular — just in a slightly different way.
From HBR to Reality
In recent years, the concepts and practices of design thinking, user experience design, design sprints, and holistically thinking through the end-to-end customer experience have penetrated enough HBR and Fast Company articles, business consultancy white papers, and conference talks that it’s collectively managed to bring customer-first perspectives out of the customer support department and into the C-suite. Having a customer’s needs, intents and journeys in mind is a solid starting point, and those frameworks already exist to help steer that perspective shift.
In addition, much been written in recent years about how branding is “everything.” While this can sound vague and not altogether practical or helpful, it’s certainly not wrong. Because at its core, branding is simply how a company presents itself to the world.
Today’s customer has more control over what they buy, what they research, and who they support with their dollars now than ever before. And while marketplaces such as Amazon, fast-fashion retailers such as H&M, and the (arguably dubious) internet-native practices of drop-shipping and Instagram knockoffs have created a low-end market that’s racing to the bottom in terms of prices customers are willing to pay, for anyone that isn’t caught up in that particular freefall, branding is just as important and relevant now as it was 30 years ago. It’s simply evolving.
Every customer interaction; every part of a website; every advertising or sales campaign; every email, either marketing or transactional; every line of copy, colour choice, or animation detail — every decision that translates an internal “thing” and presents it to the world is a small part of a company’s brand. And the table-stake expectations that the customer or prospect has in terms of quality, responsiveness and thoroughness from the companies they purchase from are simply higher now than ever before.
With all of this in mind, it can sometimes be hard to evaluate what should be considered up front versus what can safely get kicked down the road during the actual branding process.
Branding As A Commitment
If you think of a brief for a brand identity, it’s often to create an identity or “design system.” But this focus, while well-intentioned and undeniably the creative core, is only part of this larger ecosystem. To commit to branding is to commit to both the creation as well as ongoing development and stewardship of the holistic identity of the company over time, not just the creation of the logo or a set of brand guidelines.
Copywriting and language matters just as much as the design or imagery. A call centre script (or call centre staff autonomy) matters just as much as the app’s experience design. The decision about how frequent or how sparse an email automation cadence should be matters just as much as the words, the images, or the calls-to-action themselves. This level of necessary attention applies as much to the largest banks and telcos as it does to the neighbourhood bake shop; the difference lays solely in the number of outputs or things to consider.
While customer research and competitive analysis are important factors, the most crucial elements are the ones that are the hardest to precisely define: what is the essence of this company? Why does this essence matter to our customers or prospects? And by what techniques or in what arenas can it best be communicated?
Simon Sinek’s landmark Start With Why TED talk is, coincidentally enough, a good starting point. Jake Knapp’s/Google Venture’s Three-Hour Brand Sprint is a great first exercise for an executive or internal team to undertake, with or without a strategist alongside for guidance, as a first step before engaging any design, writing or development help.
At that point, the creation of the brand identity, website, guidelines, launch ad campaigns, packaging and the like can begin. Because while these are all crucial elements, with a great deal of expertise and effort required to successfully bring them to life, at the end of the day — they’re all outputs. Expressions of emotion or information to users and customers they may be, but without first establishing a solid grounding in what the company truly stands for, the threads will start to fray within a surprisingly quick amount of time.
Expanding the Notion of Branding
The exact methods of how to balance these key initial branding decisions with how to evolve it over time is unique to every engagement, as are the decisions that need to be made in terms of what can be managed internally versus what requires professional help. It’s as much a reactive process as it is a proactive one, and not every answer will be fully knowable at the outset.
But approaching the branding or rebranding of your company with a shift of mindset away from viewing it as a “one and done” investment of time and resources into an ongoing “nurture and grow” approach is already a solid start.
A new, MBA-level term isn’t needed to describe this new approach.
Rather, simply expanding the notion of branding to allow it to evolve over time is all that’s needed to holistically evaluate your company and allow you, your team, and your agenc(ies) to figure out how to best present it to the world — at every touchpoint, to every customer, in a way that’s true to them and true to you.
Stuart Thursby is the Founder & Creative Director of Stack Creative, based in Toronto, Canada.
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