Don’t throw your brand baby out with the bathwater!
I often find myself being invited to assess a brand identity; the meeting we have might go something like this: The client knows they have a problem and sometimes they’re able to articulate, at least in part, why that is. But, having already gone through an extensive branding process, maybe as recently as within the previous three years, they’re cautious about what should happen next.
There’s understandable anxiety around throwing good money after supposedly bad. After all, something hasn’t worked out with the not-so-long-ago completed branding. There’s also an awareness that they might not want to scrap everything and start again – throwing away what’s valuable (their brand baby) out with the bath water.
And it’s not as if I haven’t been at the sharp end of this myself…
As well as being the brand consultant brought in to assess a supposedly faltering brand identity, I’ve also found myself on the receiving end. I was recently told that a rebrand we’d completed no more than six months earlier, following months of research and discovery, and an extensive design process, was being scrutinised by an agency owner invited in by the company group.
Confident that this was a definite case where the client would have done better to steady their nerves and give the rebrand more time and support, I thought the experience presented an opportunity to write about the subject of how you can achieve a level of certainty about determining what the problem actually is, and the solution that’s called for.
The question is, do you actually need that full-scale rebrand or something altogether more nuanced?
Give it time
First of all, it’s important to remember that the sort of changes a successful rebrand can yield don’t happen overnight. Chopping and changing things only causes confusion and damages your brand equity. Branding is never a case of ‘done and forgotten’ because you shouldn’t leave your brand to fend for itself out in the wild.
A brand not only takes time to bed in, it also requires you to actively check in on it. Checking-in might include a number of elements such as examining whether the intentions set at the outset are being realised and assessing how the rebrand is landing with audiences. It’s an important exercise because all sorts of outside influences, from the wider economic and cultural, to the sector-specific, will be having an impact on the fortunes of your brand.
But of course, when doubts remain and the checking-in exercise yields more questions than answers, it’s probably time for a brand review.
What is a brand review?
A brand review is a comprehensive, 360° audit of the state of your brand. It asks a whole range of questions, from those that are external-facing (Has the world shifted? Do you need to evolve with the changing cultural landscape?), to those that concentrate on looking at what’s going on inside your organisation (Have you developed a new service? Has your business strategy or positioning, i.e. where you stand in the market, changed?).
A brand review will help you find out if there really is a problem and will articulate any issues precisely. This means that you’ll discover if a full rebrand is on the cards or whether something more nuanced is called for – a minor adaptation perhaps, or maybe just more time for your brand to become known in its new guise. And, if there is a fundamental problem, it’ll help you determine the direction your rebrand should take you in.
So, if you’re being plagued by doubts about how your brand is doing, particularly if it’s not that long since you last rebranded, or if you’re worried that you seem to head for the drawing board at the first sign of trouble, read on to find out how taking stock and conducting a brand review worked out for one of our clients.
Getting to the heart of the matter
Recent months saw us working with a charity client that had fundamentally changed their way of working, from focusing solely on end-user beneficiaries, to expanding their focus to take in both end-users and service commissioners and partners. Their existing brand identity wasn’t able to accommodate or resonate with these two distinct audience groups.
In addition, the client was experiencing issues with brand application – brand rules were being broken and they didn’t know why. We were tasked with finding out how the changes that were necessary (i.e. evolving existing branding so it was meaningful to both its distinct audiences) could be introduced as smoothly as possible, ensuring the sort of consistency that would build the brand awareness they were after.
This is how we went about it:
Conducting a brand review
As is generally the case, our brand review covered five distinct areas, starting with the all-important…
Scoping session – an in-depth analysis of the client’s hypothesis regarding issues with the brand identity, including individual conversations with members of the client’s team.
Consultation process – this included surveys and interviews with the client’s target audiences (the latter, to hear, in their own words, how they felt about the brand, its comms and identity – this was conducted in a non-leading way).
Review of the category – a thorough examination of the category the client operates in and the wider environment. This included looking at how competitor brands present themselves and identifying any new entrants and competitor brands that have recently refreshed their brand identities.
Auditing the marcomms – this covered all aspects of website, print, social and large format media. We also thoroughly reviewed the brand guidelines and templates with a focus on why brand rules might be being broken.
Making recommendations – we presented the evidence gathered and proposed the way forward.
Next steps – our client’s experience
Our findings unearthed additional evidence to back up the client’s initial prognosis while revealing further opportunities to get their branding to land right, once and for all, without having to embark on a full rebrand.
Their target audience had felt the existing branding and messaging lacked warmth and depth, and there was uncertainty about what the brand stood for.
The client needed to get clear on what they stood for and cared about.
We ran a series of discovery workshops to draw out their mission, vision and purpose, and define their personality and essence – a conceptual hook that any new creative could hang off.
The brand identity felt too playful and flippant.
Retaining the logo and the established, recognisable bones of the brand system, particularly the primary colour palette, while approaching other visual elements such as illustration and photography in a new, more emotive way that was easily replicable.
The inconsistent brand experience was revealed to be a result of limited brand guidelines which meant that the charity’s regional offices were being given insufficient direction.
Build greater detail into the brand guidelines (eg how to write the brand name in body copy), extending this to include direction on commissioning and selecting photography, and the development of sub-brand architecture.
The client took the above recommendations on board and went much further, building a team of marketing and brand managers tasked with managing the brand identity and protecting brand equity.
You don’t always need a revolution
It’s not always necessary to make a radical change. In our charity client’s case, it was a matter of the brand identity evolving so that it could accommodate the way the charity itself had evolved. As well as this, the brand system needed to be documented in a more thorough and user-centric way.
Rebranding would have been a case of throwing ‘the brand baby out with the bathwater’. The brand review findings presented the client with the ideal opportunity to step back from their brand and gain a deeper insight into how it was being perceived by their audiences. They were then able to make an informed choice on how to proceed.
Benefitting from a change of perspective
One of the most significant things which the client took from our brand review was that there is such a thing as being ‘too close’ to the brand.
Of course, it’s great when people say things like, ‘we live and breathe the brand’ but it does mean that they’re more likely to get bored with it and therefore want to change it. Stepping back and seeing the brand from the point of view of their audience, enables a reboot. For the people they want to reach, familiarity with a brand creates not only trust but preference. It’s cognitively easier to choose something you’re already aware of and have built an association with.
This is a phenomenon that was identified in the 1960s by social psychologist Robert Zajonc as the ‘Mere Exposure Effect’. More recently, via the work of Byron Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science, it’s referred to as the concept of ‘mental availability’ – something which is reduced when you continually meddle with your brand.
Getting the right people to ask the right questions
Discomfort or dissatisfaction with how a brand identity is performing should prompt questions. The important thing is to keep calm and examine what’s behind any motivation for change. Is it being driven by external or internal factors, or a combination of both?
Once you understand that, you have a better chance at arriving at a solution that doesn’t undo existing brand equity. Being mindful of who you get in to assist in this, also helps. Agency owners come with an inbuilt interest in advocating for ‘radical change’, i.e. a full rebrand. An independent consultant is more likely to direct you towards what you actually need. Paraphrasing the saying, ‘less can be more’ – a subtle change might just be the powerful solution you’re looking for.
‘Hush little people. Just go shopping. We’ll fix it.’
Hope, about the state of the world in general, is not easy to find at the moment. So, it was inspiring, energising and enlightening to read ‘Citizens’, a book that is full of hope for a future that we can all have a hand in creating.
The last seven years since the 2016 Brexit vote, have seen me, along with so many others, resort to feelings of what has been dubbed, ‘learned helplessness’: That despite our best efforts, we’re too small and insignificant to make a difference and that any change has to come from ‘the powers that be’.
It’s difficult to see how a single vote once every four or five years can address the myriad of real and pressing concerns that require long-term solutions. It’s also ironic how, despite localism being firmly on the agenda for over a decade, local government now seems less relevant than ever.
And, as a business owner, living in this era of climate emergency and feeling it incumbent on me to make changes and operate as sustainably as possible, I’ve been questioning the very concept of growth for growth’s sake for quite some time.
Time to tell a new story
A sense of disquiet, disenfranchisement and disappointment is growing. We’re realising that taking to the streets to protest doesn’t seem to make much difference and voting with our wallets changes little.
And that is ‘Citizens’’ jumping off point: The source code that our society has been built on for more than one hundred years – the Consumer Story – is broken.
‘Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us’ by Jon Alexander with Ariane Conrad sets out an alternative narrative – the Citizen Story.
It’s also a rallying call urging us not to permit turbulent times and uncertainty to drag us back in time and allow the Subject Story to gain ascendance. (Although it’s also acknowledged that that idea of accepting a “Strong Man” leader has unfortunately seen some resurgence in recent years, eg Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi etc.)
Why the Consumer Story isn’t working
The stories imprinted on the collective consciousness of societies are important because they influence how we understand ourselves on a very fundamental level. They ‘shape our beliefs, our morality, guiding our behaviour and even constraining the possibilities we can imagine’.
In the Consumer Story, those in positions of power, whether they’re corporates or governments, regard individuals purely as passive consumers. They do the important work of sorting challenges for us while we ‘go shopping’. This consumer logic extends into every aspect of society. Self-interested, self-reliant and atomised, we’ve been led to believe that the solution lies with merely choosing the ‘right’ ethical brand:
The story that promised our liberation has become our prison – we are depleted, the world is depleted
That so-called power to choose with our wallets ignores the fact that real power lies in being able to shape the choices on offer.
The Citizen Story is already happening
The book delves deep into a diverse range of Citizen Story-led projects from around the world that are already making a difference. The transformative potential of seeing ourselves, alongside businesses and third sector organisations, as participatory entities is powerful. Whether it’s contributing to product development, or recasting donors or members as active participants in delivering an organisation’s purpose, it forces us away from the passive and towards a can-do, active citizen mindset, with the resulting benefits and shared value accruing across all stakeholder groups.
I’m pretty sure it’ll prompt you to join the dots and get better at recognising not just the Citizen Story examples you come across in your own life but also make you realise you’re doing better than you think. For example, I can now trace how The Co-Foundry’s collaborative ‘brand design strategy developed with you and not done to you’ mission has seen me evolving towards developing ever-more inclusive design practices.
My big takeaway
As a brand design consultant, what struck me most about the Citizen Story was how its adoption demands far more from the sometimes over-used and often wrongly-used word, ‘purpose’.
The world of brand strategy itself throws up many debates around brand purpose – never more so than when for-profit organisations indulge in a spot of purpose-washing. This book calls for purpose to become a true organising principle, embedded in the meaningful context of businesses, organisations and governments building platforms from which to deliver the resulting shared value:
‘…it’s about creating structured opportunities for people not just to buy products and services from the business, but to buy into what the business is trying to do in the world. It’s only when this happens on a widespread basis that the story that businesses are telling will truly change.’
In the Citizen Story, purpose is fuelled by involving audiences who, through their involvement, become participatory stakeholders. This very idea of greater stakeholder involvement is something that I’m keen to keep building into my processes.
How we get there
Big on detail, ‘Citizens’ sets out seven steps that will help in building those effective platforms from which to deliver this new way of doing business. It also expands this idea out of the corporate and organisational sphere to ensure that the Citizen Story changes government itself – where people aren’t just subjects or consumers but capable, resourceful and responsible individuals who organise to come together and have opportunities to shape our communities and how we live.
There are reasons to be hopeful already because so many Citizen projects – across the third sector, business and government – are changing things and proving their worth. The capability is undeniably there but what’s needed now is a push towards creating the conditions and adopting the stories that’ll bring about a more systemic change.
Changing the status quo
‘Citizens’ offers a clear path out of that awful, soul-sapping ‘this is just the way things are’ feeling of impotence. Having read and returned to it more than once, I feel I’m better equipped to underpin my business processes with Citizen Story thinking.
Read it, share it and talk about it! We need to put a stop to reacting to today’s challenges with 20th century, buy–your-way-out-of-trouble Consumer Story answers (eg Eat Out to Help Out) and make the Citizen Story the dominant code of the 21st Century.
Originality, trends and trademarks
Picture this: You’ve taken the decision to overhaul your brand. You know that a brand refresh or full rebrand represents a mighty undertaking – financially, commercially and culturally. It’s vital that the new identity lands and has the right sort of impact. Having committed to making that change you know that it’ll trigger all sorts of thoughts and emotions, from insecurities and doubts, to fears that might get in your way.
Now, go a little further down the line, your creative agency has just presented you with their vision for your brand identity. Your first feeling might be one of elation but what comes next often goes a little like this…
Cue, path-blocking objections and concerns: ‘Is this creative original?’ ‘Haven’t I seen something like this before?’ ‘Will it last longer than the last brand identity we did?’ ‘Is it too ‘now’, of its time and faddy?’
Or, your elation might have frozen you to the spot with thoughts along the lines of, ‘This is fantastic, how can we make sure we own it, protect it, maintain it and build its value?’
You may even vacillate between the two and that’s ok, because there are a lot of factors at play here. Change and uncertainty are not meant to feel comfortable but you have to accept that this sort of discomfort is all part of the process.
They want proof that this is really, really gonna work. The problem is there isn’t proof. It’s [down to] how people see and perceive and accept things.
Paula Scher, Pentagram
As with any blocked path, it’s worth taking small steps to overcome the obstacles, so let’s break those reactions and conflicting emotions into three categories and take them on one at a time:
Trends vs fads
Why is the desire for originality or novelty so important? The purpose of originality is to be innovative, be the first, bring something fresh to the market, stand out and so ultimately gain an advantage. But can we ever truly be original and does it matter as much as we might think?
No discussion on originality is complete without this quote from Mark Twain:
There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
And this of course stands true in the graphic design world of brand identities. Our visual language is naturally limited to what we can see: shapes, letterforms, pictographs and even colours. Seemingly infinite, they can only ever be grouped into a limited range. What makes them appear fresh, new and different is how we combine, express and apply them.
A colour wheel can be broadly broken down into 12 groups:
There are only a limited number of geometric shapes in the world:
When it comes to pictographs we can go back to prehistory to see how humans used them to communicate (Image: Robert Brewster Stanton in Glen Canyon, Colorado River about 1893):
While Mesopotamian ‘graphic designers’ were limited by their rudimentary tools, we too are restricted by the requirements of the digital world – forced to reduce shapes down to their simplest forms – which again reduces the opportunity for expression and detail, and therefore variation.
16px favicons are one of the smallest sizes a logomark needs to be legible at:
Seeking to be distinct within your category is almost always a strategic goal. However, you may choose to take the opposite path – wanting to make your product or service feel familiar. In this case, you might don the clothes of more established brands, or borrow from and reimagine established industry norms.
For the purposes of this post though, let’s assume being distinct is your objective. If that’s the case, then a decision needs to be made as to how distinct you’re looking to be beyond the category you operate in. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter that, in the following example, Pepsi and Korean Air have remarkably similar marks. After all, they operate in significantly different spaces and look different in application.
In contrast, I think Meta has demonstrated a lack of imagination with their infinity sign. An infinity symbol in itself is naturally going to be part of our universal language and therefore often used, but in the tech world the symbol is overused. It also bumps up a bit too close to Virgin Media which is also active in the entertainment and digital spaces.
I never fail to be amazed that Gucci and Chanel arrived at such similar marks given that they sit side by side in the designer bag sections and perfume and make-up counters of department stores. Much has been written about the homogenisation of luxury brands – it’s a category that is ripe for some disruption.
Now let’s take the pictograph of a bird as an example. Covering a diverse range of sectors, the following brands don’t need to play or fight in the same commercial space.
And one poor soul – our trusty Twitterer has been unceremoniously knocked out of their nest – the owner clearly not recognising the value inherent in that now familiar shape.
Airlines are naturally drawn to the motif of birds in flight. So, while the use of a bird motif is not original, differences are communicated through the expression of that idea. Japan Airlines has used the stork in a roundel since 1959 – it feels culturally appropriate (a meaningful symbol in Japanese arts and culture), distinct and memorable. Clearly though, the airline category more broadly, could look further afield for inspiration.
When designing the identity for Skylark Media we were of course aware that using a bird motif was not an original idea in itself. Within that category however (video production studios), our research revealed that this could be an original approach, while incorporating the bird into the serif of the ‘K’ reinforced the fresh, new treatment of the motif. It would have felt remiss not to play on the film production company’s name.
Inevitably any monograms (single letterforms) will have a shared resemblance. In this particular case, a Hong Kong fashion school and an Italian rail network are in no way in the same competitive space.
But it’s how these two brands are applied that also helps to differentiate them.
Naturally a fashion brand needs the freedom to evolve over time, and the agency Toby Ng Design has given the client the ability to change the branding as trends and fashions change. Genius!
And that leads us neatly onto our next category: trends vs fads.
2. Trends vs fads
If it’s classical timelessness you’re after, then selecting colours and typefaces that are long-established is a safe bet. To be super safe, choose to avoid stylised motifs, because even the expression of a motif can date.
However, if your brand strategy calls for a contemporary look and feel, one with broader appeal that’s possibly looking to attract a younger target audience, then you’ll want to be more ‘of the moment’, part of the zeitgeist. In this instance, your designers will need to walk that fine line between being on trend and referencing what might be a short-lived fad. So what’s the difference between trends and fads? A starting point is to look at the dictionary definitions for both each:
1. a general direction in which something is developing or changing.
2. A fashion
an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived; a craze.
The danger of a fad is inherent in its dictionary definition. There are of course opportunities for short term campaigns to ride on fads, but as we’re exploring overarching brand identities here rather than focusing on one-off marketing campaigns, it pays not to take a short-term approach: Brand identity recognition, awareness and recall build and evolve over time, and there’s a danger that, in being so of the moment, one moment, you’ll appear dated in the next.
Trends come and go but this usually happens in much slower cycles than those around a fad. And very often their reference of the past is deliberate and strategic.
As shown in this Cisco ad, the use of dynamic ‘living lines’ feels very on trend. It isn’t a novel idea (see the example on the right from 1967) but its application does feel ‘of the moment’. I don’t believe it’s going away anytime soon either because it isn’t stylistically ‘out there’ in a way that might date it.
Distinguishing between a trend and a fad
Fads often emerge suddenly, gain rapid popularity and then quickly fade away within a short time frame (typically less than a year). Trends, on the other hand, tend to evolve more gradually and can persist over several years.
Trends are often rooted in societal shifts, changing consumer behaviours, or advancements in technology. They address underlying needs or preferences which can make them more sustainable over time. Fads are usually driven by novelty and excitement, and lack the substance to endure.
Trends tend to have a broader and more diverse appeal, attracting a wide range of demographics. Fads may have a specific target audience and appeal to a niche group for a brief period.
Ultimately, determining whether something is a trend or a fad requires a combination of observation and understanding of the broader context. It’s worth noting that even experts can sometimes make poor judgments, as the distinction between the two can be complex and influenced by various factors.
On trend or derivative?
There is a difference between designers being on trend and being directly derivative. However, with the echo chamber of Pinterest’s algorithm throwing out the same visual reference over and over again, this is happening more and more but through osmosis rather than because of deliberate copying. In this short video Derren Brown demonstrates how susceptible people are to the influences they surround themselves with:
However much they may be influenced by their industry or find the work of award-winning peers attractive, an established, professional designer is highly unlikely to copy an existing visual concept.
A good designer keeps their field of vision wide.
Build in checks and balances
A professional designer will factor due diligence into their practice, alongside researching the client’s category.
Tip: sometimes brand identities are put together at pace and iterations are requested at the last minute Build enough time into the project to allow for checks to be run at every iteration round. Bear in mind that designers are not IP Lawyers – they do not have legal expertise or database search capability, so if differentiation and protection of your new identity are of vital importance to you, read on.
This post is not written with FTSE 100 corporations in mind, it’s aimed at third sector organisations and SMEs with more limited budgets – organisations and people with a dynamic mindset and a more pragmatic approach.
Of course, if you’re CocaCola or a similar concern such as Intel, you would go so far as to register the shape of your bottle or audio identity. But do you need to formally register your identity?
Anyone can pop a ™ on the end of their brand name but only a fully ® Registered logo will carry enforcement rights.
Before you file your design application – ask yourself, is a trademark Totally Meaningless™ or Really necessary ®. Once you’ve registered it, will you maintain an enforcement strategy, monitoring any conflicts and infringements? If you aren’t prepared to invest in monitoring and enforcement, is there any benefit to registering?
A trend or concept that is familiar, tried and tested may make us feel more confident and reassured about the design direction. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is very definitely a sliding scale for designs – from designs that are novel (if not original) and challenge the norms, to designs that regurgitate fads – the graphic design equivalent of fast fashion. The balancing act is about reconciling the facility for sustaining an identity over the long term while satiating the appetite for something new and different.
Don’t follow fads. Stay true to something that you understand and have a principle about and try to grow it.
Design decisions have to be made based on meaning and relevance. Rather than searching for originality ask yourself, is this on trend, a fad, or stylistically derivative? Does it feel true to our brand essence? Does it hold meaning? Paula Scher again, on authenticity and pushing the brand down a new path: “The goal is to make them look like them, but allow them to feel comfortable that they’re going out to the party. Not overdressed, not underdressed, they’re them. That’s what I care about. Raising it, creating a surprise, moving the needle.”
Designers and clients have a shared responsibility to widen their terms of reference – going beyond award-winning concepts in design-trade press, avoiding falling down Pinterest rabbit holes and arming themselves with knowledge of design history. Or, put more simply, looking up and drawing on inspiration and reference from all around you.
Stop obsessing over novelty. Instead, focus on value. Even if your idea is not new, your unique perspective and spin could create something the world needs.
Stephen Shapiro, Innovation Consultant
Towards an inclusive creative process in brand identity design
The worlds of digital, product and service design are familiar with having end-users and customers involved in defining, testing and developing inclusive and accessible experiences. In brand identity design such involvement may be much less common but I don’t believe that that should remain the accepted norm. Always open to learning and developing my processes, I’m on a journey of discovery – exploring how I can ensure that The Co-Foundry takes a truly inclusive approach towards creating brand identities fit for the 21st Century.
Many might not be enough
Solving a branding brief can be done in any number of ways – there is never one single solution. But despite there being multiple angles and possible approaches, it’s not unusual to find that insufficient differing perspectives get explored during the strategic and creative stages of a project – something which can result in assumptions being perpetuated and generic solutions being delivered. And although no one sets out to deliberately exclude underrepresented voices, that thing where you assume your knowledge is all knowledge, is an easy trap to fall into.
Socially-conscious, human-centred businesses, institutions and organisations already understand the importance of listening to more than just the loudest and most dominant voices. They actively cast their net wider and ensure that individuals and minority communities get heard too. As brand strategists and designers, we should make creating space for, and listening to these diverse and underrepresented voices, an integral part of our practice too.
In this post I want to track the stages of a ‘typical’ brand project, identifying where we can embed inclusive practices and, in this way, exploring how brand designers, strategists and their clients can take practical steps towards a more inclusive approach.
Considering how brands are experienced by a more diverse range of customers and potential customers in the real world will lead to insights that then help create more meaningful and more widely resonant brand identities. These can, in their turn, contribute to extending brand reach and improving a brand’s accessibility and appeal across, for example, demographic divides, divergent thinkers, abilities and religions.
What’s the problem?
A 2022 study by the Design Council found the UK design industry in good shape but with a buoyant growth trajectory not being matched by a growth in diversity. More recently, speaking at Clerkenwell Design Week, Design Council CEO Minnie Moll spelled this out, saying, “only 23% of designers in the UK identify as female” while “88% of design managers identify as white”. It’s something I’ve written about on The Journal over the years here and here.
Inevitably, we’re all sometimes guilty of only viewing the world we live in from our own limited prism. So how can we ensure that the light we refract takes in the full gamut of possibilities and experiences, and not just a limited palette? How can we shine a light on underrepresented communities, reflecting life as it really is and ultimately driving change?
The False-Consensus Effect: Designers, developers, and even UX researchers fall prey to the false-consensus effect, projecting their behaviours and reactions onto users – this is an illuminating read that differentiates between accessibility, universal and inclusive design
Why does inclusivity matter and how can it benefit your brand?
Apart from being an ethical, respectful, empathetic and positive way to design, there are several strategic reasons why inclusivity matters. In UX and CX design there is already a broad consensus around inclusive design extending market share and accelerating innovation, so how can inclusive brand identity design benefit the brand, and the audience it serves?
Key benefits of adopting inclusive practices include:
Your brand becomes accessible (in the widest sense of that word) and relatable to more people
You develop a deeper understanding of the people you serve
You break out of category assumptions and create something more innovative, differentiating your brand in the process (something that’s a powerful brand attribute)
You build stronger brand loyalty by fostering a sense of belonging
You address your audience’s needs and increase your credibility
You increase market share – for example, 20% of the UK population has a disability
You attract the very best talent from the widest pool in an authentic and not merely performative way, building an inclusive brand identity that mirrors your pledge to diversity.
In other words, from a commercial perspective, you increase your brand value and drive higher brand engagement.
How to integrate inclusive practices into the project process
An inclusive approach starts not just with knowledge of your audiences but with knowledge of yourself.
The path to greater inclusivity starts with asking yourself: “Who might I be excluding with my design decision?” (Jeff Zundel, LinkedIn’s Inclusive Design Advocate). We need to recognise and acknowledge our own unconscious bias and begin with an open mindset, whether that’s through unconscious bias training or simply respecting and being open to the opinions of others.
So, start with the question: “Who are we not reaching or serving?”
Educating yourself on how current events and public discourse impacts the people you intend to reach is important too, but nothing beats actually consulting and working alongside your stakeholders.
Let’s look at this from a ‘typical’ brand design process and see where we can bring voices that may have previously been left out, in.
Define the problem you need to solve:
Who do you serve and who on the client or creative team is under-represented in that audience.
What it is that you want to find out.
Where are the gaps in your knowledge?
Listen & learn
Find out what perceptions and misperceptions people may have about your brand. Use this step to build clear personas for designers to reference when designing, gather insights and plan how your brand can take those people’s needs and perspectives into account. To do this recruit a diverse and representative group of participants. Carry out your consultation using methods appropriate to the participants, for example, focus groups, 1:1 interviews and workshops.
Take care to ensure that the methods and media you use are accessible to everyone, including those who have disabilities or are neuro-diverse. This might involve providing alternative text for images, including breakout groups or 1:2:1 interviews. These meetings can take place online or in person. (More detail on this in the Appendix.)
Co-author and cross-check
Co-author and cross-check the brand strategy
Look for alignment in defining your vision, purpose and values. Do your audiences share your vision and values? Might they feel that your day-to-day actions contradict the ideals you espouse? This step is important because your audience will rightly call out hypocrisy, and it’s better to discover and address this now, rather than later when the refreshed brand is launched.
Develop your brand’s value proposition, focusing on your audiencs’ pains and gains, and how they are resolved by your offer.
Provoke a response by providing stimulus (sketches, moodboards and competitor reference). This step is not about validating ideas but about provoking a response and using that response to write a brief.
Be specific in your brief, it’s not enough to say, for example that “this project should be ‘diverse and inclusive.’” Instead, you might say “20% of the brand’s audience in the UK are from a non-white background, the overall demographics of our branded content should reflect this.”
Design & content
Avoid limiting and excluding imagery. (See notes in the Appendix.)
Consider visual and verbal sensitivities, for example, gauge the power dynamics of your message – take care not to make your brand the saviour or the hero.
Test the resonance of the design and messaging, and be willing to make changes based on stakeholder feedback.
Check all text is accessible in the brand colours. Provide guidance on typography, for example, rules for use of fonts for people with partial sight and dyslexia.
Consider providing a language lexicon of exclusive language as part of your tone of voice guidance.
Create and curate an inclusive image library that creative partners and staff can use to stay on brand. (See more on this in the Appendix).
Ensure people remain the mainstay of your design and content process even after you hand over the guidelines. Consider setting up a steering group of engaged stakeholders to review collateral as you roll it out.
In short, design with stakeholders, not just for stakeholders.
We need to remember that, “If we have privilege (white, male, cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied, etc.), we bear a larger burden in listening with empathy and responding with humility.” (Real the full article that this quote is taken from, here.)
It’s time to pass the mic to those who have, for far too long been marginalised and excluded, and amplify their voice so that we produce more progressive brand experiences where inclusivity is a core practice.
Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a practice, equity is a goal.
I know there’s still a huge amount of work to be done and I’m far from pretending to be an expert on the matter but I am committed to continuously improving and using my position as a brand consultant to encourage an inclusive practice in research and creativity. I know many people reading this will have advice and experiences to add, so please do share them with me and I will come back and update and add to this post.
Running inclusive workshops
Facilitate the sessions in such a way as to ensure that everyone has a voice, or you may end up only listening to some of the participants. Many participants will find themselves more comfortable discussing in smaller groups, so consider using breakout rooms.
Use a Parking Lot – a space where the facilitator can ‘park’ ideas and points on post-it notes. This prevents any one/more attendees from dominating a discussion. State at the start of the session that you have limited time and may use the Parking Lot to keep things moving.
Consider a method of feedback for people who are more introverted, for example a box for them to post their thoughts throughout the session.
Keep a note of particularly engaged and enthusiastic attendees, you may want to approach them further down the line to cross-check, validate and test.
Commissioning or sourcing diverse Illustrations
Illustrators sometimes bypass the representation of skin colour or ethnic diversity by avoiding it altogether or using unnatural skin tones. The intention behind this approach is to be inclusive but the result is quite the opposite. By omitting natural skin tones, these illustrations inadvertently look like white people which excludes everyone else.
Unless there is a stylistic reason that makes non-human skin tones necessary, choose human skin tones. Thankfully this homogenous trend, dubbed Corporate Memphis is less prevalent now, and brands like Hinge have moved away from this style.
Inclusivity is about so much more than race – hair, facial features, body type, environment, clothing and activities all contribute to expressing one’s identity. For instance, the environment the characters are depicted in can convey their socioeconomic status. Consider all of these aspects.
Google are leading the way with their work on inclusive marketing, an example here:
By selecting carefully and sensitively, you can enhance the emotional connection of your audience. Seeing themselves in the images you use, may help them connect with you on a deeper level. While on the one hand, designers mustn’t avoid diversity, it’s equally important not to overplay it. Be representative, if the audience you serve is mainly white, in a mainly white region, don’t feel you have to depict diversity for the sake of it as this can end up feeling forced and unnatural.
When budgets allow, commission a professional photographer. Or look beyond the mainstream stock libraries – see the library of links below.
Try to capture moments in real life, avoiding glossy, unattainable settings and being mindful that camera angles and poses can communicate power dynamics.
Consider whether your music selection reinforces stereotypes or is culturally appropriated from another group. Make an effort to consider artists from underrepresented groups.
Implement measures to ensure that individuals with disabilities can fully access and understand the content. More guidance in the links below.
Considering the needs of people who are visually impaired is essential but not exclusive to website UI design. You need to ensure that your designs are accessible in all media to people with colour-blindness, dyslexia, low vision etc. This may include considerations around paper stock and contrast, and for the client, the provision of black and white, large type alternatives.
Branding can’t be inclusive if it’s not accessible to everyone. There are numerous resources available for websites and digital products but research guidance for print and wayfinding is harder to find, see link below.
Inclusive language & content
Involve your audience in originating content.
Use inclusive language. If you don’t know someone’s gender or if you’re talking about, or referring to a group, adopt gender-neutral language where, for example, policeman > police officer, salesman > salesperson. Numerous idioms and expressions may appear harmless at first glance, but in truth, their origins can be harmful and divisive. For example, the terms “blacklist” and “whitelist” derive from discriminatory metaphors related to race.
Consider how appropriate your brand tone of voice is, might there be instances where it excludes? Does it take too lighthearted an approach or is it too formal and academic in tone, for example?
The marketing press has recently devoted a lot of coverage to big brands whose brand awareness ad campaigns (think, McDonalds and Airbnb) are proving more effective at growing their sales and market share than shorter term, sales-activation campaigns. While times are hard, many of these brands are ditching tactical advertising in favour of brand-building activity. Although I don’t pretend to be an advertising or marketing specialist, I do know that my areas of specialism – brand identity and brand strategy – are the foundation stones of effective brand building.
Without a brand identity, a business or organisation is merely a commodity, competing only on price, lacking in personality and unable to articulate a clear promise to its customers.
Brand identities are designed to effectively communicate what you do and how you do it, prompting recognition, influencing action and attitudes, and over time, building trust and loyalty. It’s also something that isn’t totally in your control as customers project their own impressions and feelings on your brand. In this way your brand identity steers but cannot dictate how it is understood.
Easy does it
The phrase ‘over time’ is key; your audience’s decision to act is often a slow one. In the B2B and third sector arenas it can take months or even years before your audience moves on from ‘just looking’. In fact, it’s rare for people to fall in love with brands at first sight.
One of my collaborators Ryan Webb, a conversion rate optimisation consultant sums it perfectly, ‘I like to think about audiences as being in two camps: those ready to take action immediately and those in research mode. Those who are ready to take action immediately are much easier to convert (to buy, sign up, donate) but it’s likely they make up a smaller share of the audience. For those in research mode, they’re seeking reassurance, looking to you to demonstrate the credibility that can build trust. Investing time and effort in your brand identity and the messaging around it is essential to creating the environment that can effectively move this audience on from being ‘researchers’ to those who take action.’
…your brand identity and the messaging around it is essential to creating the environment that can effectively move this audience on from being ‘researchers’ to those who take action.
Brands and memory-making
What you essentially want is for your brand to create a positive association, imprinting itself in the memories of your audience consistently and building a good reputation. I refer to this quite simply as ‘memory-making’ but it’s an idea that takes in perspectives that range from Byron Sharp’s ‘mental availability’ model (the basis of his book, ‘How Brands Grow’), to Marty Neumeier’s ‘‘transcendent’ customer experiences’ and ‘emotional encounters’ (The Brand Flip). All of these are about helping customers and prospects make memories of your brand.
Allowing space for customers to have this time can yield far greater returns than simply hurling urgent calls to action at them. ‘Learn more’, ‘read our insights’ or ‘meet the team’ often proves more effective in B2B and the third sector than ‘buy now’, ‘donate’ or ‘apply here’. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Alice in Wonderland noted when she saw the paper label round the neck of the bottle, ‘It was all very well to say “drink me”, but I’ll look first.’ For your audience to trust you, you have to trust them enough to give them this evaluation time. It’ll reward you in the future.
So, where do memories come from?
Memories are made in the head and the heart. They’re a combination of rational and emotional responses: the cognitive and the affective.
To enable cognition, your brand needs to deliver its message and convey information. To enable feeling, your brand should seek to evoke emotions.
Your prospective customer will only ‘use their hands’ – i.e. make a conative response when they’re ready to act – click, buy, open or sign.
How can your brand identity and marketing communications help build those ‘head’ memories?
Show them (rather than tell them) you’re credible – focusing on benefits rather than merely the features of your products or services
Provide social proof – put the voice of your happy clients front and centre, demonstrate how you helped solve their problems through case studies and videos
Articulate your value proposition clearly – making your selling points compelling
Heart memories can inspire action but they’re more of a slow-burn, acting as a nudge in the right direction and prompting a hard-to-describe feeling where your prospective customer senses that your brand is right for them. Virginia Woolf identified it spot-on when she said, ‘…one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later; and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.’
Marty Neumeier sees this as part of the assumption that ‘customers are more valuable over time’. Some of the ways you can tap into an affective response include:
Being clear and consistent on what your brand stands for
Appealing to your audience through a tone, voice and style that reflects and reinforces your brand personality
Creating empathy through the brand stories you choose to tell
Always behaving in ways that reflect your brand personality and align with your audience’s values
Memories are built on trust
The true power of brand building lies in how, over time, people get to know, like and trust you. They’re only ever going to take action once they trust you and believe you can deliver for them.
The process starts well before any memory-making can take place, when you define your brand visually and verbally, pinning down brand values and from that developing a tone of voice, team behaviours and culture – how you show up. Following on from this, a clear brand strategy – co-created, understood and bought into across your organisation will then give you the threads with which to start forging the sort of positive associations, recall and memories that will build your brand.
And of course, marketing communications and promotional campaigns, including tactical campaigns, will all play a part. After all, what use is a carefully considered brand if no one knows it’s there? What you do have to be cautious about though, is focusing only on the short-term – the purely transactional, the quick wins, the time-sensitive one-offs. Although every sector, market, audience and business’s goal may be different, weighting your marketing towards brand-building and memory-making will ensure that your short-term, tactical campaigns don’t fall on fallow ground.
Making their hearts grow fonder
When people commit to take action and buy, subscribe or donate, you then have to keep your brand promise. The brand experience itself (the culmination of any number of touchpoints, from website visits and signing up to receive a newsletter, to in-person or virtual interactions) presents another opportunity for memory-making and so building something of a relationship with your customers.
Airbnb’s recent experience is a much-quoted case in point. Their shift in putting most of their focus on brand-building is quite literally paying dividends.
The majority of bookings come from past guests, and it’s actually been the strong guest retention that we’ve had for years since the beginning of Airbnb that’s been a powerful driver of our growth.Dave Stephenson, CFO, Airbnb
It’s well documented that it’s far easier and more profitable to retain a customer than to constantly be scouting around for new customers. Some sources put the cost of acquiring a new customer at five times that of holding on to existing customer and similarly, the success rates of selling to existing customers are significantly higher than when you’re starting afresh every time. So, get building that brand and creating those memories for your customers!
Knowing how to measure the return on the investment you make in building your brand’s equity can be hard. Monitor how well your brand resonates with your customers with this simple survey.
A simple test to measure brand equity
Knowing how to measure the return on the investment you make in building your brand’s equity can be hard. Unlike tactical marketing activity, returns can’t be gauged as easily or simply as reviewing analytics and sales figures. And yet the rewards of investing in brand-building are well-known to grow over time.
In his book The Brand Flip, Marty Neumeier recommends that you monitor how well your brand resonates with your customers or audience by using a simple survey: the Brand Commitment Scale survey.
Marty Neumeier is the respected author of best-selling brand books such as The Brand Gap and Zag. He has worked with, among others, Apple, Google and Patagonia.
In The Brand Flip, Neumeier describes the scale of ‘brand commitment’ as a ladder. The bottom rung is ‘Satisfaction’ – the customer has experienced your brand product or service and found it to be as expected. The next rung in the ladder is ‘Delight’ – they have experienced a level of surprise and delight with their interaction with your brand, this is the point in the customer relationship where they become loyal to your brand, experiencing an emotional response. Next up ‘Engagement’ – your customer subscribes to your brand tribe “With membership comes increasing loyalty, escalating repurchase habits, and an emotional attachment that goes far beyond patronage”. You know you’ve reached nirvana when your customer has reached the top rung on the ladder: ‘Empowerment’ – they depend on your brand for social status, personal growth or business success. These ‘empowered’ members of the brand tribe attract others, refer with confidence and stand by your brand promise.
From this, Neumeier devised an 8-step survey that measures how you’re progressing on the ladder.
The survey questions and scoring criteria
Each ‘rung’ has two statements; customers are invited to rate their agreement with them on a scale of 1 to 5. These first two scales relate to SATISFACTION the highest subtotal score is 10.
These next two scales relate to DELIGHT multiply the subtotal by 2. The total highest score is 20.
These next two scales relate to ENGAGEMENT multiply the subtotal by 3. The total highest score is 30.
The final two scales relate to EMPOWERMENT multiply the subtotal by 4. The total highest score is 40.
The final highest possible score is a grand total of 100.
Test and test again
Whilst this survey focuses on brand loyalty and there may well be other criteria you’ll want to track, this is a great place to start. By running this test now and again at regular points over time, you can start to measure the effectiveness of your brand-building activity.
Ride the wave – agile brand positioning for uncertain times
How do you best position your brand when the environment it operates in is constantly shifting? What can you do when you see increasing competition in your sector and know that you have to carve out a clearer position in your target audience’s mind?
Should you be niching down – homing in on the one thing that you believe differentiates your brand from its peers? Or is it safer to go the other way – extending your offering or entering new markets? Surely, casting your net wider means you’ll catch more fish…
You may, quite understandably, be feeling anxious about making any decisions in the current economic climate. After all, why rock the boat when the waters are already choppy? In this post, I show you which elements of your brand strategy should remain fixed and which areas you can be confident about exploring – identifying ways in which you can adopt agile and become bolder in how you think about your brand.
And the best news? If you’re a micro, small or medium business, you have a built-in natural size advantage; think of bigger brands as unwieldy cruise liners, while your own business is, in comparison, a nippy sailboat, able to effect a manouevre in a fraction of the time.
(Apologies for all the surfing and seafaring references – they’re a bit of a theme with this post!)
A word on Agile:
Agile embraces situations as they unfold, making decisions as necessary, to stay on track towards those goals, even adapting goals as you go.
It’s based on the idea that things tend to have their own life cycle of usefulness and if that life cycle remains unchanged it goes out of date and becomes ineffective. This means there’s a need to be improving and developing continuously to disrupt this natural life cycle before it enters decline and causes disruption itself.
The elements of your brand that remain its solid and unchanging core are its foundations (let’s assume here, that you’re already clear on these) – your brand purpose, mission, vision and values.
The brand personality traits that fed into these and inform your day-to-day communication are also well-known and understood by your team. You’ll naturally be regularly checking in with these strategic statements – making sure that your mission is being delivered, your values are being followed across all customer and employee touchpoints, and that your branding and tone of voice remain on point.
So, if these elements of your brand remain solid and unchanging, what can you flex so that you’re able to maintain your edge and continue delivering on your mission?
Examine what’s changing
Taking its lead from that famous saying, ‘If we want things to stay as they are, [i.e. your business maintaining its position in the marketplace] things will have to change’ – let’s start by looking at what might be changing around you. You may well have a clearly defined position, but competitors are moving into your space:
Sounding and looking a lot like you
Offering services that seem indistinguishable from those that you provide
Servicing the same sectors
Your ownable space – the brand moat I wrote about here – is being threatened.
In this instance, it’s time to consider your positioning. You’ll be looking to adjust one or two coordinates to ensure you maintain that clear, ownable space while also taking other, external factors into account – both those that present challenges and those that offer opportunities.
External forces that may be at play:
Innovations – both within your sector and in the world at large, including the impact, both current and future, that developments in AI create
Pandemics (not something we might have thought of few years ago)
Economic and geopolitical pressures
Government regulation (for those of us operating in Europe, issues around Brexit are still very much on the agenda).
The above forces aren’t necessarily negatives, change can, and does, bring opportunity. Also, very importantly, revisiting your positioning means taking into account and reviewing any internal changes that might be moving you towards reorienting your brand:
Development of new IP
Mergers and collaborations
New talent joining the organisation, expanding skill sets.
Adjust your position
Once you’ve objectively reviewed the environment you’re operating in, identifying all the factors that might indicate that it’s time to adapt your positioning, take time to consider your selling points – how your brand resonates with its audience and where you offer particular value.
This is about far more than having a USP. The term has fallen out of favour as, in truth, very few brands can lay claim to the holy grail of that single USP. It’s far better to think of this as something that’s grown out of the USP concept, a combination of selling points if you like.
Scrap the ‘U’ in USP and try on some of these other selling points for size:
ESPs – Expert Selling Point – can you credibly claim some authority in your market?
OSPs – Originator Selling Point – were you the first in your category or did you have a memorable start to your brand journey?
VSPs – Values Selling Point – is how you deliver your service or product different?
NSPs – Narrative Selling Point – can you tell a story that pitches you as the hero
PSPs – Personality Selling Point – do you look and sound distinctive in a bland category?
CSPs – Community Selling Point – are you super connected, is your brand a key player in its network or category
SSPs – Size Selling Point – are you unusual in your category?
This is by no means an exhaustive list… there are many other ways to show the world you are distinct and appealing, particularly when you realise that you don’t have to fix on sector and service offering.
Whether you choose to subtly adjust your coordinates to accentuate your edge in one or more of these SPs or take a bolder view, pivoting and going all-in on one SP, what you want to do is navigate your brand towards an updated, well-defined and memorable positioning – the antithesis of lookie-likie generalism.
Strategy, very much like a brand, is essentially a creative exercise. In an uncertain, dynamic environment it can be likened to surfing – you put yourself in a position to not only ride the waves of opportunity, but have a hand in creating them – defining and shaping new directions for your brand.
Adopting an agile mindset for your brand strategy and homing in on what can be flexed and refined prepares you for change and helps you keep your options open. Even more crucially it can alter how you understand change, seeing it not as a barrier or limitation but a path towards the adaptations you need to make.
Although it’s very much a customer-focused approach where you’re not afraid to keep on reviewing, testing and adjusting, being crystal clear about your non-negotiables and staying true to your brand values is equally important. In the words of Basecamp founder, David Heinemeier Hansson:
…it’s about running a business in a way you can feel proud about. And the only way to do that consistently is by not A/B testing your core values.
What’s the secret ingredient to a successful rebrand project?
A rebrand is a major undertaking – expensive, not without risk, yet totally transformative if you get it right. A successful rebrand gets to the essence of who you really are as a business and sends the right message out, the catalyst to help you attract the right people, reach new audiences, and leap confidently forward as an organisation, increasing the impact you make as a result.
The world is changing fast and we know that many CEOs and marketing leads will be reviewing their brand and positioning this year. So, what’s the secret ingredient to getting your rebrand project right? And what elements are missing from the typical process?
Brand strategist Sue Bush and I have worked together on some fascinating rebrand projects recently, and as we head into 2023, we’ve been reflecting.
We think there’s one major underplayed factor that affects the success of any rebrand. With the benefit of experience, here’s what can go wrong and the special ingredient needed to get your project just right.
Two common reasons why rebrands go pear shaped
We’ve all seen rebrands that bomb, with stressed out project teams and an end result that disappoints. But why?
Too much time looking inwards. Where the project might spend a little time reviewing the competition but what the audience cares about gets a cursory review at best. The result? Inward-looking ‘me, me, me’ messaging and a brand, website and comms that fall flat when released into the wild.
Rotten tomato syndrome
Internal disagreement. Where somebody important hurls doubt – rotten tomatoes – at the creative brand idea late in the day, knocking it down, leading to lots of infighting and a watered down, ‘meh’ type of brand results.
So, how do we avoid this?
The secret is to engage more widely
If you want a successful rebrand that gets to the heart of your message, it’s important to engage widely – not just internally but externally too.
As with much in life, it’s that so-called soft stuff that is the hardest to do right and with a rebrand it’s the key ingredient that makes all the difference between success and failure.
Continual, wide engagement is essential for a successful rebrand.
External engagement and listening
Internal listening and discovery is vital. It’s so important that people inside the organisation have their say, that you understand what they care about and harvest their ideas. And you need to set the rebrand in context and conduct research into your market and competition. Both of these elements are key to disovery.
But the bit that’s often missed in a rebrand process is external listening – spending time gathering the views of outside stakeholders – clients, partners, referrers, people who use your services. This external engagement is rare.
External research holds a mirror up to your organisation – it helps you see who you are and what you do from the outside in. And that’s massively valuable, because people on the outside can always see things more clearly. As David C. Baker wisely says, when you’re inside your own jar, you can’t read the label.
Spend time talking to them and you’ll learn where your true value lies.
Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.
Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap
This outside perspective is so key if you want a relevant, powerful brand that connects – one that’s more ‘you, you, you’ than ‘we, we, we’ – their words, not yours reflected back.
Bringing in these external voices to the process puts a stop to rotten tomato syndrome too. It’s hard to argue with the views of external stakeholders, engaging everyone in a strong brand idea that’s rooted in evidence.
Engagement at the creative stage
Engagement shouldn’t just end on completion of the discovery phase. It’s also vital to keep people engaged when you get into the creative, involving a wide cross section of people from across the organisation into co-creation sessions. Creatives don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.
I think as designers, we’re addicted to the ‘jazz hands’, the big reveal, but creatives don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. Bring people in on it through co-creation.
Sue Bush, The Co-Foundry
Engage internal experts to help write the website
We’ve talked about research, we’ve talked about creative; you’ve delivered the brand guidelines, the tone of voice is written. How can you continue to engage people?
After the rebrand, the first major touchpoint is usually the website, and it’s the content side that often slows this down. It’s a big job, and the expertise and ideas you need to communicate on the site are found inside your organisation. You can’t leave this to an external copywriter alone – it’s important to engage your internal experts to help you write the content you need. It can be a really fulfilling process for people, if you engage them in this process in the right way.
Never stop engaging
Once you have delivered the brand, you’ve delivered that website, you’ve got to keep everyone on board. It depends on the size of the organisation – if it is very small, then it’s an easy thing to communicate and manage. But the bigger the organisation, the more of that engagement you need to do in terms of embedding values, communicating your vision, your mission, etc. So there’s still work that has to be done there.
Engagement never really stops. You mustn’t then retreat back into your shell and stop engaging and communicating in that way.
The secret to a successful rebrand is a high level of engagement
The secret to a successful rebrand isn’t just great creative or top down. It’s a people thing – it’s engagement, the soft fluffy stuff that is the hardest thing of all and exactly the kind stuff that makes a project succeed or fail.
Get the engagement right and your rebrand has a far better chance of landing with your audiences – inside and out. You’ll get a message that everyone gets behind because you’ve brought in people’s voices from the outside as well as within. You’ll get a project that they’ve enjoyed, one they remember for all the right reasons. And you’ll get a brand that propels your organisation forward, so you can make an even bigger impact.
If you have a rebrand project on the cards this year, the one thing you can take away from this is the importance of a high level of engagement throughout.
The many ways sharpening your positioning helps your business
Why write your own blog post when you can get your clients to write it for you? I could start telling you how vital it is to get your positioning right – it is, after all, an integral part of my work as a brand consultant – but showing you how it’s helped my clients seems a better way to go.
So, the format of this blog post is a little different. I’ve pulled out themes from recent client interviews to illustrate what various founders and chief execs have gained, not just in terms of sharpening their positioning, but from going through the process itself. Before I hand over to them, a few words on what positioning is:
Positioning is essentially your point of view in the market – what you stand for in the eyes of the audience you serve. It’s something stable but not set in stone, and every business or organisation should think about reviewing it from time to time.
And now, over to my clients who found that sharpening their positioning helped them in many different and sometimes unexpected ways:
1. Tell a consistent story
ISL Talent came to us aware that their brand identity didn’t reflect their position in the marketplace: “We were telling clients that we were focused on tech start-ups and were in tune with their market but then, if they went to our website, they’d see a very different story being told. So, the challenge was making our positioning and branding consistent with the story we were telling…It ended up being an inside-out rebrand…capturing the essence of the business and telling that story, at scale.” (Alan Furley, CEO, ISL Talent)
2. Become more relatable
Defining your positioning is a way of reflecting the values of your ideal client or prospect and so attracting exactly the sort of people you want to be working with. To get there you need to do your research and find out exactly what your audience cares about.
“A new client was able to recognise that our culture, values, and soft skills were really important to us. Our new branding and messaging communicated that providing an ongoing, long-term relationship was central to how we work and this made what we offer different to what he’d get from another recruitment company. And that is exactly what we’d wanted to portray. I feel confident we’ll get a tenfold return on our investment over three years and, in addition it’ll stop us losing business.” (Alan Furley, CEO, ISL Talent)
3. Prepare for investment in marketing
This is probably the single most cited reason that prompts clients to reconsider their positioning and revisit their brand’s strategic objectives. BaseKit CEO, Simon Best approached us for a number of reasons, but primarily because his company was about to embark on a significant marketing investment with a new team coming on board: “It was important to sort out our strategy and branding ready for the new sales and marketing team joining the company. I didn’t feel we were clear on how to articulate what we stood for any more. I knew we had to get our brand ducks in a row because we wanted marketing to hit the ground running.”
“You can spend a lot of time trying to get your CRM system right, thinking about your sales force and how you operate and train your staff. But getting the brand, the website and how you communicate with people is just as important as any other part of your work.” (Suzanne Rolt, CEO of Quartet Community Foundation)
4. Stake their claim and become the market leader
Both internally and externally, it wasn’t clear what travel company, Solos stood for. Nicky from Solos Travel: “There was this real need to put a stake in the ground and become known as the market leader in our field but before we could do that we had to find the right people to make sense of what is quite a complex business…I think what you [Sue] and Rachel have done creatively, and what Nicky’s done with the words, has allowed us to communicate very succinctly with the customer. So now they’ll come to our website and totally get what we’re about. But more than that, being totally clear on where we stand allows us to be more playful and much less corporate.”
It’s still early days for the Solos brand refresh (launching soon) but Nicky is confident, “I feel sure now that the brand will be able to go from strength to strength.”
Simon from BaseKit adds, “We have true standout now. Before, we looked and sounded like any other web dev company – we needed to be bold, express our opinion and demonstrate our personality. we’ve got that now and it’s really getting us traction.”
5. Reignite pride in the brand
There’s no doubt that a new and revitalised visual and verbal identity builds pride in a brand but the very process of going through the exercise is something that can also help your team rediscover their passion for the everyday work they do. In the words of Belinda Phipps, the CEO of national charity, WithYou, on receiving the brand strategy (after extensive research and discovery workshops): “When you can turn around and read statements about your brand it reconnects you to why your work is so important. That relights the fire. So, if nothing else, thinking about and discussing the brand reconnects you to the soul of the organisation and to individual souls – that point and purpose of why you exist in the first place. A lot of what happens day to day is plain hard work. It can be frustrating when things don’t always go smoothly, but being able to remind yourself why you’re doing it in that consistent and elevating set of statements – that’s really helpful.”
The team at ISL Talent had been frustrated by their previous brand image. It felt dated and didn’t reflect their culture or personality. One of the team said they were embarrassed by the branding which they called “faceless”. Alan, the CEO remembers asking them, “If we wanted to be 10 times bolder as an organisation, what would we do?” Incorporating this bold approach to the rebrand meant that the team now “feel energised by the new brand” and “proud to say [they] work at ISL.”
6. Give their team a voice
It isn’t just the final outcome (a well-defined brand) but the creative process of getting to that position which benefits the team. We tend to run a co-creation session sandwiched between the research/discovery/strategy stage and the creative brief stage. In the words of one client, Nicky at Solos Travel: “Sue’s co-creation session is a stroke of genius. It allows the team to come on the journey, understand the journey and feel that, even though they may not be decision makers, that it’s a very collaborative process. It’s particularly important when it’s a business that people have worked in for years and years.”
Sometimes the answers you need are staring you in the face, i.e. they’re there, within your own team. Quartet Community Foundation’s Chief Exec, Suzanne: “Getting the internal team together is a positive thing as so much that defines your organisation comes from them. They’re the people who are on the ground, doing the work, so when you give them a chance to step forward and say what they think, their views offer rich pickings. For example, when we were talking about values, we went quite deep and talked a lot about the way we work, how we deliver everything we do. The process of discovery revealed a resonant backstory and that has proved really, really helpful.”
7. Build a great a culture
BaseKit not only needed to get their ‘brand ducks in a row’ they also recognised that as a growing and ambitious business they needed to retain as well as attract talent. The founder, Simon isn’t in the business of purely building for growth, he also wants to retain and develop the values he’s built the business on: “Sue’s Values in Action workshop galvanised the team behind our core values – we worked together in break-out groups looking at how we could live our values as individuals, as small teams and with our clients. It was a great way to embed those values and make sure they were part of our culture.”
8. Attract talent
When it comes to attracting and acquiring the very best talent it’s still a seller’s market in the creative and tech worlds. People have become very discerning. They do their research and look for values that resonate with them, looking for companies with a vision and purpose that’s meaningful to them.
Hot off the heels of a new look, full rebrand (name change, clarified position and new website – articulated through a revised brand strategy) Jessica Gillingham, founder and Chief Exec of Abode Worldwide attracted a big hire – an MD to share her mission.
“I needed someone to oversee basically all of the agency, to free me up to focus on growth. An MD is a difficult post to fill, it’s such a key hire. The person we eventually hired wouldn’t have considered Abode before we rebranded – it’s testament to how the new brand helps us look the part and articulate what we’re about so much better than before.”
9. Appeal to a new audience
Quartet Community Foundation came to us with a need to broaden their appeal so they could attract a new generation of prospective philanthropists. They were quick to recognise the importance of listening to their audience at the start of the rebrand so that they could get their positioning right: “If you don’t engage with people, then you can’t start to deliver on all those ambitions that you have – reaching new donors, attracting new philanthropists, encouraging other community organisations to come forward to look at what you’re doing and make a request themselves for support. The investment you make in listening is one that will always pay off.”
And finally, to summarise…
Multi-layered and rewarding as a process, sharpening your positioning should result in a singular, easily articulated and memorable brand positioning statement that can then start yielding all sorts of benefits. I’ll leave the final words to Suzanne and Belinda:
It’s very easy to be tempted to skip things such as thinking about vision, mission and brand values because you assume they’re known to everyone and shared by everyone, but actually, quite often, and especially as organisations grow, they’re not. They’re things that change as people leave and new people come in. The brand review went quite deep. It caused us to really reflect on what we’re here to do and why and how we do it. So, when people talk about a brand review, I think they initially might have quite a narrow understanding of what that might look like.
Suzanne Rolt, CEO of Quartet Community Foundation
Practical, tactical things will only ever take you so far. If it feels like there’s a lot about what your organisation looks and sounds like that needs to change you need to be looking at your brand positioning – really examining that and trusting in the process.
Belinda Phipps, CEO, WithYou – brand refresh launching this year
Navigate towards having the business you really want
Do you find that the pressures of running a business can become so overwhelming that you end up focusing only on the here and now, keeping going with client work and losing something of your core business personality in the process? Have you recently set off on yet another new project that diverts you from your mission?
Maybe an outside investor or advisor is encouraging you down a path you don’t feel entirely comfortable with? Perhaps you can’t articulate why, but you know in your heart of hearts that it doesn’t feel right.
In this post, I’d like to explain how two key brand strategy linchpins, working in unison, can help you stick to what you want your business to be. Aligning brand purpose with brand vision will give you the drive, determination and confidence you need to reach your goals and build the sort of business you really want.
A helpful way to look at it is to imagine that stating your vision sets your North Star, the point on the horizon that you want to navigate your boat towards. To start heading towards that point you’re going to need a really good motor, and that’s where brand purpose comes in. It’ll not only get you to where you want to be but it’ll ensure you do so with self-belief and passion.
In this way, doubling down on defining an authentic purpose and vision for your business gives you clarity, focus and direction. Think of it as being blinkered, but in a good way – unwavering and determined rather than narrow-minded and uninterested. You’ll be giving yourself permission to turn down work that might sap your energy and kill your spirit, and ensuring you can do more of the work you love, with clients that will help you and your business thrive.
I’m aware that the term ‘brand purpose’ can be divisive. There are those who swear by it as the holy grail for enabling brands to connect with customers on a personal level and, at the other end of the scale, there are a number of well-known marketing industry figures including Mark Ritson, Byron Sharp and Bob Hoffman who, some provisos notwithstanding, view it as an industry construct that is largely meaningless.
My view on brand purpose is that it’s more complicated and subtle than either of the above extremes: Your purpose has to be far more than a hook aimed at reeling in your customers – it should act as a powerful clarion call for your team. What you’re essentially looking to do is to express the reason you exist, the contribution and impact your work has on others. At The Co-Foundry, we choose to work with purpose-led founders and charity chief execs and find that the whole ‘define your purpose’ question can be answered relatively easily, linking back, as it does, to why the business or organisation was established in the first place.
Brand purpose, the way I see it, doesn’t have to be a lofty ‘force for good’ statement (although if that’s what you can genuinely go for, then great), it can be just as powerful as something more humble. The one thing it does have to be however, is real and authentic. Don’t let it ever become something you hide behind, make it something you can step into and live by. After all, can you really claim to be saving the planet if what you’re doing is flogging more widgets? And yes, you can align your purpose to the UN’s SDGs, but you damn well need to prove that that’s what you’re doing, not just say that you are.
How it works
My purpose for The Co-Foundry is quite simple – to help those that strive, go on to thrive. It may be a humble aim but it really puts some welly in my motor, helping me pick who I want to work with (sorry big corporates, you’re not on my list) – clients who are ‘small giants’ (as coined by Bo Burlingham in his book, “Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big”). In other words, if profit is your sole motivator, count me out.
So, on a day-to-day basis, my purpose acts as an over-arching strategy that helps me define my tactics: who I want to work with, who I market to and how I build all the toolkits and solutions that will help my clients thrive. It also means I don’t get pulled in directions that take me away from that purpose.
Envisioning the future
Your vision is the aspirational partner in the purpose/vision pairing. As a North Star it doesn’t have to necessarily be achievable, but it also shouldn’t be so wild that it becomes nonsensical. To my mind, two-word visions smack of not much more than hot air. I had a client once who wanted their vision to read ‘Advance humankind’ (with their purpose being, ‘to drive the evolution of the human species’) – don’t get me started on that one!
If your brand values shape the day-to-day behaviour of your business and your brand mission shapes how you measure success on a month-to-month basis, then the vision for the brand is the year-to-year guide.
Stewart Steel, Good, brand consultants
Your vision should be something that stretches you, something that’s just a little out of reach but is easily understood and tangible while being open enough to apply in a rapidly changing world. The key is not to let your vision limit your ambition. For example, if you were an electric car company, you’d want to be thinking long-term, looking to include the term ‘transport’ but not the far more specific, ‘cars’. You might, after all, want to diversify into electric bikes or an as yet uninvented form of travel or even eco-flight!
Putting purpose and vision together
Mutually reinforcing, a clear-eyed approach to defining your brand purpose and brand vision, provides a robust framework that brings your future into focus. In fact, I’d argue that it’s well nigh impossible to build a brand without knowing where you want to go with it and what your underlying motivation is.
So, what are you waiting for? Set your aim and chart a course towards fulfilling a vision that stays true to what you stand for.