What do we look for in a brand identity?
Something that’s eye-catching and authentic – a truth effectively captured and communicated in a creative and novel way. A far cry from the ‘playing-it-safe’, ‘looks-just-like-the-rest’ school of branding, a truly distinctive brand identity can energise you and your team – firing up your marketing activity, resonating with new talent, and attracting and holding onto the audiences you’re trying to reach.
It may seem that to create that sort of brand identity takes a whole load of luck – that it’s by definition, a bit hit and miss – but it doesn’t have to be. What you need to do is find the source of what makes your brand tick, something I like to call brand essence. And, when you’ve discovered and defined your brand essence, you need to, with the help of your creative agency, find a way of making your brand come alive in the real world.
Introducing the double distillation process
I like the word ‘essence’ – it’s such a visual word for describing the outcome of the double distillation process that has to happen.
As a process it’s funnel-shaped: you start broad and wide – researching, speaking to your customers, reviewing your market, deep diving into what you and your team do, what you care about and why. The findings from this stage then get distilled into succinct statements: value propositions, vision, mission, values, purpose, personality and strategies. The next stage narrows the focus – taking the statements you’ve already distilled and distilling them again.
It’s a method akin to creating a fine brandy. Whereas wine is made by fermenting fruits like grapes once, brandy – a more potent spirit (from the Dutch word, brandewijn which means burned wine) goes through a second distillation. And just like in ‘branding’ (see what I did there?) – that last drop of golden nectar is where all the flavour – the essence, lies.
By taking those initial statements and strategies and putting them through another round of distillation you come up with your brand essence, something that can be the hero in the creative brief you hand over to your design agency.
Unleashing creative freedom by setting boundaries
Why this extra step – why do we distil twice? Why not hand over the whole (once-distilled) strategy document and ask your agency to run with it? Because the diverse collection of initial statements, from value propositions to personality statements, could send your agency running in any number of directions, potentially moving further and further away from what really matters to you.
It may also seem that the narrowed focus you get from a short, albeit carefully defined, brand essence could limit your options but in fact, setting boundaries like this is far from restrictive. Just like the framework of a haiku can make it a particularly powerful form of poetry, a defined brand essence gives your agency the freedom to be creative while preventing them from going off-piste.
Kit Altin (Chief Strategy Officer at The Gate) describes this kind of succinct creative brief rather wonderfully as “a glowing core”. In a workshop I attended she challenged us to start with 16 words, then told us to cut it in half and then half again, from eight words to four and so on – the trick being to make the essence phrase you come up with ‘springy’, something you can bounce ideas from…
A bouncy springboard
The brand essence word or phrase becomes your theme, your brand idea, your creative platform – call it what you will, and brand strategists refer to it in many different ways – it becomes the core of any creative brief. Its very bounce-ability provides a versatile creative springboard that inspires and offers direction but is far from prescriptive.
This is what makes it particularly powerful – it doesn’t try to solve the creative problem as such, but leaves plenty of room for divergent thinking. Also known as lateral thinking, it’s a free-flowing, spontaneous way of giving yourself the space to come up with many different solutions or ways forward. It isn’t your tagline (although on certain very rare occasions, it may become that), it’s a purely conceptual trigger for your copywriter and designers.
Brand essence in action
Once I’ve defined the brand essence phrase, I take it into our client co-creation sessions for a further, final round of inspiration-gathering before pulling it all together in a creative brief. This gives us visual reference – further triggering and feeding the creative pool. Here are a couple of examples of brand essence in action from two of The Co-Foundry’s most recently launched rebrands:
Tech company BaseKit develops powerful software tools for partner brands such as telcos and hosting companies to sell on to their micro business customers. Their apps are focused on delivering a stripped back, lean product and the BaseKit team pride themselves on delivering simple, efficient apps that always work, requiring minimal effort on the part of their end users.
BaseKit’s essence: ‘Effortless success’ – the idea that the customer can get up and running online fast, without any need for technical know-how.
Our co-creation session with BaseKit provided so many references that we were able to come up with different creative territories within that brand essence, themed as follows:
The ‘Effortless success’ brand essence informs the visual language of the brand with flow arrows (signifying speed and ease) weaving their way around content, graphics and typography, a bold and optimistic colour palette and photography that champions BaseKit’s end-users – the everyday hero, business owners.
Quartet Community Foundation is a combined philanthropic and grant-giving service provider that covers the West of England area, investing in local voluntary sector organisations which tackle systemic unmet community needs, supporting people who want to do good and helping create a culture of philanthropy. Our recent rebrand, saw us dig deep (excuse the pun!) to define their brand essence as ‘Grounded giving’ – partly inspired by research that included the following quotes:
Quartet’s new brand identity revolves around themes of flourishing and growing, and also connection – these lay the foundations of the ‘deep rooted change’ (Quartet’s eventual tagline) Quartet is able to bring about.
The visual brand language employed to convey these ideas is one of simple shapes, derived from the redesigned logomark. These symbolise the process of growth and connection; connection in terms of bringing communities of people together (experts, local donors and their beneficiaries), fostering partnerships and tackling problems from the ground up – not just the symptoms of unmet community needs but their causes (or the root of the problems) too. Brand resonance is further reinforced by positive, knowledgeable and emotive messaging that piques curiosity, inviting Quartet’s diverse range of audiences to click, find out more and get involved.
A solid, well-defined brief is vital if you want to come up with a powerful brand identity. You have to be prepared to make choices and sacrifice ideas in order to come up with something that inspires and offers direction without confusing or constraining your design agency. Double distillation offers a way of identifying your brand essence in clearly defined stages.
Having that second level of distillation in your brand creation process means it’s easier to be selective and you’re also able to ensure that only your strongest ideas make it through to the brief. So, fill the funnel and be prepared to distil and then distil again!