Talkin’ bout an evolution

Sometimes the biggest favour you can do your brand is not to go all out for a complete overhaul, throwing out the old and rebranding. A brand refresh that reflects how your organisation has evolved can be just as transformational. How far you should go – rebrand or refresh – only becomes clear once you’ve undergone a thorough brand review and clarified your positioning and brand strategy (the discovery stage).

For the purposes of this post we’re assuming that your current brand identity has some more than salvageable good stuff. The following illustrates what can be achieved with a more nuanced approach with reference to two projects we’ve recently completed: travel company, Discover the World’s brand refresh and the journey of brand evolution we took with national addiction services and mental health charity, WithYou.

1. Build on the big idea

Hold onto the conceptual thinking from the original design that still holds true for the newly defined brand strategy and expand on the best bits.

In both WithYou and Discover the World, the existing brand concept still held sway but certain elements needed refining, polishing and drawing out.

WithYou – the original brand concept incorporated a subtle nod to the name and the core organisational values of working alongside their clients. We ran with this idea, incorporating it as part of the wider brand system and drawing more attention to this values-led concept.

WithYou ligature

 

WithYou’s wordmark had been designed to represent unity and connection. The concept worked well but needed to be further emphasised in its application. We did this by taking the ligature (or linking path) between the ‘h’ and the ‘y’ letters, and using it as a visual device to frame and add dynamism to WithYou’s communications. We named this evolution of the existing concept, ‘the WithYou Pathway’. It demonstrates how WithYou works with their clients and partners – side by side, on a pathway to recovery.

Discover the World – during a discovery workshop the founder of the travel company mentioned that the bird in their logo was an Arctic tern, chosen because it flies from the North to the South Pole. It reflects the company’s origins and how they started out offering trips to the Arctic and Antarctic. We ‘brought the bird to life’ by freeing it from the constraints of the logo and bringing in a trailing flight path device. This conveys dynamism and draws the viewer’s eye to focal points in photography.

Flight path

 

2. Take care of the details

Refine and improve the existing branding to better reflect the organisation’s present situation and future aspirations.

It’s always good to remind ourselves that brand identities help people navigate choices. As it takes time to build brand recognition – rebranding and rebadging is risky. If you change everything too fast (particularly with B2C brands) you risk losing that hard-earned brand equity. Sometimes a tweak is all that’s needed to reinvigorate and improve on the recognisable assets you already have.

Discover the World – our customer interviews highlighted an affection for the logomark (the ‘D’ motif): “the logo to me is very distinctive” “I love the Discover the World logo”. The original designers had cleverly used the Arctic tern in the logo to form the negative space in the ‘D’ letterform. We saw an opportunity to refine this idea, giving the bird a more dynamic look whilst making the link to the negative space in the ‘D’ more legible.

WithYou – we wanted to make it easier for the in-house design team to use the distinctive wordmark in sentences. They would have previously had to position the wordmark and then add type around it, something which proved difficult to get right and time-consuming so we took DM Sans (their off-the-shelf brand typeface) and customised it so that they could instantly create the wordmark and chosen typeface.

3. Re-evaluate colour and typography

Fashions change and trends come and go but some become embedded as the ‘new normal’. As brands become increasingly digital-first with less commitment to print, there are opportunities to be freer and zingier with colour.

Discover the world – the marketing team were naturally following the guidelines they’d been provided with but could see that their ‘new kids on the block’ competitors seemed to be bolder and more confident in their use of colour. We saw this as an opportunity to refresh the Discover the World palette and increase their appeal to a younger generation.

WithYou – during extensive brand perception research we found that people found the overall aesthetic of the brand to be cold – a far cry from the reality of their work and the hope, warmth and positivity they bring to the people they help. We warmed the palette subtly, introducing a buff colour to reduce the amount of white and introducing a more varied colour palette for use in illustrations.

Discover the World – the choice of a typeface says far more about a brand than we may consciously realise. The typefaces chosen in the original brand system were classic but static and we saw an opportunity to replace the primary typeface Melior with Buenos Aires whose round letterforms and quirky serifs give the identity a friendlier, more contemporary feel.

 

Typography update

 

Their given body copy typeface was utilitarian so we replaced it with a more editorial face, a contemporary serif face: Span.

 

Typography update

 

 

4. Reimagine use of photography and imagery

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and both photography and imagery are powerful ways of communicating meaning and brand essence. Once you find or determine a style or set of parameters when commissioning photography and choosing images for your brand, it’s important that everyone sticks to it, to ensure brand consistency.

WithYou – the original brand identity incorporated line drawings and gave free reign to the national offices to commission their own illustrations. The result was a smörgåsbord of styles, with no way of recognising these as illustrations from the same brand, something which weakened brand recognition. We created a library of illustrations, primarily for their social media activity.

 

WithYou – using real photography of WithYou’s clients had been actively avoided, meaning the brand had ended up with a somewhat faceless and cold identity. Recognising that there is so much power in the human stories and lived experiences of their clients and team members, we took time to define and test how people felt about different styles of photography, and provided clear guidance on commissioning and selecting such photographs.

5. Rearticulate your tone of voice and messaging

A brand identity is never just visual; how you speak, what you say and how consistent you are, are critical elements too.

Discover the World – so that it could truly reflect the values, mission and vision the brand was founded on and lives by, we ran a comprehensive research and discovery stage that saw the teams getting more specific about what makes Discover the World special. Through this we identified and articulated the tagline, Always exploring. These stages also helped us tease out the company values and develop tone of voice guidance that better reflected the brand’s playful spirit of adventure. A series of Values in Action workshops for all 80 members of the Discover the World team helped ensure these were embedded across the business.

Discover the World brand refresh

WithYou – the warmth and sense of familiarity we’d harnessed through refining the brand’s visual elements were further enhanced by capturing WithYou’s brand essence in their new messaging. This focuses on how WithYou is: ‘On a journey, side by side: with their clients, supporters, colleagues and commissioners’. A distillation of their mission, purpose and vision, it serves as a guiding concept, underpinning how WithYou uses the brand and intends for it to be experienced.

WithYou tagline

Summary

Although a brand refresh may seem less wholesale in the first instance, the subtlety and nuance that can be brought to bear is no less transformational. Far from being an ‘easy’ option it requires just as much commitment and digging deep.

Start with a comprehensive brand review and set your strategy in the discovery stage to see if it might be the right path for your brand. If you home in on the five elements identified, you’ll have all the brand touchpoint bases covered and a powerful new brand identity that will support your business or organisation going forward.

Branding tips for small charities

Somerset Community Foundation rebrand – merchandise

When Somerset Community Foundation* approached us to review their brand identity, we knew we could help. They recognised that their existing branding was no longer fit for purpose and wanted us to recommend a way forward. They wanted their brand to be front and centre in their mission of inspiring philanthropy and enabling social action in the county.

*Community foundations are charitable organisations that support defined geographical areas, generating and directing funds to the causes and places that need them most through their work with local charities, community groups and social enterprises.

An imaginative approach

Somerset Community Foundation were already well aware that a strong brand identity could help build their profile, increase funding and enable them to do more good work. But, in common with other small charitable organisations, they were concerned about budgets, knowing that any form of rebranding exercise represents a significant investment in time and money. Although the funds community foundations regularly disburse are often large amounts, they’re restricted in how much they can use for non-grant giving activities such as marketing and communications. Rather than cut corners, we were going to have to be creative in how we approached the task so that we could achieve the best outcome for the budget available.

This post outlines some of the ways smaller charities can work with a branding agency to get the best results. Needless to say, there are useful tips here that will work just as well for larger charities too.

Branding tips for smaller charities

Engage the collaboration gear

Everything about the rebranding exercise will go better if you get the chief exec and trustees involved from the get-go. From writing and agreeing the RFP, to including a small cohort in a core steering group, this approach, although it might seem counter-intuitive at first, will help you avoid the dreaded ‘design by committee’ headaches that might crop up later on.

An engaged group that has followed the process from start to finish will, in my experience, be more inclined to push for the best and most strategic solution, and resist the urge to dilute through small changes – otherwise known as death by a thousand cuts!

Sell the need for change

Some staff and trustees may think that rebranding is purely a superficial, cosmetic exercise, one that distracts from the importance of delivering the charity’s mission. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to take the time to communicate why rebranding matters. Help people to understand that building a brand is not just about brand colours and the shape of the logo but that it goes much deeper than that – to a level of values, behaviours, vision and strategy. Use examples and case studies of past charity rebrands with stats and testimonials to show the positive all-round impact a refreshed brand identity can have.

“This was a significant investment for our organisation, both financially and in terms of the time involved as a small team. It was crucial for us to get our Trustees, Senior Leadership Team and wider staff team on board with the process from an early stage. While it was clear to all of us that the way we looked was outdated, we also really had to help everyone understand what brand means beyond the visuals. We had to show them how this work would help us better understand our stakeholders, grow the funds we raise for our communities and, ultimately, better deliver our mission.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

Build on firm foundations

Spend time on setting out the strategic direction for the brand before jumping into the creative element of the work. It might be tempting to ‘DIY’ at this stage – only briefing the branding agency once you’ve defined your positioning, vision, mission and values yourself. But this is, after all, their area of expertise. Skipping their involvement and supposedly saving yourself time and money at this stage is a false economy – any short-term savings will be far outweighed by opportunities lost. You can ask them to review and rearticulate what you define but, in a perfect world, you’ll get them to lead from these research stages.

Share the load

Assuming you need to save costs, ask your consultant or agency about what you can do to share some of the research tasks. You need to acquire a full understanding of what your audience cares about and what resonates with them. One really great way to do that is to gather insights from your stakeholders by running short brand perception interviews. In a perfect world, these would be carried out by a professional consultant, ideally an independent or someone from your chosen branding agency. Having these carried out by a neutral, third person means that the interviewees are likely to be more open and unguarded in their responses. But, where budgets are tight, getting your brand design consultant to conduct a handful of interviews and then arranging for someone in the charity to run the rest is a good solution. In this case, ask your consultant to share the questions they’re asking so that you’re both able to follow the same format.

Engage in active listening: As a rule of thumb, if you’re talking more than 20% of the time, you’re probably talking too much! Take care not to ask leading questions or introduce bias through commenting. Use transcription software like Otter.ai and share the full transcript with your consultant. Don’t be tempted to hand over an abridged version as they’ll spot things in the full text that you might not have realised are important.

“Whilst we do an annual survey of key stakeholders, we’d never done stakeholder interviews and they were so revealing. We gained such a wealth of insight and deepened our understanding of our value proposition. We could see the trust our donors have in us and the credibility we’ve built and that gave us a huge confidence boost as a team, as well as encouraging us to be ambitious about growing our income and impact in the future.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

If budgets are too tight for 1:1 interviews – run surveys. By making use of free tools like Google Forms, they’re a relatively cheap way to gather insights which, if not quite as valuable as those from interviews, will still be useful.

Include all voices

As well as taking in the views of your direct stakeholders, staff, trustees and donors, you need to consider how your beneficiaries will respond to a refreshed brand identity. Naturally, inclusivity is likely to be a key ethos within your organisation, so evidence-gathering and consultation stages with beneficiaries is a step that should ideally not be skipped.

Run a single or a series of focus groups, inviting several beneficiaries in a room or online (if they’re comfortable with digital workshop software, such as Miro or Mural). Offer an incentive and provide space for people to share their stories, make new connections by, for example, working in pairs, and get your brand design consultant to facilitate group discussions with exercises.

Although you may only be at the strategy stage at this point, this is a great opportunity to test and even challenge assumptions. Ask your agency or consultant to provide tone of voice exercises and creative moodboards in the focus group. It will be a way of gathering evidence for the direction you choose to go in which will, in turn, help you to sell the final creative solution to the board.

Somerset Community Foundation brand discovery workshops

Allow enough time

It takes time to build a recognisable brand and a brand identity is something that needs to last. One thing you can’t afford to do is to chop and change identities – either financially or in terms of building recognition through consistency. A brand identity built in a hurry will likely need fixing later (ask any founder of a startup – they’ll almost certainly have rushed getting to market, consequently needing to redo their branding not too far down the line). Don’t rush the process. Let the agency agree deadlines with you and then stick to them. Keeping to your milestones as regards, say, providing feedback, is as important as the agency’s schedule. They’re likely to be working on more than one project and so being able to plan resources is crucial to their business model.

Evaluate the final concept

How many opportunities can you build in for evaluating the design? If budgets and timescales allow, will you be able to test the final solution? I’ve written in-depth about this in an earlier blog post. Remember, not everyone you test the concepts on will have a full understanding of the strategic objectives or have your background knowledge so always ask yourself: what don’t they know and why are we testing this? Too many opinions can create indecision, so any evaluation step needs to be carefully managed.

Commission good quality documentation and templates

Don’t be tempted to scrimp on brand guidelines. A four-page PDF won’t cut it if you want your team and creative partners to stay on-brand. You’ll need to come up with detailed guidance that should typically, but not exclusively, include:

  • Logo usage, variants and positioning
  • Co-branding guidance
  • Sub brands advice
  • Colour, including proportional use and accessibility rules
  • Typography
  • Photography
  • Placement and use of graphic devices/illustrations in the brand system
  • Application examples

“We have to save money where we can and know that we need to use trusted freelance graphic designers to deliver our day-to-day comms. But we also didn’t want to hamstring their creativity or lose the consistency and essence of our new brand story – so clear and thorough guidelines were essential to us” – Sue Wheeler, Marketing Manager, Somerset Community Foundation

Commissioning the branding agency to produce a set of editable templates for internal use, not only maintains professional standards but also means the marcomms team don’t have to spend time making design decisions and can focus on the content.

Encourage a culture of collaboration

A rebranding project will almost certainly result in a new or refreshed website. Very rarely do branding agencies know as much about UX, technical accessibility, functionality and SEO as a specialist digital agency or developer. It makes total sense to work with more than one delivery partner. Connect them together – make sure they’re happy to be open and collaborate with each other.

If both the branding agency and the digital agency run a discovery phase, ask them if they can coordinate this stage. Typically, the branding agency will be ‘up first’ so encourage them to share their interview and survey questions. In this way the digital agency can ask them to include their questions if appropriate (meaning the exercise only needs to be done once).

“We worked with a separate agency for web and made sure from the start they were happy to work collaboratively to ensure they had a strong sense of our brand and kept true to the that during the build. Both Sue and our web agency Cognique worked brilliantly together.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

Ask the branding agency and the digital partner to set time aside for a handover. This will give the brand consultant the opportunity to talk through their strategy, highlighting why their creative choices are important and answering any questions. Don’t just rely on handing over a brand guidelines document, expecting your partners to run with it.

Similarly, when the digital agency presents their first draft page designs, bring the branding specialists back in to the review process. The essence of what the new branding says about your organisation can get lost or misinterpreted however extensive your brand guidelines and thorough your plans and this is the perfect opportunity to keep things on track.

With bigger budgets, you’d expect the brand consultant to stay on board in a creative director role throughout the process, but by involving them at key milestones (as outlined above), you can ensure you have a cost-effective ‘light touch’ version of that.

Manage the trustee sign-off process

Project governance is something that you will have already carefully thought through. You and your agency partner will have agreed the number of steps in the reporting process to the senior leadership and board. Managing that final trustee sign-off and preventing a last-minute derailment is key to the success of the project.

If you choose to offer the trustees a choice of options – never put forward anything you couldn’t live with – it might get chosen. My personal preference, and how we worked with Somerset Community Foundation, was to refine and agree one concept and present that. Everyone doesn’t have to like it, but they do have to reach a consensus. Bring your creative partner into the meeting to be on hand to either present or respond to questions and concerns.

“I wanted Sue in the room, she has years of experience fielding objections and opinions. As it is, we didn’t have any issues, together we were able to demonstrate that the final solution was the right one, based on research and strategic decisions.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

Embed and inspire

A successful rebrand is not something that’s cosmetic, touching only the surface of an organisation. The early stages of the project will have seen you going deep and defining your brand values. These can take time to bed in with staff so do consider running internal workshops to get people to think about what each value means to them individually, as a team and for your audience. Consider ways that you can bring your values into new staff onboarding processes (induction manuals) and performance reviews.

“The Co-Foundry provided us with a workshop framework so we could run this ourselves. It wasn’t perfect but it worked for us. You have to make tough choices when you’re working to a strict budget. I guess my advice would be to find a consultant or agency who are open to sharing and looking for ways to support you.” – Laura Blake, Philanthropy Director, Somerset Community Foundation

In summary

If you’re only going to take one thing from the tips listed, make it the following:

  • Focus on being open and inclusive.

It might be tempting to keep any sort of branding exercise to a small group within the charity but if there’s one single thing you absolutely must do, it’s to involve people across the organisation and beyond. Keeping them informed will not only make the whole branding process run much more smoothly, it’ll also help achieve that all-important buy-in for your new branding.

“We want our team and trustees to be proud of our new identity. Taking everyone on the journey means they become true advocates for the brand” – Justin Sargent, Chief Executive, Somerset Community Foundation

View the full Somerset Community Foundation case study here

Dream clients

Niche positioning

POV: I’ve just come off a Zoom call with a client where I talked them through their co-created brand strategy. I’m thinking how much I love my job and how they’re a dream client. There was so much positivity and mutual respect in the (virtual) room.

Dream clients – not just a ‘nice to have’

Having dream clients is not just pie in the sky. Giving you and your team permission to define your dream client is a crucial element of nailing your brand positioning. When you take that leap into niching, you not only build your proposition around the value you add to specific clients but you give yourself a razor sharp new business strategy.

Saying who you’re for (and so, by definition, who you’re not for) gets you halfway there. Once you’ve established that, everything else starts to fall into place. Not just in how you market your brand but also in how you work. You’re able to hone your expertise because your processes, ideas and solutions flow from a deeper focus and you can take advantage of, and build on the patterns and themes you encounter time and again.

Of course positioning isn’t just about what you do and who you do it for, but these are an essential part of the wider equation that encompasses the thoughts and feelings people associate with your brand. These other positions are ‘softer’ (but still essential) associations around brand personality, story, values and promise. For the purposes of this post however, I want to focus on the what and in particular, the who.

Feel the fear but do it anyway

When I discuss this with my clients there’s often a reticence, a fear of so tightly (and even loosely, in some cases) defining the ‘who’. This can take the form of, “Surely if we say we work with X we’ll miss out on working with Y (and all the other letters in the alphabet)’. But defining a strategy is all about making choices – it’s the reason I share this Michael Porter quote in every workshop I do:

Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.

By allowing yourself to become selective, you become sought after. You become known for a specific and readily identifiable value proposition expressed with a clarity that’s integral to attractive positioning.

Where the F do you start?

Once you’ve defined your perfect client you can qualify opportunities as they arise – YOU can choose as well as be chosen.

niche-positioning-2

Sadly it isn’t as simple as simply qualifying a prospect by the 3 Fs: Fun (your team will enjoy the work), Fame (they’ll make a great case study or PR) and Fortune (they’ll pay the bills, and then some). These are definitely worth considering but a highly prescriptive client definition, and being clear on your non-negotiables, will give you far more, including being able to justify whether a prospect is the right fit for your organisation.

How to define your perfect client

Get clear on WHAT you do (best)

People came to my last agency wanting a range of services. We offered brand identity, web design and development, retained graphic design, illustrated books, pretty much anything other than packaging. Over time, I realised that I wasn’t enjoying the work as much as I should have been, and that I wanted to focus on brand identity and strategy more. I had to make some tough choices, one of which was to drop a whole revenue stream of web development work. When I came to reposition my agency I started with what we did or rather, what we wanted to do more of. And that meant dropping a few things. By going ‘niche’ you can go deep, extend your knowledge, build a specialism and develop expertise that is appealing as well as effective. It also changes who might be looking for those services.

Get clear on your WHY

Work is a big chunk of your day. It’s said that the average person spends 90,000 hours at work, so knowing what gets you up in the morning and understanding why you’re driven to help a certain group of people is hugely important. The Co-Foundry’s ‘why’ or purpose is to help organisations that strive, to build brands that thrive. Knowing that, means knowing who I want to help – the strivers, the purpose-led people.

Get clear on WHO you work best with

One of the most powerful and immediate ways of defining a position is by picking a sector. This isn’t always easy. It might even mean dropping an area you’ve done a fair bit of work in, something that can feel risky. However, the benefits of niching down to a particular sector are many. Not only will you gain a deeper understanding of the problems and desires that run through the sector but you’ll build marketplace intelligence and become known by, for example, attending specialist conferences and being active on industry-specific media. Your new business strategy may benefit too, as people moving organisations will take you with them.

Another way of selecting a client type is by focusing on their issues, needs or traits. I took the decision to focus on creative and tech founder-led brands as I already had a lot of experience and knowledge in that space. As well as working with these clients, I’d personally experienced a lot of the pains and gains of creative and tech founders for myself so had a natural affinity with them. As time has gone on I have extended that criteria to encompass chief execs of charities. These two areas of focus have so much in common – namely, a genuine desire to make an impact and while the latter may not have skin in the game financially, they do, emotionally. Both groups care about their people, something that works well with another fundamental aspect of my proposition – co-creation which sees teams involved in decisions throughout the process.

Follow the energy

It sounds so obvious when you read it but, and this is fundamental – find people who energise you.

The late great Milton Glaser (in his talk entitled ‘Ten things I have Learned’) put it perfectly, exhorting us to avoid the people we find toxic:

You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energized or less energized. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired, then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy, you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.

The Co-Foundry’s qualification checklist

In my case a qualification criteria might look like this, my dream client has to tick these boxes:

What they want:
Co-created brand strategy and brand identity design

Who:
Founder-led creative, tech and charity brands
✅ Traits: Open minded, open to involving key members of their team
✅ Lifestage: Been in business for a few years. Their brands have gotten a little ‘leggy’, with some brand architecture conundrums that need sorting.
✅ Goal: Looking to widen reach, diversify, reposition, make a positive impact
✅ Where: Anywhere English-speaking
✅ Size: 10-500 – SME
✅ Ownership: Independent or charity

Why:
At crossroads. Struggling to position themselves, in need of a brand evolution or full rebrand.

Budget:
Ready to make an investment

And some no-nos:
No to ‘pile ‘em high’ and ‘build to sell’ – making you rich doesn’t interest me, helping you and your team make a positive impact does.
No access to the leadership team
No appetite for research and discovery – just want cosmetic branding

Making the change

Although the word ‘dream’ is liberally sprinkled throughout this post, there is nothing airy fairy about how you go about identifying, approaching and working with the sort of clients that tick all your boxes.

Nothing should be left to chance. In the same way that you will have interrogated your brand closely when defining what you’re looking for in your dream client, testing your various hypotheses is key: For example, looking back over your income and client profitability, reviewing your marketplace and testing whether there’s a market for the people and businesses you’re looking to serve – too big and you’ll be one of many fish, too small and there may not be enough opportunities. And don’t forget, of course, listening to your gut!

In my case, as I was niching my entire offering (not just who I did it for), I needed to find partners to help me deliver the things I wanted to drop. In practice this took the form of building a trusted network of digital agencies and freelancers.

All of these changes – choosing to focus on brand strategy and identity for tech-based and creative founders, and third sector organisations, and building a network of collaborators – needed to be reflected and communicated in my own brand. This meant a new brand name, a full rebrand and marketing tailored to the new positioning and business model.

Leading with ‘no’

Getting comfortable with saying ‘no’ is fundamental to making this approach work. Ideally, you don’t want anything to derail you from the sort of ‘dream client’ strategy that will lead you to doing your best work and make you happy.

I’ll leave the last words to author, speaker and advisor, David C Baker. His 2017 book, The Business of Expertise is seen as a blueprint for entrepreneurial experts who want to make better business decisions. He identifies ‘smart positioning’ as the foundation stone of becoming known as an expert:

Positioning is a deeply wasteful exercise. It’s driven by saying “no” more than saying “yes” as you decide how to proceed with courage.

If you carve out an expertise business that fits who you are, takes advantage of your strengths, and minimizes your weaknesses, it’s more sustainable. That’s good for you, for obvious reasons, but it’s good for your clients, too, because you’ll be around to help them over a longer period of time, getting better at it as time passes.

Why I love working with founders

Founder-led brands

Almost three years ago I did something to my own business that is usually reserved for my clients. I repositioned, renamed and rebranded my offering – going from being an agency business to a brand consultancy, supported by a team of freelance specialist collaborators.

Sitting on the ‘other side’ of the table proved to be both interesting and a little daunting. It was definitely a good thing to do because I now have some idea of how it feels to be my client! One of the most important things I did during this process was define my market – who I was a good fit for. In The Co-Foundry’s case, it’s mission-led organisations – founder-led, privately-owned tech and creative businesses, and third sector organisations.

And the first lesson I learnt? As I wrote back in the summer of 2021, defining the ‘who’ makes you much better able to articulate your ‘why’ because both you and your ideal clients care about the same things.

Positioning post

 

An entrepreneurial heritage

Looking back, I can also see that the connection with founders goes deeper than the discovery stage of my own rebrand. Although I’d never really connected the dots before, I come from an entrepreneurial family, from a grandfather who was a tomato-grower on Guernsey to a father who started his own business in his 40s, not to mention the years I spent running my design agency. I guess you could say that I get it – that need to establish and run a business to your own special recipe.

I can’t deny that working directly with founders offers some significant and immediate advantages – you get to sit shoulder to shoulder with the decision-makers, you can be pretty sure that your creative won’t be subject to the dreaded design by committee revisions and, because you already know they’re not averse to risk, a bold design approach, when appropriate, is more likely to be embraced.

But more than that, their having ‘skin in the game’ and being so focused on the longer-term means there’s something very special about working with founders. Perhaps it’s similar to the difference an architect or designer encounters when they work with someone who’s after creating their dream home rather than just an investment vehicle.

They love what they do

I love what I do. For me, it’s not just work but a driving passion and so it’s no wonder that I relate to others who love and care for their businesses too. These are people who want to get it right, who recognise they can’t do it all themselves and so build a team and a culture, and through that a future that demonstrates these wider ambitions.

The mission-led businesses I work with embody their founders’ singular vision. They’ve developed something that meets a need or solves a problem in a way that delights their customers. It’s something they keep top of mind but may have trouble articulating and reflecting in their branding. But of course, that’s where a good brand consultant comes in…

They’re creative (even if they don’t always know it)

Design is easily identified as being part of the creative economy but, to my mind, entrepreneurship and being a founder is (no matter what field you’re in) a profoundly creative act.

As Bernie Goldhirsh, founder of Inc magazine said, creating a business from nothing is ‘a kind of artistry…based on an ability to see what everyone else is missing.’ He also believed that entrepreneurial management required far more creativity from a founder than the grounding in rational skills that traditional management courses teach.

Founder-led brands

 

There’s a buzz

I found that reading Bo Burlingham’s book, Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great instead of Big really chimed with my thinking. In the same way that I see the founder-led companies I’m lucky enough to work with, Burlingham identified the ‘small giants’ in his book, as working to more than just financial objectives, ‘They were also interested in being great at what they did, creating a great place to work, providing great service to customers, having great relationships with their suppliers, making great contributions to the communities they lived and worked in, and finding great ways to lead their lives.’

All of this drive, enthusiasm and purpose means founder-led companies have a buzz about them, something that the book refers to as a state of being ‘totally in sync with [your] market, with the world around [you] and with each other.’ Getting your branding and values aligned is vital in maintaining this consistent emotional connection with your customers, team and community. It’s why our Values in Action workshops are so popular with the founders and third sector organisations we work with. The workshops ensure that branding is more than skin-deep – it becomes a code of conduct that’s embedded and lived by.

They understand that things take time

It seems that founders have quite a few things in common with branding consultants: They understand the importance of having a perspective or point of view on their market and a value proposition they believe in.

As Danny Meyer of now, not so ‘small giant’, Union Square Hospitality Group, points out, ‘At first, [your value proposition] is a monologue. Gradually it becomes a dialogue and then a real conversation. Like breaking in a baseball glove. You can’t will a baseball glove to be broken in; you have to use it. Well, you have to use a new business, too. You have to break it in. If you move on to the next thing too quickly, it will never develop its soul.’

They may be driven to succeed, but founders understand that brands take time to bed in – that brand-building is a long-term strategy – because they’re in it for the long term too. This makes working with them hugely rewarding, not least when you see how a rebrand revitalises a business or helps take it in a new direction.

How The Co-Foundry helps founder-led businesses

Our collaborative approach to working with our clients is in our name. As The Co-Foundry we work closely alongside our clients because we believe that branding is never something that is imposed or done ‘to you’. Our process is comprehensive and thorough and, as we’re reliably informed, time and again, great fun – with the workshop stages offering a chance for teams to bond and remind themselves of why they do what they do.

Over to the founders…

The clients we’ve worked with put it much better than I ever could (or should!):

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, ISL Talent

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.

Simon Best, CEO, BaseKit

Together we were able to bring some much-needed clarity to our positioning and identity. I’m thrilled with the results and can’t wait to continue growing the business from the solid base they have helped us build.

Harry Cobbold, Unfold (digital agency)

You can’t be for everybody

As the saying goes, you can’t be all things to all people. Finding ‘my people’ – the clients I most enjoyed working with, that I could bring the most value to, has been the most liberating of the changes I made when I went from design agency to brand consultant.

Niching down and targeting founders (as well as mission-led third sector organisations) has not only increased my job satisfaction, it’s also helped me refine my processes and make more of my voice in the industry. And for those who might think that working with the same type of people is repetitive…?

Every client is different and so requires a carefully tailored approach. What your clients do all get to benefit from, when you niche down, is someone who truly understands their concerns and issues, and the values that are important to them. The patterns I see emerging add greater depth and meaning to the work we’re able to do with our clients, and so make for better branding all round.

Extending brand appeal beyond your traditional audience

Appeal to multiple generations

At The Co-Foundry, the challenge we’re most frequently invited to solve, hangs on one key question: How can we extend our brand appeal to attract a younger audience without losing or alienating our existing followers?

We’ve been met by this request from charities looking to grow their donor base, cultural institutions wanting to increase their audience numbers, as well as travel companies seeking to attract a new, more adventurous customer.

Age is, of course, just one demographic and it would be vastly over-simplistic to assume there’s a single persona or set of distinct characteristics per generation. However, age often determines shared cultural references and preferences and, based on common lived experiences and social norms, these can be very helpful when reviewing your brand identity in a bid to give it broader demographic appeal.

Find out what you don’t know

It’s vital to go into the evidence-gathering step of your review with an open mind. Having a hypothesis is helpful but being open to learning from and responding to your findings is even more useful. Your brand may be long established and the people working in your organisation may feel they have a strong sense of what works, but switching the focus to discovering what it is that they don’t know, is key to broadening brand appeal.

Get to know the different generations within your audiences. Run brand perception interviews and surveys: Where do these groups hang out? What do they care about? What brands are they attracted to and why?

Once this leg of the research is complete, your brand design consultant will analyse how different generations perceive your brand (if indeed there are distinct differences), for example, the various motivations and needs your brand fulfils for them, the visual trends that attracted them to you in the first place. But they won’t just be looking for differences – the gold dust lies in the common thread that spans generational variations.

Look for a common thread

So, rather than focusing solely on the differences and building out of that, what you should be looking at is the glue that unifies generational appeal – the shared aesthetics, values and experiences. For example, while opera itself does not have as big a following among Generation X as it does with Baby Boomers, both generations share a love of and enthusiasm for live music in unusual venues.

Solos Travel Circle

 

Solos Holidays – When researching travellers’ generational motivations we uncovered a shared desire to experience a sense of belonging on solo travel trips, something that travelling alone in an organised group could deliver on.

Avoid stereotypes but seek patterns

Clearly defined generational groupings are becoming more blurred than in the past. But that doesn’t mean that creatives shouldn’t be on the lookout for patterns. Assumptions can easily be wrong and, as I said at the start of this post, age is only one demographic – contained within which is both nuance and a multitude of individuals.

In order to create truly resonant design, it’s essential that you ask your brand design consultant to conduct targeted market research, gathering feedback from the specific demographic you’re looking to target.

If forced to generalise, I’d start with the generational classifications below (intentionally focusing on years of birth from 1946 to 2012), with a reminder that these only refer to the age demographic. As soon as you start adding in any number of other factors, such as socio-economic, cultural or geographic considerations, their relevance wanes. Also key, is the fact that even within these generalisations, trends change and it’s the designer or consultant’s job to research audiences thoroughly – identifying what they like, what they care about and what other brands are competing for their attention.

A generational timeline: Baby Boomers to Gen Z

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

Generally wealthier than the generations that follow on from them, Baby Boomers tend to seek quality and value tradition. This means that you should be looking for your brand to convey a sense of trustworthiness, reliability and authority via, for example, high-quality paper stocks and well-set typography with more than a passing nod to symmetry and balance. Baby boomers tend to be very loyal to their trusted brands and look for consistency in how the brand identity is applied. As a generation they’re likely to have poorer vision, so it’s important to use neat presentation, clear typesetting in legible type sizes, (avoiding low contrast) and overall, taking a straightforward approach with timeless and classic aesthetics.

Generation X (born 1965-1980)

Generation Xers are resistant to considering themselves ‘old’, something which plays out in how they favour modern aesthetics. They may have a fondness for cultural references taken from their formative years – ’70s and ’80s pop culture – but they generally tend towards a down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach that incorporates design trends more subtly. Not as drawn to flashy or overtly trendy visuals, they appreciate a mix of classic and contemporary elements. Generation X often values informality and may be put off by designs that come across as too formal or corporate. They appreciate brands that are approachable and relatable.

Millennials (born 1981-1996)

Similar to Generation X, Millenials look back as well as forward and have a love for retro-styling as long as it doesn’t veer into anything old-fashioned. To generalise, Millennials value authenticity and purpose-driven branding with a strong interest in community and social impact. They are drawn to brands that align with their values, demonstrate social responsibility and have a genuine mission, and they enjoy engaging and getting involved with these sort of brands. Designs that incorporate user-generated content, encourage participation, and build a sense of community are often well-received. Millennials are quick to detect inauthentic branding, are put off by companies that engage in “greenwashing” or are insincere in their commitment to social and environmental causes, and are more likely than previous generations to be averse to designs that overtly push branding messages. They appreciate subtlety and may be more drawn to brands that let their actions and values speak for themselves.

Generation Z (born 1997-2012)

Gen Zers are digital natives. They’ve grown up in a dynamic digital environment with constant stimulation as the norm (meaning that they find static visuals less engaging than previous generations). Their shorter attention spans are well-documented and bring with them the need for more ‘standout’ looks in brand design, i.e. design and brand language that can cut through and attract attention in a vibrant and dynamic social media world. Fun, informal and highly creative designs with immediate visual appeal are more likely to resonate. Gen Z look to being stakeholders in a brand and having a parasocial (what feels like a personal) relationship with it. To this end they seek out brands with an informal tone of voice that are highly relatable to them. Like Millennials, they value authenticity and appreciate brands that are transparent, genuine and socially responsible with a clear purpose and ethical practices. Diversity is a key value for Generation Z with inclusivity front and centre in imagery and messaging. Rejecting traditional gender stereotypes, they appreciate designs that represent a variety of perspectives, backgrounds and cultures, challenging and breaking free from age-old stereotypes.

Even the above, highly generalised timeline of the generations reveals common threads and trends that filter down through the generations. These sort of shared elements will be even more apparent when you drill down and get more sector, market and product or service-specific.

Design a flexible brand language

Once you have a strong sense of what will work, keep your core brand language (logo, colours, typography etc) consistent but don’t be afraid to vary your visual and verbal tonality and volume depending on who you’re speaking to. As an approach, this calls for a brand system that is adaptable; for example, one where you consider using pairs of typefaces – for example, one that’s contemporary alongside one that’s more classic. It’s important to provide detailed guidance on how and when to use the brand system to achieve the particular tone or effect you’re after.

If Opera brand volume scale

 

If Opera branding demonstrates (rather appropriately) volume range. On the left ‘softly spoken’ type-only treatments. On the right when speaking to potentially younger audiences, If Opera can afford to be bolder with the application of the branding.

Beware the risks change can bring

When embarking on change of this sort, it’s important that you don’t forget your existing audiences and loyal followers. Is a full rebrand really necessary? Too much change can alienate a possibly more conservative audience. As with any branding exercise, consider what will work for everyone, what assets can you retain or subtly evolve? Is it really necessary to start from scratch?

 

Discover the World – With this travel brand, we saw the opportunity to retain key recognisable elements from the existing brand, evolving and extending them to ensure they maintained brand loyalty and also garnered broader relevance – moving far enough to compete with new brands attracting a younger customer base.

Good design comes first, and lasts

Just as a good song can be loved across generations, good design will resonate with a broad spectrum of people. While awareness of generational likes and dislikes is important, don’t just chase trends – seek out good design solutions that will bring your brand identity lasting-power and longevity.

Quartet social media

 

Quartet – a strong brand idea appeals to all. In this instance the client wanted to tap into a new generation of prospective philanthropists from the vibrant tech and creative economy in the West of England. While the resulting brand identity is fresh and contemporary, it’s underpinned by a strong brand concept whose meaning and depth means it has also been received really well by the existing donor base.

Take people with you

Whatever path you end up taking, when you’re looking to make changes that extend generational appeal, you have to ensure that you communicate the reasons behind the change – why it’s important to the success (maybe even survival) of your brand. Ensure that every stakeholder and every member of the team, from front-of-house, customer-facing individuals to those behind the scenes as well as your trustees, volunteers, partners, customers and clients, understand why it’s being done.

This is where the evidence-gathering and consultation steps come into their own. They give you the confidence to prove that you haven’t acted on a hunch but have fully engaged with your audiences both ‘old’ and new.

American Museum brand rationale

 

American Museum & Gardens – Following the renaming and rebranding of the American Museum and Gardens, we produced a short publication for staff and volunteers that outlined the brand rationale and key motivation for change. Extending the brand offering meant a name change and the opportunity to appeal to a younger family audience.

Authenticity is everything

One value whose importance spans the generations, from Baby Boomers to Generation Z, is authenticity. Being authentic and not forcing your brand into an identity that isn’t a true reflection of what you stand for, builds trust, respect and a strong reputation, as well as making you relevant and relatable.

If we think of it in terms of people in the public eye that we might be familiar with… Sir David Attenborough and Sue Perkins are very different but, in being true to themselves and allowing their personalities to come to the fore, they are able to garner cross-generational appeal. Brands, in this instance, are not that different from people.

Don’t throw your brand baby out with the bathwater!

Brand review contents page

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.

Under scrutiny

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.

Recommendation:
The client needed to get clear on what they stood for and cared about.

Action:
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.

Recommendation/action:
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.

Recommendation:
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.

Action:
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.’

Citizens book review

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.

Turbulent times

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.

Brexit protest

My daughter and her friend protesting against Brexit ©New York Times

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

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:

  1. Originality
  2. Trends vs fads
  3. Trademarks.

 

1. Originality

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.

Mark Twain

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:

Colour wheel

There are only a limited number of geometric shapes in the world:

Geometric shapes

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):

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:

16 pixel restrictions

Original logomarks

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.

Pepsi Cola and Korean Airlines

Pepsi Cola and Korean Airlines 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.

Meta vs Virgin

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.

Gucci vs Chanel

Original motifs

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.

Originality of bird motifs

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.

Originality in airline branding

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.

Skylark media

Monograms

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.

School of fashion vs Trenitalia

But it’s how these two brands are applied that also helps to differentiate them.

School of Fashion and textiles motif

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:

Trend

1. a general direction in which something is developing or changing.

2. A fashion

Fad

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.

Originality Cisco

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.

3. Trademarks

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?

In conclusion

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.

Paula Scher

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.

Inclusive brand design

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.

Towards inclusion

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?

Inclusive brand design

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.

Project
kickoff

Define

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?

Research
& discovery

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.)

Strategy

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.

Creative
brief

Co-create

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.

Specify

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
development

Design

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.

Validate

Test the resonance of the design and messaging, and be willing to make changes based on stakeholder feedback.

Brand
guidelines

Guide

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).

Application

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.

Conclusion

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.

Dereca Blackmon, President, Inclusion Design Group

Do you have anything to add?

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.

Contact

Appendix

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.

Corporate Memphis style illustration

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:

Google inclusive illustration example

Photography

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.

Power dynamics

Video

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.

Accessibility

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?

If in doubt, test it with your audience or have it proofed by a Sensitivity Reader.

Useful resources & further reading

Audience insights for eliminating stereotypes in your creative:
https://all-in.withgoogle.com/audiences/

Learn how bias, discrimination and inclusion impact different communities:
https://lovehasnolabels.com

Insight: A Guide to Design with Low Vision in Mind:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Insight-Guide-Design-Vision-Mind/dp/2880466989

Sensory Trust Designing with clear and large print:
https://www.sensorytrust.org.uk/resources/guidance/designing-with-clear-and-large-print

Audience insights for eliminating stereotypes in your creative:
https://all-in.withgoogle.com/audiences/

Video accessibility guide for content creators and viewers:
https://blog.adobe.com/en/publish/2021/12/10/video-accessibility-guide-for-content-creators-and-viewers

Keeping up to date with inclusive language:
https://www.charitycomms.org.uk/keeping-up-to-date-with-inclusive-language

Stock illustrations

Black people:
https://www.blackillustrations.com/

People with disabilities:
https://affecttheverb.com/collection/

Stock photo libraries

Getty Images disability collection:
https://www.gettyimages.in/collaboration/boards/M3XDj9exmUWxvlpwQ0Ih0g

Various diversity collections covering age to unretouched imagery:
https://www.istockphoto.com/diversity

The Gender Spectrum:
https://genderspectrum.vice.com/

Getty Images Lean-In Collection:
https://www.gettyimages.ca/search/2/image?family=creative&language=en-us&p=leanincollection

LGBTQ+ on Pexels:
https://www.pexels.com/search/LGBTQ+/

UK Black Tech:
https://ukblacktech.com/stock-photos/

Shopify Burst Women Collection:
https://burst.shopify.com/woman

TONL Diverse Stock Photos:
https://tonl.co/

AllGo Plus Size collection:
https://canweallgo.com/plus-size-stock-photos/

AI – a brand consultant’s perspective

AI & creativity, productivity, inputs and outputs

While gathering material to write up some recently completed client projects as case studies, I was struck by two things, broadly based around creativity and productivity:

Firstly, by the many, varied, sometimes counter-intuitive and often unexpected influences that sparked the eventual brand identities.

And secondly, by how much we’ve actually achieved – something that can all too easily be overlooked when you’re caught up in the everyday and deeply immersed in doing the work.

Can we and should we do more?

Those themes of creativity and productivity feed into the big story which seems to never be more than a scroll away – AI and its consequences in general, and Chat GPT, in particular. It’s something I’ve been wanting to write about for ages, hoping I could alight on a definite perspective but I’m finding that I keep coming up with (or generating) more and more questions on this massive topic.

The evangelists would have us believe that anything that removes friction and saves us time has to be positive. But in my area of brand consulting (strategy and identity) – it’s taking time, asking lots of questions, acquiring a thorough understanding of what we’re trying to achieve and engaging collaboratively in a co-creation process – that yields the results our clients are looking for; namely, brand identities that can play a key role in driving their businesses forward.

It’s an approach that also plays into why me and my collaborators – the content strategists, copywriters, designers, animators, developers and photographers – who make up The Co-Foundry, do what we do. Pursuing the careers we love, in a way that everyone enjoys and gets satisfaction from, sustains us and I believe, contributes to the success of what we produce for, and with, our clients.

In short, how we create something matters and affects the outcome.

Technology has long been promoted for its time-saving aspects, as if saving time is a universal good and the only marker of progress. But faster and with zero friction isn’t always better. And then there’s also the question – what are we saving all this time for? (More on that later.)

Beautifully human

The strategic intention, range of information, diversity of perspectives and lived experience that us humans bring to the creative process are instrumental to successful branding. These elements are not easily reduced to an algorithm and even if they were, AI would still treat these ‘data points’ in a value-neutral way – something which explains why ChatGPT text can end up sounding flat or slightly off.

Our human brains may not be able to come up with ideas instantly on command but, as the illustrator Rob Biddulph says, ‘Pressing a button to generate something is not a creative process’. Not knowing how you’re going to do something and working things out as you go along is an essential stage in the creative process. Even Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine (in a recent conversation with Tyler Cowan) says that when he sits down to write something, the very act of writing reveals what he thinks about it.

The answer lies in the struggle

Getting stuck and struggling is also part of the process – one that may not get the airtime it deserves. Being stumped may be uncomfortable because it represents a point of friction but it’s also essential because it forces us to slow down and/or step away which is very often when the seeds of a solution present themselves.

AI, by contrast, isn’t built to take time out, go for a walk or get annoyed with itself and interrogate what it’s doing so it can gain a better understanding of what it’s looking to achieve.

When we’re stuck, it might feel good to know there’s something to hand that could make the problem we’re trying to solve, melt away. But the struggle for an answer, the process – considering possibilities rather than just scanning probabilities is what being human is all about.

Creativity is an act of noticing

Quoting the words of the great Rick Rubin, creativity is ultimately an act of noticing and choosing what we pay attention to. In his recently published book, The Creative Act, A Way of Being, Rubin makes a timely case in this age of accelerating technological capabilities for broadening our practice of awareness:

there’s an endless amount of data available to us and we have a limited bandwidth to conserve, [so] we might consider carefully curating the quality of what we allow in.

It’s these very choices and intentionality that distinguishes human output from AI whose efficiency doesn’t give nuance a look-in. Human creativity – be it in brand design, art or writing takes a point of view – an element that injects soul into the finished work giving it meaning and elevating it beyond the merely decorative.

So how should we live with AI?

There are a multitude of voices and a somewhat controversial letter (‘Pause Giant AI Experiments’ from the Future of Life Institute) calling time on untrammelled AI development and urging us to consider the sort of world we want to be shaping. Do we want to be enslaved by machines that we initially created?

US tech expert and law professor, Tim Wu warns of the risks already posed by AI, cautioning against building a future where ‘a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive’ sees us using the time we’ve ‘freed up’ to do more of the same, ultimately unsatisfying work. A future where convenience technologies (offering predictable results from minimal human effort) do the work for us rather than work with us. Wu calls for the intentional development of ‘demanding technologies’ ­that ask something of us – technologies that take time and skill to master and can both challenge and occupy us.

Will AI eat itself?

Will AI eat itself?

It seems there is no neat answer, just more questions: What will happen to AI if we increasingly keep turning to it for answers? How will that, in time, affect the quality of the inputs it’s receiving and learning from? Having initially learnt from human-originated databases, how soon will it get to a situation where it’s cannibalising itself, combing and then mashing up its own source material? How can its outputs keep pace with any sort of quality control if all they’re learning from and recycling is their own material?

This quote, from Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book on Laughter and Forgetting (from 1979 but wonderfully prescient) sums up the dilemma we may encounter, and it wouldn’t be good news for the creative industries, ‘One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will ensue.’

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