Like many branding and design firms, we’re often contacted to help clients solve an acute tactical problem they’ve rightly identified in their business communications. A website or application may not “look good” or may have serious usability issues. The company’s logo may be projecting the image of what the company was like 10 years ago. New marketing collateral materials may be needed.

When you take a closer look at the surface-level problems, though, what you often find is that this acute tactical thing is just one part of a larger branding problem. And this shouldn’t be surprising—rarely does a company have a cohesive brand strategy and well-executed design solutions to drive it, but somehow has allowed one glaring blemish to undermine it all. More often, these essential strategic issues have never been properly thought through and there are a host of possible problems with the brand, such as:

  • the absence of a focused and concise message,
  • an undifferentiated visual identity,
  • a confusing website or web-based software that fails to deliver on the promise,
  • inconsistent execution across communications and mediums,
  • and a lack of brand guidelines that consistently align design and messaging with the company’s position in the market.

Given how valuable owning a strong brand is to driving success for any manner of business, it’s surprising how often companies neglect taking the same kind of strategic approach to developing and protecting it it as they do their business plans. The last leg of the race, the expressions of their brand in the real world, is routinely given short shrift. Think about it—most senior executives in business make careful choices about the brands they associate with in their personal lives. Their preferred brands are select company. Yet these same people treat their own brands as if their audience is not making the same judgements every day, and they undervalue how vital their brand is to success as a result.

I believe a primary reason companies fail to apply the right amount of research and rigor to developing a strong brand is that the disciplines of branding and design are heavily misunderstood, particularly outside of the branding community. So why don’t we provide some clarity to what the core disciplines in developing a brand are and have a closer look at how they work together to help position companies for sustainable success.

Ideas

Poor “brand,” it’s such a misunderstood term! A brand is not a logo. A brand isn’t any one design element. It isn’t even a collection of design elements. But if someone is talking about their brand, most often, they’re thinking visual design. While visual design plays a part in what a brand is, simply put, a brand is your reputation. It lives in the collective minds of your audience. So a great logo won’t do your brand much good if the rest of your business doesn’t respect what it stands for (just ask BP).

Branding then, is the discipline of developing a brand—of meeting and hoping to shape audience perceptions (or experiences) of who you are in a way that’s meaningful and positive for them. Brands live in all the senses. The consistent taste of a McDonald’s cheeseburger? That’s branding, just as much as how the checkout lines work and how the people working behind them interact with you are, because they all influence and reinforce your perceptions of what McDonald’s stands for.

Words

Understanding what your message should be requires really understanding who you are and why you matter. It takes understanding your audience and their interests. It takes understanding your market and how you stand out in it. And it takes understanding how your brand fits into broad things like cultural, technological, or economic trends. Too often, brands approach communicating with their audience without having a core messaging platform that’s built on communicating these key concepts.

Developing a brand message platform takes time and a lot of thoughtful research. But the immediate and long-term dividends it pays are enormous. By focusing energy on understanding the ideas behind your brand and then developing a platform to communicate it, companies clarify decision-making throughout an entire organization. Solutions to business and communications challenges become a lot easier when you know what your message is and why it matters. It also speeds the time to come up with new ideas about the kinds of features, say, a software application or website might have, or how your people might interact with customers. When you’re engaged this way, you think, act and create like the brand—because there’s a blueprint that filters through everything you do.

Design

Design is one of the primary tools used to help develop a brand. But here, too, the word is seriously misunderstood in my opinion. Too often design is viewed (and often presented by designers) as beautification and decoration—more the arts than an essential component of a business strategy. Design is not about surface-level work—though the tangible results are often visible.

Design is the process of problem solving. As the famed sociologist and psychologist Herbet Simon put it, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” So that’s what any designer is after, creating preferred situations for our audiences and ourselves (or our clients). In the professional sense, visual designers, user experience designers, information architects, even software developers participate in the act of designing. When we work with a truly engaged client, even though they may never have worked in any of these fields professionally, they too can be fantastic “co-designers” of their brand by problem-solving right along with us

So, designing can mean designing a better process, envisioning features that might inform how a service might better engage an audience, designing an organizational or business structure, and yes, designing things like logos and websites. “Design thinking,” which is getting a lot of attention these days, is the discipline through which creative problem-solvers change these existing situations into preferred ones. Depending on the skill set and level of talent of the team or individual, the solutions may take any number of forms, yet the goal is always to strengthen the deeper relationship between the brand and the audience

Putting it all together

So a lot goes into creating a strong brand, and they’re all interrelated. It’s not a matter of slapping a new logo on some brochures or redesigning a website and calling it a “re-branding.” What it takes is thinking seriously about how the ideas, words and design behind a brand drive actions, and how people perceive that brand. The more well-integrated they are, the more powerful and immediate the brand experience is in the real world.

Because there’s often such a disconnect between business activities and brand activities (but we understand now that business activities ARE brand activities, right?), creative strategists, writers and designers are often sequestered and sourced when needed to add decoration—if their input is sought out at all (I’m looking at you, PowerPoint). This lack of integration between business strategy and design thinking leads to what we call “The Accidental Brand.”  The value created by the business in the real world is segregated from the creative work that gives it life; as a result, there’s a huge loss in translation between strategic intent and execution. And this is where the executional risk to the business gets serious.

In my next post, I’ll talk more about what this real value in developing a strong brand is, and why you might want to cultivate it. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about what it takes to build a great brand, I can’t recommend enough reading The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. It’s thoughtfully designed to be read in under an hour and says it all far better than I ever could.