Here at ThoughtForm, we think about authentic branding a lot. And you should, too. Why? Because your organization’s brand is one of your most powerful tools for connecting with your audience—whether that’s consumers, businesses, internal stakeholders, or any other group you can think of.
Your brand is more than your logo and name. It also includes your position in the market, your vision, your architecture of offerings, your culture, and your voice. It is how your audience feels about you and what they expect from you.
That’s why brand authenticity is essential. When your brand is true to who you are (as an enterprise, a team, an individual, etc.), it conveys honesty. Your audience feels like they can trust you, because the way your represent who you are and what you do is consistent and accurate. And when your audience feels like they can trust you, they’re more likely to buy into what you’re selling.
Four stages: creating an authentic brand
Creating an authentic brand can be challenging. Following this tried-and-true brand development process will help.
Stage 1: Discovery
Before you begin, make sure everyone has a clear understanding of why you’re developing or evolving your brand. Set clear goals for what you want the brand to accomplish or how you want your brand to change. Make these goals tangible. Are there quantitative or qualitative ways to measure your success?
Then, get the right group of people together and have a conversation. At ThoughtForm, we typically host a branding kick-off session so we can get the effort off to a good start. Include people from different groups—the more diverse their perspectives are, the better. Make sure everyone is aligned to your goals, then dive in! Together, you should dissect the details of what you’re branding, who your audience is, and how you want your message to come across. Keep in mind that this stage isn’t about criticizing or shutting ideas down. It’s about taking stock of what’s working or not working and brainstorming ideas for moving forward.
These activities can help:
- Audit your existing communication materials, such as your website, sales tools, slide decks, and videos. Print things out and hang them all up on a wall. Do they look like they’re part of the same suite? Does anything seem out of place? Colors, visuals, layouts, typefaces, and more are all up for discussion.
- Conduct competitive benchmarking to understand how similar organizations and offerings are branded. Are there any aspects of these brands that would resonate with your audience? While copying another brand isn’t a good idea, taking a broad look at the competitive landscape can provide inspiration.
- Create personas that represent your audiences. Understand who these people are, what they know, what concerns they have, and how they interact with your brand. Putting a name and a face to your audience groups makes it easier to create an authentic brand they’ll connect with.
- Use polarities to explore your brand’s true personality. Polarities are opposing word pairs—for example, “formal to casual” and “traditional to cutting-edge.” Put these word pairs on a scale with 4 spaces, then use stickers or other markers to indicate where your brand falls on each continuum.
Stage 2: Development
Now it’s time to take what you uncovered during discovery and start creating. Pick a few brand concepts to build out. Remember, a fully-fledged authentic brand includes your name and logo, but it also includes your voice, personality, colors, key messages, etc. The right brand for a government software company is probably different from the right brand for a daycare center. Think about all of these pieces together.
As you develop your brand concepts, allow yourself to be guided by the value your organization provides and the people you provide it to. What do your audiences need and expect from you, and how can you make them feel confident that your organization is the best option for them?
Designing a brand should be an iterative process. You most likely won’t get it 100% right on the first try. Start with lo-fi concepts and sketches, then refine them as you figure out what you like and what feels authentic.
Try these methods:
- Make a collage to represent the brand’s look and feel. Combine images, icons, stock photos, typefaces, colors, and more into a “mood board.” It can be physical or digital. The key is to express ideas that may be hard to explain in words.
- Sketch possible logo options. No need to be an artist! Even a basic sketch with shapes, words, and stick figures can help you communicate your creative direction.
Stage 3: Testing
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of brand ideas you feel good about, you should put them to the test. Testing is essential to developing an authentic brand that will resonate with your audiences. It lets you identify and address any red flags before it’s too late. And if you’re changing a brand that already exists, don’t discount the role of brand equity. Testing will help you ensure that your new brand preserves the parts of your old brand that customers find essential—and that the changes you’re trying to make don’t alienate them.
Think back to the personas you developed during the discovery process. Solicit feedback and input from people who fit those audience profiles. Ask specific questions to ensure that you get constructive, actionable feedback. For example, “Based on this logo, what do you think our team does?” You can ask these questions in person or send out a survey. Either way, try to learn as much as possible. The insights you gain will help you make your final adjustments.
You can also use these tools:
- Create prototypes to envision your new brand in action. Reviewing mocked-up business cards, a website, swag, or even email signatures can make it easier to evaluate your brand. Is your logo clear in different sizes? How do your colors look on a screen vs. in print? Does your updated website feel like a more authentic representation of your team? Take notes on what works and what doesn’t.
- Ask participants to vote on the overall concept or individual elements that they like best. We like to pin everything up on a wall, give each person a set number of colored dot stickers, and set them loose. Votes that are aligned can indicate that your branding is on track; votes that are scattered may indicate a need for more work. Use this exercise as a starting point for discussion.
Stage 4: Rolling out your authentic brand
Now that you’ve developed a brand you feel good about, it’s time to start using it. Be intentional. Consistency is key to making sure that your brand’s authenticity shines through. That means that each time your audience encounters your brand—in person, on your website, via phone—they should feel like they’re dealing with the same organization. Consistency across all of your channels and communication materials conveys stability, truth, attention to detail, and continuity. Update all of your communication materials, then do another audit to make sure that nothing was missed.
As always, you might hit some bumps during rollout. Try to anticipate questions, concerns, and errors and address them up front. This is particularly important if you evolved an existing brand. Acknowledge the shift and explain the reasoning behind it.
These tools can help you ensure smooth rollout:
- Develop and share brand guidelines that make it clear how your brand and all of its elements should be used. Make sure to include more than just punctuation rules. Your brand guidelines should tell your team everything they need to know about your brand voice, goals, principles, and more.
- Create a visual explanation to answer questions that people might have about your brand shift. For example, you can create a side-by-side comparison of the original and the new-and-improved brand. You can make a process diagram that illustrates the journey your team went through to get here. Or you can develop a schematic that shows how this new brand fits in to your existing architecture.
For more information on design thinking methods like personas, polarities, collaging, voting, diagramming, and more, download our eBook, The Problem with Meetings.