Building a Brand Identity: Interview highlights
On starting a new brand identity
John Sotirakis: It starts with a good conversation. To have that conversation, you have to have it with the right people. It’s like having a dinner party, who do you invite to the party to have the kind of conversation that you want. Now at ThoughtForm, we do that in the form of a branding kick off session. For branding projects, think “Who are those key stakeholders that form that eclectic group of people that have that 360-degree view of the brand. From the CEO to the marketing director to the product people. Even HR and IT because brands are not just this external voice, it’s a cultural act as well.
So having the right people there to talk about it—it’s like lifting the hood up on a car so that we could understand the parts: the mechanisms, the structure, the culture, the products. All of those things that create the infrastructure of that company, that is the foundation of brand building.
Kevin Fernando: You mention bringing in roles like HR and IT—people who you might think are peripheral to the whole brand process. What kinds of roles would you give to those peripheral people.
JS: You know at this early point in the brand process, they’re not peripheral. They are part of that culture. They impact that culture. If that brand is going to be successful, it has to be successful with audiences externally. But also, everyone in that corporation has to own that brand and evangelize it. That makes IT, HR, and everybody just as important at that point in the process. And it informs brand architecture. That enables us to start going to the marker board and begin to build what we are hearing into a skeleton, or structure. Whether it’s products or services, or things that become part of that culture or company—we begin to map everything out. Having that brand architecture is a great start.
Some brand building tools
JS: So we create what’s called “audience personas.” And you know, those could be either simple or in-depth. An organization never has just one audience. It usually has four or five different audience types. We try to really understand them. We want to see a picture of who they might be, give them a name, understand what their education is, their background, and how they approach the brand.
Another great exercise is to create polarities to try to understand the personality of the brand. You can do present state but also where you want the brand to go. Polarities are word opposites. We create scales like “introverted to extroverted,” “traditional to cutting edge.” When you start to present continuums like that to clients, and ask where they want to place their brand on those continuums, it’s fascinating. Everyone might have a different point of view. What we do is consolidate, bring it all together to create that one profile of the personality of the brand.
On redefining existing brand identities
JS: Restructuring an existing brand for an existing company is equally exciting. One of the things that we would first suggest before we go down this journey together is to survey their customers. If you have been in business one year, or even five or ten years, you might think you know what customers are perceiving about your brand, but we have found that’s often a poor assumption.
We’ll do a survey and ask the customers just simple things about brand recognition. We ask them “What is our logo?” And show them options A, B, C, and D, there are people who pick the wrong logo. Some don’t know the logo at all. Then we ask what’s our color palette? What is our messaging? What are the benefits that we provide? For a company that has already existed, and has had their brand out there, the insights we gain here are priceless. Tap into your audience. Then you’ll see that you have a decision to make. Are we going to have to create some sort of evolution of your brand and respond to what you’ve heard? Or are you in need of an even bigger change?
On navigating brand guidelines
The 25/75 rule
JS: The best branding programs have flexibility built into them, but not 100% flexibility! Of course, you have to have some consistency. And honestly the biggest culprit when we audit brands, and we put everything up that they produced in the last year, is the lack of consistency. It looks like this department created that, and so on. So that 25% that I’m talking about is “Use these templates. Use the logo, the color palette, and the accepted fonts. If you do this, you are part of the brand family” and that is the goal. You have to do that.
But wait, there’s this whole other 75% that you as a marketing manager, or product owner, whatever you do at your company, can be your invention or story. You did the 25%, now go have fun and be inventive with the 75% because that also brings value and quality to that brand. Some of it is templatized, and some of it is also very personal from the people who work within those guidelines. It’s a great balance. Maybe I’ll make it 20/80. I’m sticking with 25/75 for the moment.
KF: So let me get this straight. If you are writing a brand guideline, you should really only write it to cover 25% of the content that’s being produced? The other 75% will be coming from people’s personalities and creative decisions.
JS: Yeah, the 25% is documented in the brand guidelines. Even the other 75% still has stuff that we can convey in brand guidelines that are thought starters and set them on the right path. A lot of the invention comes from “I want to tell my own story and pick my own photo.” Well we might have some guidelines about the kind of photos that we suggest for your brand, but then have at it. Pick whichever photo you want. Even the stories that we tell, there’s still language and style and conventions like that that make you part of the brand. We’re not telling you what the story is. You can still write the story yourself. So there’s still guidelines, but you can afford a lot of free reign.
Muddy brand identities
KF: So you don’t think that the free reign will lead to a muddiness?
JS: No, I don’t think so because here’s the thing: Everyone keeps each other honest. One thing people should do with new brands is have an audit every year. Make a party of it, bring food, and look at the work that you’ve all created. And be positive and reinforcing but also say I’m not sure this feels like our brand. So it’s sort of self-regulating, you know? If you see muddying happening, you correct it and work as a team.
KF: So if you do see muddying happening and want to correct it, how do you go about doing that?
JS: You know you just go back to the basics, and maybe by example. Bring in that third party consultant. But the internal team can do it for themselves as well. If there are two writers, and one writer wrote it sort of muddled and the other seems to have the right mix, have them work together and do it by example. Show how this can go to that and feel more clear and concise.
KF: Yeah, because if you have a muddy brand…
JS: Yeah, that’s not good. You know in this day and age, there are so many companies and branding is so big, that the audience is fierce. They are looking for clarity, they are looking for immediacy, and if you lose that window of opportunity because your brand is muddled, you are not going to get to where you want to go.