create the big idea

When engaged in brand strategy, we help clients establish what’s known variously as the big idea, the main idea or the brand promise. It’s the “take away,” the thing you want your customers to remember about your company. It’s not what it says on your home page or brochure cover—the big idea is the message that should be communicated. The big idea should always be expressed in one sentence. If it is any more complicated or lengthy than that, your marketing will suffer. Despite its short length, the big idea should encapsulate everything else in the brand strategy. The big idea, or brand promise, is the one thing that is most likely to make people take notice, form new opinions and take action.

Sometimes the big idea is distilled into to a tagline—something that is often shorter, catchy, and can be put on everything from a business card to an annual report. The tagline is a succinct way to reinforce the big idea, but it is not a substitute for it. In the over-communicated society we live in today, the message of the big idea must be repeated frequently and consistently.

i’m a designer

We just moved into a new building we share with other design professionals, specifically landscape architects on the floor above us and architectural planners below. We have clients who are architects and engineers, who by definition are also designers. Of course we’re graphic designers. Then there’s fashion, product and interior designers. In addition, those who create structured services and activities and the integrated systems of computers and other forms of technology, also call themselves designers. With the vast array of products and services in the contemporary world, one might wonder if there really is a discipline of design shared by all who conceive and plan such things. As Richard Buchanan, a design theorist said, “The scope of design appears to be so great, and the range of styles and other qualities of individual products within even one category so diverse, that the prospect for identifying a common discipline seem dim.”

There is a wide range of beliefs about what design is, how it should be practiced, for what purpose, and what we accomplish through it. Every year for the past 20, I have taught the history of graphic design at the University of Utah. The subject matter of the class is essentially a history of graphic design objects, the careers of the important designers and the development of the technologies used. We don’t really discuss what design is. It’s similar for all design histories.

Unlike other scientific pursuits, designers don’t discover things like natural laws or a natural process (excepting occasional unintentional discoveries). Generally a designer invents something: an object, a new use, a possible application. Discovery and invention are essentially different. As Richard Buchanan says, “Designers deal with matters of choice, with things that may be different than they are… Any authority for the designer comes from recognized experience and practical wisdom in dealing with such matters, but the designer’s judgment and the results of his or her decisions are open to questioning by the general public, as are all matters of public policy and personal action, where things may be other than they are.”

The use of techniques and processes that systematize the discipline of design help to explain and understand how designers achieve their results. Such thinking is the basis behind the modern8 Perception Branding 5d process.We use it to explain and systemize how our design solutions come to be, in a discipline that isn’t easily defined.


Great brands tell great stories. Everyone has heard the story of how FedEx founder Fred Smith presented the basic concept of overnight delivery in a Yale term paper. He received a “C”. The professor said that he had failed to describe a plan that was feasible. You’ve probably heard well-known stories of extraordinary service by Nordstrom department store employees. The stories have become a staple of business management literature.

Rolf Jenson, in the book, The Dream Society, tells us that in Denmark, eggs from free-range hens have conquered over 50 percent of the market. Consumers don’t want hens to live their lives in small, confining cages. They are willing to pay 15 percent to 20 percent more for the story about animal ethics. According to Jenson, “this is classic Dream Society logic. Both kinds of eggs are similar in quality, but consumers prefer eggs with the better story.”

When we consult with clients regarding brand strategy, one of our most important tools is the simple one-on-one interview with management, marketing and sales executives. We dig for stories. Why was the company founded? Who are your heroes and muses? What images are hanging in the workstations? Such stories provide real insights into company culture and brand differentiation.

Few business thinkers have had more prominence in the last 25 years than Tom Peters. He said, “Great branding is a great story. The Coca-Cola saga. The UPS saga. The IBM saga. Can you as a brand leader (of a 4-person operation or 4,000 person corporation) convey your story succinctly? Can you convey it in a powerful way? Is it believable? Exciting? Mind altering? To employees? To vendors? To customers? To the media?”

transformation design

According to last week’s Time magazine, “a new breed of consultant is using the tools of design to solve business problems creatively.” Using the process of visually trained designers who think less in a verbal or linear manner and who instead zig-zag their way to problem solving, describes the emerging field of transformation design–a hybrid of business consulting and design.

By using the same creative process used in designing things like MP3 players or a corporate logo, transformation design is used to tackle “unwieldy intangibles like cell-phone promotions and hospital organization, transforming their effectiveness. Along the way, the field is creating some unusual teamwork between designers and business people.”

The benefit of using a design approach as opposed to pure management consulting, according to Time, is that it enables–or even requires–the team to invent new ways to solve problems. Such new ways demand creative solutions, the opposite of our natural inclination, which is to go with the group. It requires looking for what industrial designer Raymond Loewy called MAYA–the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable solution. Designers excel at MAYA. While market researchers describe how the world is, creative people describe how it could be.

knowing too much

Have you ever played the game where you are required to whistle a song while the rest of your team tries desperately to guess what tune is coming out of your mouth? You keep whistling the same thing, while they keep guessing the wrong thing, and the time quickly evaporates, and then it’s over. Nobody got it. You whistled so perfectly but they had no idea. Not only is it frustrating because now your team is down a point, but how did they not get that you were whistling the theme to Love Boat? It was so obvious– to you.

Now maybe you wouldn’t go as far as considering yourself an expert at whistling, but the idea played out in the game is a demonstration of the principle of how others don’t always see (or in this case hear) what seems perfectly clear to another–which can stagnate a process whether it be during a simple game or in more serious “innovation.” In the article, Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike, Janet Rae-Dupree, states, “As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off.” As we become more educated in a particular subject, we tend to only know how to do it one way and the innovation gets lost.

In the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, co-author Chip Heath (who wrote the book with his brother) says, “experts [are] cursed by their knowledge, and they can’t imagine what it’s like to be as ignorant as the rest of us. To innovate,” says Heath, “you have to bring together people with a variety of skills. If those people can’t communicate clearly with one another, innovation gets bogged down in the abstract language of specialization and expertise. You’ve got to find the common connections.” Cynthia Barton Rabe, author of Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine, suggests using outside help or what she terms zero-gravity thinkers to help keep creativity and innovation on track. When people have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems. Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field. Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”

irrational influence

When we make decisions we think we’re in control, making rational choices, using our logical, analytical left brain, but actually that’s not so. According to a new book, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, we are anything but rational beings. Most decisions are based on highly irrational influences, which are all relative. We estimate the value of things according to how they compare with other things.

Most of what we consume from the world around us comes through our sight. We visually compare one option against another. In the diagram above, the green circle on the right is the same size as the one on the left, but the context is different and influences our perception.

Brands that have a real dedication to the value of visual aesthetics, like Target, Apple and Starbucks, dramatically influence how their brand is perceived. Brand guru, Marty Neumeir says that aesthetics is “the language of feeling, and in a society that’s information-rich and time-poor, people value feeling more than information.”

Aesthetics is so powerful it can turn a commodity into a premium product. How did Starbucks differentiate itself from Dunkin’ Donuts ten years ago? How was it able to change the accepted price of a cup of coffee? Dan Ariely, tells us that a decade later, Starbucks has actually changed our very understanding of coffee and its value, whether you get it from Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s or the grocery store.

The irrational nature of the human psyche may be the best reason yet to influence your brand perception by managing the aesthetics.

committing to your brand

Last week we presented D3: Depict, the conclusion of our strategic, pre-design services to a large Salt Lake architectural firm. The presentation included our recommendations for brand strategy, including the Brand Promise and new tagline. We now begin the design of a new identity for the firm. In the question and answer period following our formal presentation, someone asked, “Though we have 18 principals here, there are many employees not here. How do we get everyone on board?”

It’s a good question.

Tom Peters, the management guru who wrote In Search of Excellence in 1982, and a highly-regarded business thinker, said that developing a Brand Promise was important and made sense, but unless everyone in the company buys into it, the whole exercise is a waste. He asks, “Does this Brand Promise make sense to you? As individuals? In your daily work? With your clients? Is it genuine, dramatic, an inspiring departure from the past? Does the new ‘story line’ give you goose bumps? Yes, branding is about the logo, the slogan, the marketing campaign, the advertising. But, in the end, branding is about credibility. Do the 99.9 percent of your people who work in the trenches buy the act? Do they live it, with vigor? Do they convey it with passion?”

You always launch a new brand identity internally first. As brand guru, Marty Neumeier says, “The secret of a living brand is that it lives throughout the company, not just in the marketing department. Since branding is a process, not an entity, it can be learned, taught, replicated and cultivated. Continuing education programs can get everyone in the company onto the same page, while seminars, workshops, and critiques can keep outside collaborators singing in tune.” At Ernst & Young an interactive brand quiz was developed to help employees become brand savvy. When employees answered 80% of the questions correctly, they receive a Global Brand Ambassador certificate. At Citigroup, a thought book communicates the central unifying principles of the brand identity program. A brand education program, whatever its form, distributed throughout the company (and with creative partners), develops brand ambassadors and long-time survival of the brand.

mapping branding perceptions

We have been engaged by a local architectural firm for brand strategy and identity development. While we were strategizing with the marketing director on factors that drive business development for architects, he explained to us the importance of experience and relationships. We asked which was more important in the minds of their clients. Is the accumulated experience of the firm, or are personal relationships more important?

The marketing director answered by diagramming the classic four squares with experience along one axis and relationships on the other. The best option is when you have project experience in addition to a client relationship. But lacking one or the other, relationships trump experience.

We like the diagrammatic approach, because it lets you visualize what you already know. You can literally map out perceptions. Whether it be the relative value of relationships vs. experience, or Stephen Covey’s Urgency vs. Importance matrix, you can take a great deal of information and look at it all at once. It lets you position brands and brand attributes relative to others with the dimensions that customers use to distinguish them.

Take simple attributes like innovative vs. traditional, and younger vs. older. Treat each of these as an endpoint of an axis on a map. Now consider well-known brand categories, like automobiles or soft drinks, for example. Position the relative importance of each attribute for different brands. Where would Coke be positioned vs. Red Bull? What about Volvo vs. Honda?

Choose the axes and quadrants appropriate for insights in your own industry and map your own brand against your competitors. Are there ways to position your company differently from others? Consider mapping different attributes, benefits and values that can be compared and contrasted. Small/large, local/national, expensive/inexpensive and many other attributes can be used to distinguish one brand against another.

headlines that say something

You would think daters on would communicate something about themselves in the headline. After all, to grab attention quickly there’s only a picture and the headline. You’re mostly stuck with your pic, but as Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Made to Stick said, “With the headline, you can start from scratch. Given the stakes, these headlines should really zing. They don’t.”

A search of over 1,000 headlines reveals winners such as “Looking for Love” and “Hey”. If you’re on, it’s pretty well a given that you’re looking and if you can’t find anything more interesting say about yourself than, “Hey”, the Web site is not going to save you.

In their column for Fast Company magazine, the Heath brothers make the point that the headlines suck because of fear: “Fear of saying too much. Fear of saying something clever that someone might think is stupid. Fear of saying something revealing that might turn someone off. The headlines try desperately not to exclude anyone. In doing so, they succeed at boring everyone.”

The corporate world has the same “hey” problem. They think they have to be generically likable. “Most marketers feel that if they make a bold statement, they risk not just alienating customers—but their boss”, says Charles Rosen of the Amalgamated ad agency. “That fear takes the edge off all communications.”

Concrete images and language make it easier for like-minded people (and companies) to find one another. The column concludes, “Some singles have figured this out. Here’s a brilliant example: ‘Athletic math nerd seeks someone to hum the Seinfeld intro music with.’ While excluding, he’s simultaneously becoming more interesting to potential soul mates. More…

outperform your competition

When the world’s most recognizable brand, appoints a VP of Design who then engages a design firm to build a company-wide design culture, it’s clear that design is playing a new role in the corporate landscape. Coca-Cola has hired Yves Behar, founder of the San Francisco brand and product firm, fuseproject, according to the newest issue of Fast Company magazine. Behar is featured on the cover of the fourth annual “Masters of Design”issue where the publication reports on the intersection of business and design.

The power of design is recognized by companies like Apple, Target, Proctor & Gamble and Nike, who really dig in on design. The rest, according to Behar, will be left in the dust by the companies that do. A three-year study of more that 40 Fortune 500 companies found that businesses that focused on customer-experience design outperformed the S&P 500 by a 10-to-1 margin from 2000 to 2005.

Behar, who is the designer of the news-making $100 laptop, said he wants to get Coke to think across all functions of the business, from a logo to a bottle to a dispenser to a fountain. The designer offers seven axioms for companies that want to get traction by design:

1) Design is how you treat your customers. If you treat them well from an environmental, emotional and aesthetic standpoint, you’re probably doing good design.

2) Design must be integrated throughout the organization.

3) Design is not a short-term fix.

4) You must be willing to fail at the design level.

5) Design must be driven from the top.

6) With design, the solutions to a problem will be different every time

7) Never ask the consumer about the future