brand design, brand strategy

In introducing our firm, I often use the phrase, “We bring together strategic and creative services to achieve a shared goal.” I was asked to speak last week at the marketing forum of the Utah Technical Council on the subject of Delivering the Art of Brand Design from the Science of Brand Strategy, which seemed tailor-fit to our distinguishing position. I’m sharing with you some of the main points of my presentation.

I started with the story of the Intel Inside campaign—a textbook case study of tech branding success. Before 1989, almost no one knew, or more importantly, cared what kind of micro processing chip their computers contained. And they certainly didn’t know who made them. But as personal computers gradually became more common with consumers, Intel recognized an opportunity to brand its processors. They were really a B2B business, selling their component parts to IBM and HP, but they decided to focus on the end user. It’s not unlike today’s pharmaceutical companies, who market directly to the end user, even though you need a doctor’s prescription to buy anything. The Intel Inside branding campaign was developed locally, by Salt Lake advertising agency DahlinSmithWhite. And my good friend Steve Grigg designed the original Intel Inside logo. The initiative was very successful. Not only is Intel a leader in semiconductor manufacturing today, but also the awareness of other chipmakers is remarkably low. I asked at my presentation how many could name another besides Intel. Only a handful responded.

The importance of C-level management support for branding initiatives cannot be over-emphasized. Bruce Law of Sprout Marketing, and former director of Intel’s national advertising, told me that Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel, personally approved Intel advertising, demonstrating its importance to the man that oversaw a 4,500% increase in Intel’s market capitalization from $4 billion to $197 billion during his tenure.

The problem is that in most companies, brand strategy is separated from creativity by a wide gap. On one side you have the strategic thinkers, MBA types, who are numerical, analytical and logical. On the other side of the building are the designers, with funny clothes and hair, who think visually, intuitively and emotionally. Too frequently the creative right brain never joins up with the strategic left brain. Following are three brand-building disciplines to help bring the two sides together.

Differentiation is the first discipline. Here’s a test: read a paragraph from your web site about what you do, to a random employee at your company. Then read a similar paragraph from the website of one of your competitors. Can they tell the difference? Often they can’t. You need more of the first discipline: differentiation.

Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? When we are engaged for brand strategy, we conduct executive interviews and we always start out with these same three questions, no matter who were talking to, no matter what the industry. If you want to stop a business meeting cold in its tracks, ask these three questions. If you can’t answer these three questions succinctly, particularly the last one, you need more focus, the second discipline.

What is your brand promise or position? Do you promise the “Ultimate Driving Machine” like BMW? Do you “Think Different” with Apple? A brand can only have one true promise or position. It explains why customers should buy and use your products and services and not your competitors. And it defines why you meet their needs better than the competition. Establishing your brand promise is the third discipline.

When defining and differentiating your position, it’s helpful to think more abstractly about, who you are, what you do, and why it matters. We use metaphors, images and adjectives in our process. Images are more emotional than words. They elicit feelings. Go to an online stock photo agency and gather images that are aspirational and inspirational—that represent where you are or where you’re going. Don’t look for images that are literal photos of your industry, but rather those that might resonate on some deeper level with the true meaning of your brand.

With a group of 5-8 others from your company, choose the images that make emotional connections. Pay attention to the conversations surrounding the selection process. Look for relationships and patterns in the images selected. What do the selections tell you about your brand and where it’s going?

You can do the same thing with adjectives. Select 60 adjectives that are positive attributes about your company. Have 5-8 your executives independently narrow them down to the top 20. Select the top 5 adjectives. Look for patterns and relationships between selected adjectives. Compare results between executives. What kinds of consensus patterns emerge? Compose a statement about your company using the adjectives. Craft a paragraph or two and use that adjective rich statement as a guiding philosophy on your Web site, marketing collateral and sales presentations.

Don’t try to be something you’re inherently not. Be true to your character. When I’m working with a new client, I like to understand the company culture. I look at what employees hang on their cubicle and who their heroes are. It’s all an insight into company culture and should be reflected in the brand message.

It often takes someone from the outside to help objectively find and articulate what is already there—someone who is an experienced creative and strategic thinker, but you should not let others do your job for you. A good firm can assist in developing a holistic brand approach, but they are not the ones tell you who you are, or what your company is about. That’s your basic responsibility.

launch your brand internally

Brands are expressed in many ways, including in the actions and behavior of your own people. In fact, employees are crucial to the brand experience, particularly in the B2B space. Inasmuch as a brand is the totality of all your perceptions about a business, obviously, employee actions and attitudes have an impact—everything from answering phone calls promptly to product knowledge. But it goes beyond customer facing employees. Employees don’t just represent the company, they are the company. The depth of understanding each person has about brand values and purpose is reflected in productivity. The workers of strongly branded organizations literally “live the brand”, giving them focus, motivation and a guiding direction.

Great stories have the power to strengthen brands internally. We learned about a powerful story when we created the brand identity for BrainStorm, a software training company. In the Discover stage of our Perception Branding D5 process, more than one employee told us about the 30-hour flight to Scotland. On a Thursday afternoon in 2003, they learned that the product they had shipped to Scotland would not arrive until Monday afternoon—but their client needed it Monday morning. Eric Farr, co-founder and champion of the importance of exceeding customer expectations, boarded a flight for the “milk route” to the northern most country of the United Kingdom. Meeting their dumbfounded client at the airport Sunday evening, Eric delivered the product, spent an hour visiting with him and then boarded the plane for the return trip.

According to Rudy Vidal, former Chief Customer Officer at inContact, for whom we designed a new brand identity in 2010, “A dissatisfied customer, once rectified, is more likely to remain a loyal customer than is the customer who was never dissatisfied in the first place.” The herculean effort of BrainStorm turned what would have been a very dissatisfied, one-time customer into a recurring, top-ten customer. The story continues to resonate internally within the company because it captures the values and identity of the brand, while adding elements of emotion and aspiration.

Communicating the values of your brand internally is the highest form of brand management. Making certain that employees understand these values, turns them into brand ambassadors of your company and its products and services. If the brand is clear and well-defined, employees operate from a position that directs the decisions they make in the workplace. The net result is a company that is self-directed and differentiated from competitors.

Our clients are typically anxious to show off a new brand identity we’ve created—print up those business cards, revise the home page—but we are more hesitant. In nearly any launch, the first most important audience is the company’s employees.

logo is not brand

Last week I gave a presentation to the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) entitled, “Your Logo Isn’t Your Brand”. If you subscribe to the modern8 newsletter or read the blog, the subject may not be new, but it is worth repeating.

We can quickly dispense with the obvious myths. Your logo isn’t your brand, your identity, your product or service. You’re not even the brand owner. It’s owned by your customer. A brand is your customer’s gut feeling about you. In the immortal words of Marty Neumeier, “Your brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

A brand is the totality of perceptions that you see, hear, read, know, feel, and think about a business or service. A brand holds a distinctive position in your customer’s mind based on past experiences, associations and future expectations. A brand is a short-cut of beliefs and values that differentiate and simplify our decision-making process. Lastly, a brand is a promise of value to be received.

When talking about brands most people think about Coca-Cola, Apple, Starbucks and Harley-Davidson. These are good examples of B2C (business to consumer) branding. Hardly any companies neglect the importance of branding in B2C.

But in B2B (business to business) things are different. B2B companies think it’s not relevant, that they are in a specialty market, that their customers already know a lot about them and they are chosen through objective processes, based on facts. The reality is that we are emotional beings both at work and at home, and we make our choices the same way, regardless of where we are.

Some of the world’s strongest brands are B2B brands, like IBM, General Electric, Intel, FedEx and Boeing; and like FedEx, many are primarily service businesses.

Big companies brand for the same reason that you should: to get more people to buy more stuff for more years at a higher price. But it requires an investment. In the short run, it is more probable that you will see a decline in profit. Brand building is aimed at creating long-term, non-tangible assets, not for boosting your short-term sales. If the company, especially the people at the top, is not convinced that it is the right thing to do, it won’t work.

Branding has immense value, but it’s not simple and it’s not your logo.

don’t name it that

Back in early ‘90s I designed the logo for Associated Foods—the “cart in the A”—that you see on big trucks throughout the Intermountain West. So I was quite interested when Associated Foods adapted my logo for the identity of the Albertson’s chain of grocery stores that they acquired in 2009. The company-owned stores were named “Fresh Market using the “cart in the A” inside an apple. They didn’t ask for my design help (I certainly wouldn’t have put it inside an apple.) Nor did they ask my opinion on the name.

When you’ve been in design as long as I have, you become jaded by the ubiquity of mediocre design. Perhaps that’s why I’m bothered so much by their choice of name. Fresh Market doesn’t even seem like a name. It’s a description. Albertson’s is a much more memorable name. For some reason, clients feel their name must be descriptive. RIM had been leaning toward “EasyMail” before the naming firm Lexicon came up with the hugely successful “BlackBerry”. Intel had wanted to call the Pentium “ProChip,” and some at P&G had wanted to call the Swiffer “EZMop”.

Admittedly, it’s hard. You want something unique, protectable and almost impossible these days—available as a URL—restraints that often lead to creative misspellings and syllable combinations. Such was the case when we were recently engaged to create a name and an identity for a new client. They liked our design ideas, but stuck with their own misspelled naming choice.

The printing industry has been going through shrinking revenue and consolidations. A company which we have used for years, PrintTech, has been acquired or merged and changed their name to Advantage Utah, an easily-forgettable name with yet another swoosh-like logo.

There are plenty of enormously successful companies with forgettable names (Walmart, General Electric), so clearly, there is much more involved than your choice of names. But in this over-communicated society that we live in today, why make it harder?

the typeface spoke to me

I’m reading a new book. Only through the first chapter, but when I was driving past the mall on Friday and looking at their sign, I immediately connected with something I had just read.

The book is The Language of Things by Deyan Sudjic, a treatise on the meaning of man-made things. In the intriguing first 40 pages the author connects such diverse design luminaries as William Morris, Jonathan Ive, Raymond Lowey, Dieter Rams and Philippe Starck.

The author, who is also director of the Design Museum in London, relates the following:

There is something to understand about objects beyond the obvious issue of function and purpose. It suggests that there is as much to be gained from exploring what objects mean, as from considering what they do and what they look like. Design is the language that a society uses to create objects that reflect it purposes and its values. Design is the language that helps to define, or perhaps to signal, value. It is the language of design that serves to suggest an object’s gender, often though the most unsubtle of means, through color, shape, size and visual reference. It is design that reflects a sense of authenticity, or its manipulative opposite: cynical salesmanship.

Most of the examples from the book deal with consumer products—from cars to calculators—but to make the point that even the most subtle of designed forms carry a message, Sudjic refers to the medium closest to a graphic designer’s heart: typography.

When a designer picks a typeface he chooses from a bewildering array of choices, extensively multiplied since the dawn of the digital era. Categorizing and identifying typeface selections is a full-time task at type foundries. Typeface design has been an important activity since the Roman Empire and capable designers are aware of the historical and psychological context of any particular choice.

Typefaces are primarily utilitarian—the copyright office considers them exclusively so. They are, after all, just symbols representing spoken sounds. How then, do they carry so much meaning? Why does one typeface look appropriate for a wedding invitation and another for a hair metal band?

As Sudjic says, “Partly through association and memory, partly through the emotional triggers and resonances it brings, a typeface expresses an endless range of characteristics, even wider in its scope than handwriting. But, while it takes a graphologist to decode individual signatures, typographic design can communicate on a conscious or unconscious level with everybody, whether aware of the vocabulary or not.”

The language inherent in the form of those simple 26 alphabetic symbols is remarkable. All of it beyond what the letters actually mean as words.

So it is for all man-made artifacts. All designed objects carry with them a language and meaning far beyond their utilitarian aspects. Decoding that meaning is central to understanding the man-made world in which we live.

Notes on the logos and typefaces in the sign:

Macy’s uses Avant Garde Gothic, designed by Herb Lubalin in 1970. The lightweight version of the face and the use of all lower case, adds to the 70’s feel, not unlike other department stores, Bloomingdales and the recently redesigned Belk. Macy’s has always used the star in their logo, in some form or another.

JCPenney uses Helvetica, the de facto standard for corporate cool, created in the mid-50s. The logo was designed by the corporate identity firm, Unimark, co-founded by Massiomo Vignelli in 1964. The firm also designed identities for Knoll and American Airlines, both of whom also use Helvetica.

Forever 21, in this example, uses a Neo-Grotesque font substantially similar to Interstate, a wildly popular font since it debuted in 1994. The font is based on the signage system used on US freeways. Forever 21 doesn’t seem to have any standards for displaying the company name, as it appears in different forms in different uses.

Dillard’s uses ITC Garamond Condensed designed by Tony Stan in 1977. The font is loosely based on the typography of Claude Garamond from the French Renaissance in the 1500s. Designers have frequently criticized the typeface as an unpleasant bastardization of the original Garamond due to the extreme x-height of the lowercase letters compared to the capitals.

five skills for innovation

I’ve sat through a lot of business speakers’ presentations (and some I’ve slept through). But despite a rather low-key presentation style, the speaker I heard a couple weeks ago at a Utah Technology Council industry breakfast was just short of revolutionary. The subject was “The Innovators DNA” by Dr. Jeffrey H. Dyer, professor of strategy at the BYU Marriott School of Business.

Designers like to think of themselves as innovative. But Dyer says that innovation is not a genetic predisposition. Which is good, because these days, everyone wants to be innovative, from the CEO to the mailroom clerk (who suggested we do away with snail mail altogether).

“The Innovator’s DNA” was also published by the Harvard Business Review, written by Dyer and his cohorts at Harvard (Clay Christensen) and Insead (Hal Gregerson) Universities. The article and Dyer’s presentation both acknowledge that very little is known about what makes one person more creative than another. How do visionary entrepreneurs like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos come up with innovative new ideas?

According to a six-year study conducted by Dyer and his associates, “habits of great innovative leaders define the foundation of their creative thinking.” Their research showed that five discovery skills distinguish the most innovative entrepreneurs and distinguish them from other executives.

Discovery Skill 1: Associating

This cognitive skill is the backbone of the creative process. Associating is triggered by the other four discovery skills. It is the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields. Steve Jobs made the same point in his Stanford commencement address, when he explained how an impromptu college class in calligraphy influenced the introduction of sophisticated typography and proportional letter spacing on the first Macintosh.

Discovery Skill 2: Questioning

Ask “Why?” and “Why not?” and “What if?” If you’re an innovator, you constantly ask questions that challenge common wisdom. According to Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay (and current California gubernatorial candidate), “They get a kick out of screwing up the status quo.” Good questions impose constraints and as Charles Eames said, “We should embrace constraints”.

Discovery Skill 3: Observing

A few years ago I was visiting my daughter in her cramped New York City apartment, where I witnessed the anthropological observations of two researchers. For my daughter, it was simply a way to earn $75 by answering a few questions while being videotaped. For the researchers, it was a chance to see small behavioral details. They were intrigued, for instance, by the way my daughter would switch between a home computer and a sewing machine on the only small tabletop in the apartment. The observing skill fits the Japanese concept of genchi genbutsu—“going to the spot and seeing for yourself” perfectly.

Discovery Skill 4: Experimenting

Designers call this prototyping, or simply making a mock-up. Entrepreneurs may call it launching a pilot. It’s all the same thing: experimenting. Designers are used to a process of iteration. You try it one way, you try it another, you see what works. Jeff Bezos, believes experimentation is so important that he aggressively promotes it. “I encourage our employees to go down blind alleys and experiment. We’ll get a lot more innovation.”

Discovery Skill 5: Networking

I’ve networked for years, but my primary objective was to find new business. According to Dyer’s research, we need to meet individuals with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend our own knowledge base and to find and test new ideas. We need to go to conferences like TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), started by the architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman, and network with artists, entrepreneurs, academics, politicians, adventurers, scientists and thinkers. The TED Web site proclaims “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.”

“It is important to remember that creativity and innovation are things that can be cultivated,” said Dyer. “Only one-third of the ability to think creatively comes from our genetics, the other two-thirds of the innovation skill set come through the learning and practice of these five discovery skills.” Dyer even suggested holding regular idea lunches, where you share innovative ideas with invited people from diverse backgrounds. I’m starting one up in Salt Lake City. Send me an email if you’re interested.

highly effective brands

I attended our client Mercato Partners’ Sales Summit last week (an event for which we created the identity, Web site and signage) where I heard a number of great presentations, and connected with others. Among the presenters was Mark Hurst, a long-term business associate, who I’ve known since the early ‘80s. Mark talked about the relationship between brand strategies and sales strategies. After dispelling common brand misconceptions, showed a slide listing seven branding definitions—really more like branding attributes. Here they are, with my own elaborations and thoughts about each attribute.

A promise; an inviolate contract. Every brand should have a brand promise, the “take away” you should get from every engagement with the brand. Sometimes expressed as a tagline, or as the brand message on the home page of your Web site, but always understood as the promise delivered to you, the customer, from the brand owner.

Preemptive ownership of enduring benefits. If you’re the first brand in a new category, there is no competition. You preempt them. But “first to mind” is what counts. Many successful brands have not literally been first. Duryea built the first automobile in America, but Ford was the first brand to own a share of the mind (and the only American brand that’s doing well today).

Measureable value of trust with audience. Trust is the foundation upon which a brand is built. Customers trust your brand when their experiences consistently meet or beat their expectations.

A cluster of experiences. No single experience defines your brand in the mind of your customer. It’s a cluster of all the touchpoints they experience, from the way you answer the phone, to the way you solve a complaint, from your business card to your Web site, and from the appearance of your product to the appearance of your facility.

The thread that weaves into user fabric. Become the brand for which your customer believes there is no other substitute—the choice that happens by default. It’s natural, because you’re always there, because you are part of their lives.

An emotional connection with the users. You can’t win the hearts and minds of your customer with strategy. It requires an emotional connection. And that happens with implementation, not strategy. Design is where the rubber meets the road. Without great creative, there is no emotional connection.

A feeling you have about a product or service. We’re not as rational and pragmatic as we think we are. In fact, we’re predictably irrational. We base our buying decisions more on symbolic cues, like feelings, image and looks. We often buy to feel like we belong.