brand design frappé

In introducing our firm, I often say, “we bring together strategic and creative services to achieve a shared goal.” This is the distinguishing essence of our position—we are a brand design agency. To understand why this marriage is so important to a successful brand, let’s start with a now textbook case study of branding success.

By now, you’ve probably seen the Dollar Shave Club’s viral video more times than you care to count. But, Dollar Shave Club and their strategy is a social marketing and entrepreneurial success story. Michael Dubin, founder and CEO, knew he needed to create a brand that could compete in a competitive marketplace. His business began in 2012 as a membership service providing razors by mail. The business was based on the idea that men give too little thought to their shaving supplies, and, most likely, weren’t switching out their blades as often as they should. Though the company had a slow start, the brand was launched with a YouTube brand campaign video—rooted in humor and wit and a very limited budget of $4,500. The video went viral, and they ran out of razors within the first few hours.

The importance of stakeholder support for creative branding initiatives cannot be overemphasized. Dubin was not only behind the initial brand strategy and the marketing, he was the spokesperson, and turned his startup into a $1 billion company.

The problem, in most companies, is that brand strategy is separated from creativity by a wide gap, even in startups. On one side you have the strategic thinkers, the 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 is never joined up with the strategic left brain. The 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 website 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 we’re 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, then you need more focus—the second discipline.

What is your brand promise or position? Do you promise to “Help Men Get Ready to look, feel, and smell their best” like Dollar Shave Club? 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, rather, look for those that might resonate on some deeper level with the true meaning of your brand.

With a group of five to eight 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 five to eight of your executives independently narrow them down to the top 20. Select the top five 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 shouldn’t let others do your job for you. A good firm can assist in developing a holistic brand approach, but they are not the ones to tell you who you are or what your company is about. That’s your basic responsibility.

question everything

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to chat with Hal Gregerson, of MIT’s Leadership Center, about his philosophy on life and business, and, more specifically, to ask what he is researching and writing about these days. I mentioned to Hal that I had been seeing him talk about ways leaders can avoid mistakes. He quickly corrected me that his ultimate point was not the avoidance of mistakes, but the ability to ask the right questions.

Ever since then, I think about questions, everywhere—“What one question…,” “These 6 questions will…,” and so on. Every other Inc article seems to be detailing the “how and what” leaders are asking. So, I’m going to get past the overwhelming advice that is out there to make way for my own.

Here is my advice—and it’s only “kinda” stolen from Rumsfeld—discover what are the “known unknowns” and explore how to find the right method to turn those known unknowns into “known knowns.” Speaking of Rumsfeld, you don’t need to ask about known knowns or unknown unknowns because those can’t ever be answered. The discovery of those answers are for the philosophers and religions to take on.

You can shine a bright light on a thing already known, which is a good thing to do, but the point of asking questions is to find new information or a different way of perceiving the world. It takes an incredible amount of skill to develop new perceptions, and to correctly identify what you don’t know and look for answers to those questions.

Relevant to the point, Hal had just been meeting with the top leadership at Amazon to find out what types of questions they asked themselves, their employees, and each other. The best story from that experience, Hal shared with me, is about current CEO, Jeff Bezos. Jeff will show up every few weeks with a poorly designed product to reverse engineer. The team would mentally think discover what questions the designers, marketers, developers, etc. asked and how they answered to make such a terrible product.

The point of the exercise is self examination of what they, as leaders of Amazon, are doing to ensure they are creating the right questions with a real chance of conjuring an answer, a known known, in their own work. The ability to understand the process beyond the end result in the work of others and reflexive question seeking has been invaluable to me.

infographic: the naming process

Every once in a while, we get the opportunity to integrate naming strategy with our standard 5D process. Our experience has acquainted us with renaming businesses, labeling products, and more frequently, generating original names for new ventures. Each scenario has helped us refine our approach to assigning monikers to various entities, so we thought we’d share a few insights to what we’ve learned so far.

website evaluations: think before proceeding

In the competitive world of business, a good website is essential. We all know that. We also know, “time is of the essence.” But if we web designers are given the opportunity to think before proceeding, a good website can become a game-changer. And everyone avoids the panicked frenzy of a rushed job.

“Think before you speak,” my mother always told me. Like most adolescent boys, I had trouble following her advice and embarrassing things often spewed from my then hairless and naked lips. And I had some doozies. Like the time I told my crush she looked better in low light. Really low light. (True story.) I digress.

Fortunately modern8 is not a self-humiliating teenager. We have always invested heavily in proven processes. Especially if they make our job easier. That being said, modern8 has adopted a new procedure that gives us that moment to think. We call them Website Evaluations.

What is a modern8 Website Evaluation? Well, I’m glad you asked. In the end, it’s a physical document that contains our professional opinion on what your site should do/say and how to go about making it. How do we come up with that document? Basically, we jump right in and research your existing site. We do a deep dive into your content, check out your code and analytics to see what’s working and what needs improvement.

Next, we make recommendations. We’ll reorganize content, suggest different technologies you may not be using and outline new strategies, if needed. Along with our recommendations, we develop the steps it will take to build them. We try to make the scope detailed enough that anybody could pick it up and know exactly how to execute the plan.

The final section contains the nitty-gritty time and cost. After we’ve had time to think about what we should do, the timeline and cost come out very accurate. And that makes everyone happy.

Taking the time to do an evaluation before plunging into a major site overhaul is the way to go. For a fraction of the cost, and about two weeks worth of work, an evaluation really does save time and money in the long run. And the finished product is far more effective. We’re not teenagers anymore so don’t do something you might regret.

designers’ personality types

We all think of ourselves as different, but most people think artists and designers are categorically different. If it’s not appearance issues, such as clothes or hair, then it’s a designer’s outlook, personality or the way they think.

So what are the personality traits of a designer? Michael Roller looked into that. He administered the well-known Myers Briggs personality test to a group of designers and published the result. The test compares things like introversion vs. extraversion and feeling vs. thinking. Two big trends are clear: Nearly 70% of the respondents were “judging” types and 85% were “intuiting” types. That’s exactly the opposite of the general public, who skew towards “sensing” and “perceiving”.

As Fast Company magazine blogger Cliff Kuang says, “According to the test, those that “intuit” rather than “sense”, tend to focus on context and future developments, rather than simply the data at hand. Meanwhile, those that “judge” rather than “perceive”, tend to see the world in terms of discrete problems that can be structured and cracked, rather than as a series of casual, open-ended possibilities.”

We were all artists as kids. Not only did we create art, we were also proud of it. We primarily thought in a visual way. But somewhere in the middle of elementary school our focus began to shift from visual, spatial thinking to verbal, linear thinking. The end result is a very left-brain dominant society. Kit Hinrichs, partner, (until recently), at the international design firm Pentagram, said designers keep looking at the whole picture. “I think this is the reason why designers are so welcome in the boardrooms of corporations. Businesspeople have been kind of brainwashed out of solving problems in anything other than a linear approach. But sometimes, we need both sides of the brain to solve problems. Which is why I find that there are times I can go into a boardroom with guys who have degrees from 12 universities I could never get into, and help them look at a problem in a new way. Once the problem is described, the designer is more likely to say, ‘Well, did you look at this? How about doing it this way?’ It’s about not adhering to a set of restrictions that have defined how you think in business.”

Design Thinking is a methodology that takes the designers’ whole brain approach to problem solving into a proven and repeatable form that anybody can employ. You may normally think of design in terms of the completed object: the Web site, the chair, the building. But design has always been a process. It’s what you do—the action, not the end result.

Here’s how you can apply the designers’ process, even if you don’t have the personality of a designer.

  1. Define the problem. Make sure you’ve defined the correct problem that needs to be to solved.
  2. Research. Become an anthropologist. Get out of the office to observe and learn.
  3. Ideate. Brainstorm about lots of options. Don’t pre-judge suitability.
  4. Prototype. Design always involves iteration. Try it one way, try it another. Evaluate and refine until you think you’ve got a solution.
  5. Implement. Plan it and execute it, but don’t plan on perfection. Better to have something than nothing.
  6. Learn. Gather feedback, measure success and keep innovating.

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.

the only, only?


Love songs proclaim you’re the only one but in business it’s not often the case. Do your customers identify you as the only one? Fill in these blanks: Our brand is the only _________ that _________. In the first blank put the name of your category (software training company, auto cooling parts supplier, sign company). In the second blank put the thing that truly differentiates you (that empowers Linux training, that delivers overnight, has offices throughout the west). Can your competitors make the same claim? We’re talking about significant differentiation. “Quality since 1930,” may be a differentiator, but it has limited beneficial value and everybody claims quality.

In my journalism classes at the University of Utah we were taught to get out the primary facts in the first paragraph of a news story. The Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The technique tells the reader whether the rest of the story is worth reading. The same approach tells your customer whether they should be interested in your products or services. Here’s how brand strategist, Marty Neumeir describes the process for Harley-Davidson:

What:The only motorcycle manufacturer

How:that makes big, loud motorcycles

Who:for macho guys (and macho “wannabees”)

Where:mostly in the United States

Why:who want to join a gang of cowboys

When:in an era of decreasing personal freedom.

Taking our own medicine, here’s how modern8 fits the bill:

What:The only graphic design firm

How:that offers strategic consultation (in addition to creative services)

Who:for B2B inbound marketing communications

Where:in Utah

Why:who want to re-position their business

When:in an era of un-differentiated, look-alike competitors

Your own “only, only” statement becomes the litmus test against future brand decisions and keeps you on target and on message.