We’ve been doing this a while now – 17 years – and we’ve seen a lot of trends come and go. As an industry we tend to over complicate the work we do. We love to change things up and we’re addicted to trying new things. But at the end of the day, it is simple, high-quality ingredients applied in a reassuringly consistent way that get the best results. Here’s my view on the key ingredients for branding success…
Clear understanding of what makes you, you. This can be challenging from the inside out, but with some objective advice, it can be enormously valuable for the business. Taking soundings from a wide group of stakeholders from the CEO to the factory floor, the task itself can have a powerful unifying force for the organisation - setting the project up for success. In terms of capturing, analysing and presenting the information - we use a brand pyramid (a metaphor for focus) which starts with values, then mission, then vision. These should become more aspirational, the higher up the pyramid we go. The very top, the vision, should always be just out of reach. There are many variations of this pyramid and there are no absolute rights or wrongs. Ours is as simple as we can make it, and we think it’s the simplicity that makes it hang together.
It’s important to stress that these elements are not a 100% must for business success. There are plenty of very successful orgs with revenues in the billions who operate with generic values such as integrity, professionalism and respect. (In fact a recent study showed that 30% of FTSE 100 companies had the same values). But having generic values means they’re essentially meaningless. The actual value an organisation accrues in making an effort to understand and identify who they are and what makes them distinct comes in the meaning this communicates to staff and customers alike. It signifies that the brand is willing to make difficult choices and stand for something. These characteristics appeal in human beings and it’s the same with organisations.
Brands are made up from a number of constituent elements that come together in concert to create the brand impression:
- Logo / Visual identity is the crystallisation of the organisation into a symbol or logotype. There is no right or wrong here - Coca Cola looks very different to Nike but their identities have been crafted and protected for decades and they hardwire meaning into our brains. Good brands create a solid identity and stick with it.
- Language & Tone of Voice makes the brand human and easier to develop a relationship with. Too many brands (particularly in B2B) sound cold, corporate and mechanical. It’s amazing how much more approachable a brand feels when it talks like a human rather than a computer.
- Colours & Typography. Have they been considered and do they complement the other elements of the visual identity?
- Photography & Illustration can be commissioned in a distinct style that reflects the brand’s values. Over time, consumers will begin to recognise this style as belonging to a specific brand.
- Headlines & Hierarchies. Brands that are able to communicate sympathetically to human readers by breaking up content into logical sections are easier to engage with than brands that don’t. This is often overlooked, but the simple ‘readability’ of content has a disproportionate effect on how well a brand can communicate.
- Simplicity of execution. Do all of the elements combine to create simplicity in execution? In concert these elements should be easy to read, understand and consume. It should be a pleasing experience.
- Category standout. The brand should look to command the space it occupies and be distinctive within its category.
This is everything. We’ve written and talked about this a lot over the past few years and the COVID crisis has made it even more important. Every brand is an online business whether it believes it or not. And brand owners have a responsibility to remove or minimise every piece of customer friction on the way to purchase (or return). Consumers are brutal and their expectations are continually being elevated. Make them think more than they’re used to…make them wait longer than they want to…make them search more than is reasonable…and they’ve gone somewhere else. This level of customer journey planning can get pretty deep & complex. But even at a surface level, we’re constantly amazed at the simple things brands are getting wrong - for example optimising desktop sites over mobile experiences when the majority of consumers live on mobile. Your website IS your brand. It’s not a separate thing.
Stick with it and don’t veer off course. The most impressive thing about really successful brands is the level of discipline and self control they employ in order to keep things the same. Successful brands are the ones that stay the same more than they change. Coca-cola - the example from earlier - has maintained the same logo and colour scheme for more than a hundred years. How impressive is that?! Brands without this level of conviction swing in the wind and change things frequently in order to keep up with the latest fashions or tends. As brand people, one of the most feared phrases we can hear from a client is “we really want you to push the brand guidelines on this one”…because they’re bored of seeing the same executions. That’s what guidelines are for…to ensure there’s consistency across the brand output over time.
The final pieces of the puzzle and ones that can’t be shortcut. Brands aren’t built overnight - they take time and money to build them. From a marketing point of view, organisations need to be focused on the balance between the short term sales activation activity and the longer term brand building activity. In a world where we expect instant results, it’s easy to get lost in the cycle of chasing the short-term sales cycle; but brands are built over the long term. If the foundations have been constructed soundly, the assets chosen selectively and the customer experience curated carefully, then with a bit of discipline and investment over the long term, we’d say there’s a pretty good chance a strong brand will emerge.
So, it’s hardly MasterChef. Once you’ve got all the ingredients, it’s actually pretty simple. The real challenge is for large corporates to be able to cut through the bureaucracy and politics to create the right conditions for their brands to flourish. That’s where we can help, just give us a shout.