How to build a brand: Start with words

From time to time we face an interesting moment during that first client presentation when we’re introducing a new brand. We’ll take them through values and positioning matrices. Through the insight we’ve gleaned to give the brand the best possible start.

We then get to the grand unveiling of the brand. The tension is palpable. We put up a slide. It’s usually the name of the business and a line that defines the values of the brand. Once every so often the client looks up and asks the question that they’ve been dying to ask since they sat down for the meeting.

“Where’s the logo?”

So, why don’t we start the creative execution of a new brand with a beautiful shiny logo?

We’re brand designers, not graphic designers. Darren, our creative director has always said this, and I’ll admit that it took me a while to really understand how the two differed.

What’s the difference? It’s words. Or copy. And the understanding that the solution starts here, rather than with design.

When we ‘build a brand’ we build out the foundations first. From the basic values through to a Simple Truth. This work is all driven by words and it’s the most important part. If this stuff’s not right, all the design that’s laid on top is reduced to subjective ‘pretty’.

In brand terms, words are more powerful than anything else. Because words deliver meaning, feeling and emotion. And in the laws of psychology and behavioural economics this is how humans ascribe value. It’s not because of what something physically is, it’s what something means that delivers the value. That’s a whole other blog post, but you get the gist.

So, the initial stages of our branding process require deep, reductive thinking to create something meaningful, distinctive and ownable for the brand. Not the usual clichés of ‘integrity’, ‘professionalism’ and ‘customer service’. It’s hard and takes time poking around the dark recesses of the client’s mind as well as meeting and talking to lots of people to get an aggregated idea of what makes them, them. Then you’ve got to find a way of putting this into words. And doing it in a way that allows them to instantly recognise themselves, seeing it as distinctive and human in comparison to the cold, mechanical jargon it’s likely to be replacing. Getting clients to feel this meaning in their brand is one of the best parts of the job. It can move and energise people to see their organisation with fresh eyes. And this is before you’ve shown them any pictures.

As a member of the creative team, if you want to take part in this process, you have to be able to get to grips with words, feelings and emotions. You have to be drawn to the rhetoric and want to play around with it, weighing up the effect of overlap, alliteration and repetition. Pull on idioms, metaphors and hyperbole to create something meaningful that will convey feeling and emotion. This is a creative exercise and the keystone of our branding process.

From here we’re able to develop a brand tone of voice mirroring our meaning and values which facilitates compelling brand communication messages. In a world where tweets, comments and clicks are valuable marketing currency, you can begin to understand its value.

These compelling, evocative and ownable elements will form the basis of the graphic branding. The task here is to take the language concept and design the feeling into it. All of the graphic elements must mirror or reflect the meaning in the language platform. In the same way a good whisky picks up character and style from the oak it’s aged in; we must do the same with the design elements from our language and meaning. It’s simply not enough just to take the language platform and design elements around it. This is just design for the sake of design which will miss the mark and create a diluted brand expression.

Don’t get me wrong. Design is important in our work, but it’s always going to be subjective. For us, the words are the starting point. And we think it’s impossible to develop a strong brand without a foundation that sums up what the brand means. To misquote David Ogilvy “branding is the business of words”.

Have a look at our other articles around brand strategy or give us a shout if you think we can help you with your brand’s words.