Why 'discipline' is the most important aspect of modern branding.

The world of branding is notorious for making changes to brands all the time. It's as if we need to keep changing to attract attention, when in actual fact, it's the opposite that's true. The more brands stay the same, the more recognisable they become.

So the rule should really be 'just don't change anything'. In reality, it's much more nuanced than that. If you need to change your brand, then judgements need to be made around what aspects of your brand are considered to be key distinctive assets (and should be maintained & polished) versus the other extraneous elements that are just creating noise and are getting in the way).

Over the years, we've identified patterns emerging in the traps that clients get stuck in during that process. These are a series of pitfalls awaiting them in their future branding projects - which create friction and slow things down. Here are some of the most common things we see and why discipline is needed to avoid them:

1. Desire for change


Change for change's sake is really common. People within the client organisation can get bored of looking at their brand and its current graphic articulation - they want to freshen things up. The main issue here is that they forget their customers aren't looking at this brand every day of their lives and actually need the familiarity of the graphic articulation to act as a signpost for recognition and decision making. 

The desire for change should be rooted in the business need to avoid the "just because". If you feel that the brand doesn't accurately represent your business anymore, great, look at repositioning the brand to help your customers understand your place in their lives. Does your logo look like a smudge when listed on Linkedin? That seems like a good reason to review the logo. 

Your customers are savvy about what you're doing. If it's changing for change sake, it'll only result in a solid wave of "so what" crashing upon you. Meaningful business change has to be behind any brand refresh. Applying discipline to that maxim will save you money and time. 

2. Relying on research to make decisions


No one wants to be doing the wrong thing. We understand that fear, and we understand the temptation of putting new creative into research. After all, that sounds like the very definition of customer-centricity. But here's the challenge; focus groups only look at what's in front of them, rather than a long-term strategic view. 

Notwithstanding the fact, there's a huge difference between what they say, what they do and what they say they do. Using research to make decisions almost always leads to more change than is needed. 

If it does have to be used, be smart about how it's deployed and use it to help guide the decision making. Think about what you're looking for. Questions like "What do you think this looks like?" aren't helpful. 

3. Too many names


New product, new name. New service, new name. Soon you've got a sprawling brand architecture that is unwieldy, confusing and expensive to maintain. 

The equity is almost always in the mother brand (especially in B2B), but it's soooo seductive for organisations to come up with new names. I've written about this many times - how the scope of our work in the brand architecture sphere is often around making things simpler and getting rid of names rather than creating new ones.

A great example of discipline around naming came recently from Apple (who else?!). When they launched their new Air Pods Max - which are basically big 'over the head bins' - can you imagine the temptation to create a new 'sub name'? Most other brands simply wouldn't have been able to resist, but because Apple is SO consumer-focused, they realised that AirPods is already an established convention for naming their headphones and creating something new was both unnecessary and risked customer confusion.

The temptation to add more names is compelling but being disciplined is a strength here for the long term. Easier to make hard decisions around a simple naming structure and stick to it rather than having to weed out many names later on when the brand feels overgrown.

4. Leadership


'Brand' is a subject on which everyone's keen to offer opinions. But there has to be a line between the skill, experience and leadership of the senior client team who have been through a branding project before (hopefully many times) and those stakeholders who have no domain expertise but 'want to be involved'.

The discipline call here is to run the project with a small team that are empowered to make decisions. By all means, gather a wide range of opinions from the business before you start. This understanding is invaluable, but don't let them play an active role in shaping the output, or you'll end up focusing on the subjective aspects of the work rather than the strategic. Which leads us on nicely to...

5. Arguing over subjective inconsequentials


However, we know that at some point during the process, you need to take any new branding work up the chain for some kind of feedback. This is where things can become unstuck. 

If you ask someone for an opinion, they'll give you one. And it may be based on having something to say rather than providing constructive feedback. 

Soon you're into conversations around the size of the logo, colours and what a strapline should be. These can be generally subjective and tend to lead you into branding conversations that end up disappearing down a rabbit hole of contradictory feedback. They're also deadline killers, sucking up time and wasting energy.

The trick to sidestep these conversations is to bring these people on the journey. Frame the rebrand as a business driver and avoid presenting graphic assets in isolation and inviting subjective scrutiny. Present the elements in their natural habitat e.g. within websites, packaging or adverts, to show that a brand is all about how they come together in concert, rather than on whether the logo 'looks a bit like a dog's face' or that the proposed blue 'feels too much like the sea'.

The more we do this, the more we come to respect the brands that are able to maintain a coherent and consistent brand execution over a period of years without embracing change for change's sake. We respect that it's hard to maintain that discipline in a corporate environment. And it's easy for us to talk like this, unencumbered with the politics and power-plays that exist in big organisations, but we say it because we think that "brand discipline" is one of the most important aspirations in the management of modern brands.