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.