People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
– Simon Sinek
When people ask what I do for a living, I say something like, “I’m a creative director at a design agency that builds brands.” Sometimes people nod and ask questions. Sometimes their brows furrow in confusion and they change the subject. Most people wonder what, exactly, this branding stuff entails. The unspoken question: why should anyone care?
Branding matters because people will support what you believe much more than what you do. The process of branding is one of discovery, distillation, and activation. It is the best way to communicate your reason for being, your “why.” When done well, the results of a good branding process select and magnetize the right audience and can last for decades. In other words, good branding ensures the right people will come to you.
At Parisleaf, for example, we’re dedicated to sustainability. Beyond environmental stewardship, we believe you either buy nice or buy twice, as Dann Petty says. Our work is built to last. This is why we chose to build our practice around the core service of branding.
What exactly does the branding process look like at Parisleaf, and what do clients get when by partnering with us? Over the years we’ve developed a five step branding process in which we discover, position, identify, activate and refine your brand, starting with your “why.”
Let’s look at what each of these branding steps entail.
You may be familiar with Simon Sinek’s excellent Ted talk, How great leaders inspire action. He identifies what Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Wright Brothers held in common: all of them thought, acted and communicated the same way – and it’s the polar opposite of most other leaders. Instead of promoting what they produced or how they produced it, they led with why.
In discovery, we seek to uncover your organization’s reason for being, your “why.” After getting acquainted with you and your challenges, we identify key voices within your organization and key representatives within your audience. Through qualitative interviews, we put together a clear picture of who your audience is, what they want, and how you are seen internally and externally. We research and develop your buyer personas and learn how your beliefs, your “why,” are understood by your personas. Once we’ve developed relevant personas, if needed we then interview select people from your existing audience who represent each persona.
Following interviews, we document and distill our findings, and reflect back to you the stories we’ve heard.
Positioning includes mission and vision statements, tone and voice and brand strategy. Mission is the bedrock of positioning, and it’s the words from which branding flows. Once we know your “why” and how people see you, we write or rewrite a mission statement that is rooted in what you love and believe. The mission articulates your purpose, tells why people should care and addresses your “what” at a very high level in order to provide context.
Here are real examples of positioning statements I wrote for Ampersand Creative, a client in Atlanta.
We’re on a mission to make delightful design, images, and media that remind people what it means to be alive.
– Mission statement, Ampersand Creative
Then we articulate your vision statement, or what you see when you imagine your future impact on the world. The vision often reads as a mandate and can serve as the springboard for your tagline.
We envision a world where people are no longer viewed as markets. Let’s be human, together.
– Vision statement, Ampersand Creative
Once complete, mission and vision help us develop brand attributes and values that will inform all the ways you communicate. We start to see the tone and voice of your brand. What’s the verbal personality? Is it bold or subtle? Humorous or sincere?
Finally, we plan how your brand’s position will be brought to life through a strategy document that lays out your challenges and opportunities and how we might address them.
Next, we develop all of your brand’s distinguishing features from name and tagline to logo, typography, color and imagery. This is where things start to get visually exciting. To the client’s detriment, many creative firms skip the previous two steps and go straight to aesthetics. If we don’t learn how we are perceived and articulate our purpose, how on earth can we appropriately convey those things in words and images? Guesswork simply doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to brand identity.
To start identifying the visual components of brand identity, we dip back into discovery to conduct a brand design workshop. We’ll ask you as well as our designers to look for sources and scraps of visual and conceptual inspiration as it relates to your brand. Together, we develop a creative consensus and assemble brand guidance boards. We’ve found time and again that by doing this work side by side with clients, it takes the teeth out of the creative process for you, the buyer, saves time that would be wasted in rounds of revision, and focuses our team’s energy in the right direction. This means our clients feel less nervous when we disappear for several weeks in a pile of sketches and color swatches.
At the end of the Identify step, you’ll have a brand starter kit that gathers all positioning statements, logos, and supporting elements.
A logo means nothing without context, and a brand is worse than one hand clapping if no one sees it. Activation can be as simple as basic stationery and a three-page website, or as complex as a multi-year engagement involving videos, print collateral and marketing campaigns.
Activation and refinement often bleed together as we continue working with clients. Remember: branding is a conversation. We study how a brand is received by your audience, pivot as needed, and refine over the course of time. Here’s a more detailed look and at why and how a brand should be flexible and open to reinterpretation over time.
Some firms deliver brand standards manuals at the end of the identifying step, but we find it makes more sense to compile guidelines over time by testing our ideas in the real world.
In truth, the process of branding never ends. But when you complete the work of building a strong foundation, you’ll have a brand that can grow with you for many years. It even does the hard work for you, selecting the right audience, and yielding solid returns on your investments.
About Matt Steel
Matt is a designer who writes, father of four, and husband of one. Since 2003, he has designed and directed creative initiatives with clients ranging from small startups to Fortune 500 companies. Matt loves giving good stories the visibility they deserve. He enjoys reading, surfing, yoga, running, hanging punctuation, serial commas, and drifting from philosophical musings to ridiculous impersonations.