Branding and the brand essence - asking the right questions to define a brand

6 September 2016 | Design, Branding, Brand audit

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Do you want to create a brand or branding for your company? The answer should be both, but brand and branding are not interchangeable terms as they are sometimes used, and it's important to distinguish between the two.

While branding is experienced through the touchpoints the company creates, the brand is the overall experience, perceived value of the company in much broader sense. Consequently, brand management has a complex task of shaping perceptions overall, while a branding exercise will have one important tangible goal - to produce the company visual language. This will include a logo, stationery, the visual theme applied to the marketing collateral, web presence. However, it is not just a window dressing exercise if taken seriously.

In order to design a brand identity that truly reflects the brand, one that is unique, lasting and meaningful, we will need to delve deep into the underlying business fundamentals and services offering, as well as key messages used to communicate them.

Image and perception help drive value. Without an image there is no perception.
Scott M. Davis, Brand Asset Management

The goal is not to just walk away with a new or updated colour palette and document templates, but also having a clearly defined brand essence. All your actions and communication as a company will be built around it, creating a strong brand overall.

Stirring up the storm

As part of the brand audit process a designer or an agency will look at your brand strategy and positioning. That includes your existing communication, the language you use to describe what you do and what you stand for, and how you differentiate yourself from your competitors.

It is common to hear pitch-perfect answers to the questions "what is your mission", "what are your values". It is not necessarily a bad thing – after all, the company knows best what it stands for. However, it requires a certain level of exploration to establish how unique those answers are, and you hired a designer or an agency to be your partner in that process. They bring the expertise and help to discover insights that you may have missed. The designs they will give you is the end product you are after. The journey of discovery they will take you on is the process to get there with optimum results.

Let's take your about and mission statement, tagline, if you have one, values and test them against the questions:

Think of a 30-second window to leave a lasting impression when giving your business card. If you cannot say what you are about in 30 seconds and three different ways communicating the same underlying message, you probably still need to work on tightening those messages.

Diversion exercise

Sometimes the best way to gain new insights is to take a different approach. So let's step away from the task at hand and play a diversion game. Think about a brand you love and admire. Tell me how you see them, why you like them, what it stands for, what associations come to mind when you think of it. Why do you believe in it? Fire away.

Most of the time, you will find some excitement in the speech because people involuntarily will be communicating their emotional connection to a strong brand. That's great. That's what ideally you should want to create for your brand.

Now tell me how you see your company in a moment-in-time in 10 years time. Where do you see it, what clients are you working with, what heights have you achieved? What people say about your company, how do they describe it? How is it perceived in the media?

Vision requires courage. Behind every successful brand is a passionate individual who inspires others to see the future in a new way.
Alina Wheeler, Design Brand Identity

Indirectly you have told me your vision and ambitions you have for your company, and what values are important to you. It may be an over-the-top version of it, but it created a strong emotional connection for you. And having achieved a highly aspirational state, you are now ready to tackle the practical steps - taking it apart and putting the pieces back together in the most optimal way.

Dissecting and putting it all together

Now is the time to go back to the questions at the beginning, to take each sentence apart and be brutal with it. For the full picture you will need to consider the positioning and language of your competitors, which will be a part of your brand audit process. Once you do that, take each fragment or descriptor in your statements and honestly answer:

The process can be challenging and time-consuming for somebody new to it, but it's one of the most rewarding exercises as it's a cornerstone on which your brand will be built. An experienced brand consultant will be able to guide you through it seamlessly.

Even if on the surface you end up close to where you were before, your language and brand essence will be much tighter. More importantly, you will own it because of the process taken to explore, take new directions, see a wider perspective, and make informed decisions. You brand is already stronger with a narrower focus, a tighter grip on its fundamentals. You can now start building your brand story.

Remember that 30-second stint? So what does set you apart? Are you getting a tighter grip on your brand essence?

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