Imagine you’re hosting a dinner party. A big one. There are lots of things you might think about.
What kind of food will we serve? How much? Do we need to consider dietary requirements or restrictions? Is a particular theme appropriate? Will we have music? What kind of decor? What level of sophistication or complexity do we want to take on? Should we hire a caterer?
The answers to those questions are infinite and subjective until you answer some other questions that get to the core:
- What is the reason for the dinner party?
- Who will you invite?
- And how do you want it to make your guests feel?
This is the same approach we suggest when you’re working with someone to create your brand identity*. If you don’t, you end up struggling to answer questions with no clear answer:
- What colors should we use?
- What typefaces should we use?
- What shapes should we use?
- What should our logo look like?
As with the dinner party, questions like these can’t be answered well until you’ve answered some more foundational questions. Questions that make up strategy.
*Hang on a sec. What is brand identity?
Jargon is an easy trap to fall into. Let’s take a step back to clarify.
When we refer to “brand identity” in this article, we are referring to the visual identity of a brand—what it looks like. Beyond that, brand identity includes the verbal and conceptual: how it speaks, behaves, and what it believes.
Strategy should be clearly defined and out in the open before any creative efforts begin. This ensures that your leaders are all operating toward the same goals (and not toward diverging assumptions). This will allow the experts developing your brand identity to start from a single truth. And it will allow you all to measure the work against your strategy, instead of against someone’s own preferences and biases.
The big questions we would ask:
What is the desired future state or your organization?
This question is about skating to where the puck is going to be. A brand identity rooted too firmly in the present might be fine today, but it may not resonate with the customers a client wants to attract down the road. If the organization has plans to grow and change—to serve a different kind or scale of customer—any brand identity design efforts should be focused on that desired future state.
What are you building toward? Who is your audience when you get there? A brand identity created for that future state will help you arrive sooner. This might also be referred to as “dressing for the job you want.’’
What is your purpose?
What are you (and your organization) here to do? If your brand identity is to hold meaning and significance, understanding what is meaningful and significant about the organization must be sorted out. Again, what are you here to do? What is your purpose?
Purpose, as we use it here, is often referred to as a vision statement. A caterer might state this purpose: We nourish our community with the joy of food. There is a lot of meaning and significance in a statement like this. Far more than in a statement like: We prepare food for large groups.
Who is your audience?
Your audience includes the people you want to be aware of your organization, and who already are. By default, organizations will have more than one audience—the external and internal audiences. For most of our clients, those are customers and employees, with customers being the primary of the two.
In the development of a brand identity, having piles and piles of information about your audience(s) is so important. It allows you to understand and build your brand to meet their needs and expectations. It allows you to occupy a unique position in their mind.
And remember, when defining an audience, always be sure to consider the future audience. That one that you must align with in your desired future state.
Note: there are more audiences, but they don’t usually sway strategy in a significant way. They might include referral partners, vendors, media, local community, and the general public.
How do you want them to feel?
Determining what you want them to feel about your organization requires a deep understanding of your audience(s). What will they need to see? What will make them feel warm and fuzzy inside. At a minimum, we want our audiences to feel that ours is the right organization for them. The right attitude. The right behavior. The right fit.
A law firm may lean heavily into credibility and stability. An emerging tech start-up may aim for something else—a mix of attitude, enthusiasm, and novelty.
How will you manage change?
If your organization is going through a major transition—like an acquisition, merger, leadership succession, or other big change—special consideration comes into play here. The transition may affect the future state of the organization, its purpose, its audience, or its brand promise. How you manage that change is an important consideration.
Revise or replace
Continuity is something we talk about with many of our clients. New leaders and owners may make significant changes to a business. Or the change in structure may appear significant, even when the impact is small. Audiences can be confused by things like this. Customers might wonder, “will they still do that thing they’ve always done for us?” Employees might wonder, “is there still a place for me here?” It’s important to consider the effect of a changed brand identity on those different audiences, and how to ensure they all come along for the ride (or those that you want to retain, anyway).
There is an important tactical element to the roll-out of a new or revised brand identity. Will it be announced as a surprise externally, internally, or both? Will you slow walk the process to give audiences a chance to adjust? What needs to change, at what pace? Changing too much too fast can be a shock. Changing too little too slowly can appear unplanned and disorganized.
Who does the work?
Strategy is primary when designing or redesigning a brand identity. But there are two other critical components to think about. Those are stakeholders and expertise.
Stakeholders are your team in the brand identity effort. They are people who know the organization best, who advocate for the business and its audiences, and who can focus objectively on strategy. These individuals are the few* voices that should be consistently involved throughout a brand identity realignment. They should be involved at the very start, and at key milestones throughout.
*We recommend assembling the smallest team that brings the highest value to the project.
A brand identity’s value increases as higher-level input is built into its development. And it’s almost worthless without top-level buy-in. Often, we work with an owner and one or two key advisors. Involvement in the project of this level of leadership ensures that the project has full buy-in and the best input available.
Important: when new owners and leadership are in play, those one or two key advisors (ones who can remain objective) are critical.
Below the owner/CEO, top level executives or managers may be involved in the project. Including leaders in business development, customer service, and product development may be helpful in developing a clear picture of the audiences involved.
Some organizations have a board of directors, and the relationship between board, CEO, and top management can vary. We have seen a few scenarios here. For very involved boards, we recommend they appoint a representative to participate in the project. When a board is less involved, we recommend they participate in initial discovery work and then receive progress updates as an FYI.
Top leadership may recommend that a key employee be involved in the project due to a unique perspective they can bring. And in some smaller organizations without an executive team or board of directors, a few key employees might instead be involved.
Spouses, siblings, friends, and other characters sometimes make an appearance, but they are often less able to remain objective. Unless they are an active part of the organization and focused on making strategic decisions, we recommend against including this kind of input.
Expertise is brought by the team tasked with developing the brand identity. Occasionally, larger organizations have experienced, in-house talent that can tackle this kind of work. Most, however, will work with an outside team of professionals who spend much of their time on this kind of project.
Your branding expert/collaborator
If they haven’t done this before, they are not an expert. Not everyone working as a graphic designer is suited to developing a brand identity. Many designers work in a client/vendor dynamic. If the client says, “I think it should be orange,” that designer would say, “Sure thing!”
The expert or team you want to collaborate with would instead say, “Why do you believe orange is the best color for your audience? How does it map to your strategy?” The expert serves as a guide. They challenge your assumptions and biases. They help you make decisions based on strategy.
This can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for some clients and design vendors. It takes experience, knowledge, and confidence on the part of the expert. It requires commitment to strategy on the part of the client. And it takes trust and respect in both directions.
Assembling a team
Sometimes an organization has certain experts already in place, either in-house or otherwise. For example: they may want to supplement their in-house marketing director and project manager with an outside brand identity designer. The ‘expert’ filter should still apply to the team—all members.
How they work with you
Working with an expert—or preferably an experienced team—means that you experience the benefits of their past work. They should have a proven, reliable, and repeatable model for developing a brand identity. It will have been tested and refined over time. And they should be able to explain how it works and why it works.
Because they have a model in place, they can focus more deeply on the conceptual aspects of work and less on the mechanics. They won’t be inventing a process as they go. They won’t be working in a reactive mode. They won’t forget to tie everything to strategy because it’s part of their model.
If you’re working with a small team, you will likely experience a high level of clarity and competency among the individuals involved. A skilled project manager will always make things run more smoothly and communicate with more clarity than a designer who is also doing design, not to mention the books, the payroll, the scheduling, the invoicing, and everything else. The same goes for each member of the team.
At Chalkbox, we prefer to work as a small team with our clients, bringing brand strategy and design expertise to the table. Strategy and design rest with the designer. Scheduling and project communications rest with the project manager. Our process is transparent and puts strategy and concept first. Our clients know us, our methods, and the reasons why their brand identity is what it is. They see their hand in the results.
How they fit with you
There are many people and teams out there doing this kind of work. Some are experts; some are not. Some like to involve their client deeply; some keep their client at arm’s length. Some feel superior; some feel inferior.
You can be picky. And you should be. Make sure you meet them. Talk with them. Understand if they are people you can work with and trust with your future. Understand if they are comfortable to you. What are their motivations for doing this work? What are their concerns about your project, and do they understand yours? How do they behave? What are their stated values?
As mentioned above, Chalkbox is very transparent with the work we do. Ego takes a back seat. We don’t confuse with jargon; instead, we educate and explain.
The right mix
Every leader, board, or team will have its own unique mix of considerations. Some may be unique to them. Perhaps their brand is 120 years old and has tremendous recognition. Or perhaps they’ve endured a PR calamity and their brand needs to disappear. Others, like the ones noted further above, will be more universal.
Also universal is the temptation to just dive in. The creative work is so fun and exciting. It’s the shiny object. You’ll believe you have all the information in your mind. You’ll know it when you see it. Right?
Remember that dinner party you’re throwing? You can’t just start cooking. Well, maybe you can when your two best friends are coming to your house. The stakes are low.
But when the stakes are high, you'll want to plan before you cook. When it’s your business and the livelihood of everyone involved, being methodical—starting with strategy and assembling your teams—will greatly increase your odds of a successful outcome.
An outcome that furthers the purpose of your organization. That is aligned with your strategy and audience and can help them feel all the right things.
Yes, it’s hard
We get it. We really do. It’s especially hard if you’re pondering all this on your own. If you’d like to talk through your ideas and get some help navigating all this, let’s talk.
The brand identity case studies below share each client’s journey and strategic reasons for making a change to their brand identity.
More examples are always available on our Work page.