If you’re investing in brand discovery, you’d better be paying for something that makes life easier for content teams

Discovering and defining your organisation’s brand is hard. It requires introspection and optimism – which large organisations often don’t have in abundance. But get it right and you enable easier collaboration. You devolve decision-making, and you see better outputs (like, say, websites).

Let me set the scene. A senior manager proclaims that “we’re excited to announce that we’re about to spend months and months redefining our brand. Even better, we want your input!”

Widespread cynicism, angst and dread follow.

Why cynicism?

Projects that are meant to discover or define an organisation’s brand have a bad reputation. They happen regularly enough, and deliver little enough, that they’re remembered as expensive wastes of time. “This is always a bullshit agencyfest”, as a former colleague of mine once said.

This sort of complaint comes up when what was delivered didn’t lead to any change. A new logo and tagline are revealed, an expensive video of smiling people backed with thumping music is played, everyone obligingly claps along, and then they go and do whatever work they were going to do anyway.

If you’re investing in a new (or a refreshed) brand, you need to be setting people up to make new and different decisions. Those decisions might affect anything that conveys your brand. That means your marketing, services, products, digital and physical environments, and more.

If most of these things didn’t change with your last branding project, then neither did your brand. That’s why people don’t believe in it this time around.

Why angst?

Branding projects call for engagement with and contributions from throughout the organisation. Probably even focus groups (gross). Problem is, everyone already has a job to do and shit to worry about.

So now everyone is mentally preparing a fastidiously-footnoted treatise called BAGS NOT: A Thorough Examination of Why I, Personally, Should Not Be At All Involved In Whatever This Godforsaken Brand Project Becomes, Even Though I’m Quite Qualified For It And Will Have Very Serious Opinions About What Comes Out The Other End.

No-one wants to answer questions about what makes us special, or what colour this company would be if it was a car. Don’t mistake disengagement for disinterest though, because these people care. You’ll see that when project is over and the sideline snipers come out. People say they don’t care about branding, but they have a lot of energy for potshots at the outcome.

The best way to get people to like a branding project isn’t to force them to join in. It’s to show them that the project is going to make their work easier. Strong brands make decisions easier. They guide choices and give people a groove to work in. So long as you can promise a strong brand, you can promise all these other benefits too.

Why dread?

Dread kicks in for people who have the job of actually turning your brand into things. Designers, writers, editors, UX teams and marketing tacticians will dread retrofitting your new brand to existing collateral. Oh my god, what if the colours change? What if our voice becomes chattier? What about that video series we just commissioned?

One promise that can defeat this dread is: The new brand will be easier to understand and work with than the old one. If you can guarantee that, you can win converts before the project is over.

So what makes these negative feelings go away?

I’ve gone through a few of these things at various places. For the content teams I’ve been in, branding projects succeeded or failed depending on how we worked after The Deliverables hit our desks. Good deliverables made us more productive, and made decisions easier. If all we saw was a tweaked style guides and some images to swap out, then the new brand wasn’t worth the effort.

Things like style guides, colours, logos and taglines are just surface stuff.

Done well, brand discovery reveals the next layer down, and the one under that, and it hands those layers over to us as well.

Colour schemes and style guides need to be based on something. We need to understand that “something”, and be trusted to work with it. Knowing the base of the brand in concrete terms let us confidently stay on-brand as things evolve.

What we really want is a set of decision-making principles. Reasons to favour one thing over another. Reasons to say yes, and reasons to say no.

We’re working on stuff that needs to change as trends, customers, and products do. But a well-understood brand is an expression of the organisation’s fundamentals, which change more slowly. A good brand shows how those fundamentals differentiate the organisation.

Two useful ways to express these fundamentals are as:

  • Preferences, which explicitly rank one good thing over another. “We value responding to change over following a plan”, for example, is a preference that digital, comms, and marketing teams can express in their work.
  • Beliefs that aren’t true for everyone but are true for us. I had a job where we believed that “it’s fun to think hard”. That was something that I could confidently convey in my content, and which let us come across differently to a lot of our competitors.

With things like this, we’re able to make decisions on behalf of the organisation. We can be on brand even when we’re solving problems that the brand project didn’t anticipate.

Branding project spit out style guides, colour schemes and taglines that are only the first expressions of re-defined fundamentals. Those fundamentals can fuel different outputs. Later we want to be able to refresh the look and feel of your digital collateral without doing the deep brand research again. That’s the mark of a well-defined brand.


This post is 977 words long with a reading grade of 7.