When it comes to branding, ‘wow’ is not enough

Four things you need to know before walking into that branding presentation

So after six months of paradigm shifts, disruption workshops, brand equity pillars, focus groups, Venn diagrams and offsites, the agency-du-jour with the retro espresso machine and the hipster creatives is finally ready to show you the work you’ve spent a fuckton of money on. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you turn up.

1. If you don’t have a rock solid strategy, call off the meeting.

We’re dead serious. Without one, you’ve got nothing. You’re just throwing away your money. Why? Because strategy is about giving people a reason to believe in your product or service. It’s also why they’ll hopefully choose you over your competitors. So the reason you give them better be a bloody good one. It needs to resonate intuitively, to make sense, and you need to know that you’ll be held accountable to it. And the beauty of a solid strategy is it works inside as well as outside, uniting everyone in the organization around a common purpose for years to come.

Take Marmite. For over a hundred years people have either liked or disliked the salty black goop — no one has ever felt ambivalent about it. Instead of trying to appeal to everyone, as most brands do, Marmite decided to celebrate division by putting it at the very heart of its communication strategy. Launched in 1996 and still going strong, their ‘love it or hate it’ campaign has been hugely successful —because it’s based on a simple truth that resonates with anyone who’s ever tasted it. For as long as Marmite tastes the way it does (oh yes, we’re lovers!), the strategy will remain relevant and interesting.

Look at the brands below. Do they have a strategy? Can you tell what it is? You can write your answers in the Comments.

So the takeaway is this: have a sound strategy in hand before you even start to talk about branding. Definitely don’t walk into that presentation without one.

2. Now that you have a bulletproof strategy, make sure the branding celebrates it

If you do come to the presentation armed with a killer strategy, make damn sure the branding does it justice. Branding is what makes your strategy interesting and captivating.

Skype’s branding is as on-strategy as they come. Launched back in 2003 when mobile calls were expensive, the internet was slow and VoIP crap, Skype wanted to make voice calls easy, fun and accessible. So they asked themselves, how does an easy, fun, and accessible brand look and feel and sound?

You can probably hear the ringtone right now, that curious mix of pops and bounces and zooms. More than just a signal someone wanted to talk to you, the sounds were designed to create pleasant, familiar noises that told us what was happening in the call, but also said tons about the brand’s personality.

Every aspect of the brand language — the logo, the fonts, the clouds, the colours, the rainbows and the illustrations, the language and the tone of voice — was meticulously crafted to communicate and enhance the brand strategy, viz. making internet calls fun and easy, or in their own words, ‘freeing conversations’. Here are examples from their original and brilliant 2007 brand book, which, tellingly, came in two parts: How We Think (strategy) and How We Look (creative). Caption text is from brand book.

‘Clouds have always been part of our logo, but we are now giving them a starring role. Clouds are a good way to represent free conversations. They feel free and natural.’
‘When we talk, our voice is human. We’re approachable. We talk to people as if they’re individuals.’
‘When we use photography, Skype images are warm and real. The images should capture people mid conversation.’
‘Our illustrations are all about visualising the richness of conversation.’

So, with Skype fresh in your mind, ask about your own branding:

  • Does it express your essence, your beliefs, your vibe?
  • Does it create a clear and compelling presence?
  • Does it say succinctly what you do, what you have to offer?
  • Does it persuade?

Yes? No?

3. Ask why. About everything.

Nothing in branding should be arbitrary. Everything should be there for a reason, and if the branding is based on a solid strategy, it will be. Branding done right rings true intuitively and doesn’t need explaining. It just feels right to everyone in the room. If it doesn’t, it’s your job to ask the bearded dudes why. About everything.

Why does the logo look the way it does? How does it communicate what we want to say? Why did you choose that font? What does it say about us? And is it what we want to say? Why did you choose these colours, or that icon style? And for the love of God why are you showing me ten fucking logos, how can they all be right?!

If the branding’s a turkey, roast ’em without mercy

If you have to ask so many questions you’re probably not in a good place. Best case the branding’s in the right direction but needs finessing. Worst case, you’re being robbed. Professional communicators are happy to answer your questions, because they have answers, because everything they bring to the table has a reason. Charlatans, on the other hand, start to panic. You don’t need to be a branding expert to smell bullshit in the room.

4. For heaven’s sake, don’t buy the branding because you like how it looks!

The role of branding is to communicate, not titillate.

Because, ladies and gentlemen, wow is not enough. It’s ephemeral. What wows you today won’t do it for you tomorrow. It’s a quick high followed by a long downer when you realise your brand’s not hot anymore and you have no strategy. Then you’re really screwed.

Yes, you should be judging the branding, that’s your job! But not based on whether ‘I like it’ or ‘it looks good’, but rather ‘does this makes sense’ and ‘does it rings true’. Liking the way the branding looks (alone) is no way to tell if it’s right or wrong for your organization. Liking is subjective. You like the logo? Who cares! It’s irrelevant! What you need is a good strategy and branding that expresses it faithfully. Get this much right and you’re halfway home.