Four years ago, I received a call from the president of an organization now known by the name of The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (AMYA), Dr. Bilal Rana. I knew Bilal from a project that I’d helped with years before, and we occasionally ran into each other through mutual friends.
Bilal knew that I was a creative person, of some sort or another, and he was looking for fresh ideas to help kick start the organization he now led, and to help it achieve its goals. As with any consultation, I started with the basic question: “What is your organization’s Mission, Vision and Values?” At that time, as with many organizations, these were unspoken knowns that everyone just absorbed as they acclimated to the environment of AMYA, but AMYA is a complex organization. It consists of a national administrative arm, with corresponding regional and local administrations, but it's true members, at the grassroots level, are Muslim males between the ages of 7 and 40. This complex structure made it even more important to establish a firm identity.
Defining Your Unspoken Knowns
One of the easiest mistakes anyone can make when it comes to branding is to fail to spell out the obvious. Things like your company’s culture, mission, vision, values, do’s and don’ts are obvious to you or anyone who knows the brand, but can be hard for others to perceive from the outside.
In order to define and succinctly express these things, I often start by forcing myself to write down and ‘Twitter-ize’ my thoughts. Distilling everything down to its simplest form helps you cut through the noise of your subconscious.
So how do you do this? Scott Thomas — the man behind the Obama Campaign — and his company, ‘Simple Honest Work’, made a deck of cards to help with this. The basics are the same for any company. Start with a word association game and define the keywords that are important to you, as well as those that are not important or opposite to what you hold dear.
Refine your keywords down to what you consider to be your core values and use these as your guiding light for everything else. Your mission statement should be simple, spelling out what you do and why you do it. Once you have your values and mission statement, move on to the vision statement.
Your vision statement should encapsulate what you want to achieve. Trying to make your vision quantifiable will help safeguard against superfluous content. Your value statement should be an expansion of your values, giving them context so that others can understand where they come from.
Creating a Brand
A brand is not just a collection of symbols, color, photography or a tone guideline. A brand is the emotion that is sparked when you see it. It is made up of more than just visuals and copy; it is the culmination of everything you embody and stand for.
Your mission, vision and value statements are the foundation of your brand. You need to have a solid foundation if you are going to build a brand that will stand the test of time. Use your core statements to inform and guide the creative process as you craft your brand. Your brand should be, as Sarah Parmenter says, “the product of deliberate conception.”
Focusing on What Matters
No matter how old and established your brand or organization is, the temptation to add on to your core initiatives is always looming. A general lack of focus will hurt your core values and is a symptom of deviation from your mission and vision statement. This doesn’t mean that you can’t branch out and do new things, but you must be mindful of clutter and anything that detracts from your vision.
List all the things you do and compare them to your list of core values. If you find yourself having to rationalize something you do, re-prioritize.
I created an optional manifesto statement for AMYA to help drive home the reasoning behind the re-branding. To create this manifesto, I simply distilled the mission, vision and value statements into one coherent paragraph.
At AMYA, we used to support many humanitarian causes in addition to our core mission. The result was a depletion of morale and manpower of staff at these events. Though noble, trying to do too much translated into our grassroots membership having to come out every weekend, all year round, for different initiatives, resulting in understaffed events and low participation. We asked ourselves what humanitarian cause best complements our core beliefs, and we found hunger. In the years since making that hard choice, AMYA has raised and donated over $100,000 and fed over 700,000 hungry Americans.
This doesn’t mean we have completely stopped supporting the other causes; we just prioritize and evangelize eliminating hunger in America. With this newfound focus we have truly been able to move a needle and make a difference.
Typography, in most cases, is the single most used representation of your brand. This is why we see every major brand in the world invest in their own custom typeface. You might not have the budget to commission such a task but picking the font that best represents your brand is essential.
It might sound like utter nonsense, but different typefaces have their own characteristics and elicit different emotions. For example, how rounded a font is commonly corresponds to where it sits on the spectrum of ‘professional’ to ‘naïve’, which explains why Comic Sans has become a recognized symbol of unprofessionalism.
First, think of what emotions you want to feel when you see your brand. List these emotions and set them alongside your list of core values. These two word banks will help you zero in on a group of fonts that ‘feel right’. Think about who your target audience is, what your mission is, and how you want to be perceived.
For AMYA, our target audience was clear: we wanted to engage and empower the youth. AMYA’s charter is a large demographic, spanning from ages 7 to 40. However, we knew that it was most important to reach those members aged between 15 and 25. We know, through research and experience, that this is the age where we ‘find ourselves’ and are more susceptible to negative influences. We wanted to make sure that, through AMYA, no member felt alone or the need to join any other organization.
This translated into a goal of being a modern, friendly yet approachable brand. We determined that having a sans-serif typeface as our primary font was the right call. Sans-serif conveys a less professional feel, making it more friendly. We narrowed down the selection to fonts that had understated curves and were predominantly straight. Clean, straight lines gave a modern and professional feel, while understated curves provided a touch of character. We decided on Maven Pro: a balance of modern, professional, and friendly.
Colors are another topic that can seem like an art critic pulling nothing out of thin air, but color gives your brand depth and flexibility.
The truth is that through a combination of nature and nurture, colors hold deep meaning. There is a reason why red and yellow jump out at us; they have very primal connections. Selecting colors shouldn’t be just an exercise in color theory or art. We can simply apply our objective thinking here and use our list of values to guide us in selecting a palette that enhances our brand. A quick Google search on ‘psychology of color’ brings up hundreds of articles that have a common theme for each color. Comparing the lists of colors and their emotions to the list of values can help you draw meaning from those colors. Selecting the hue or style of your palette can help enhance the personality of your brand: neon colors can inject a sense of excitement and energy, pastels can create a calmer feel, while earthy colors can give a perception of stability and warmth.
Knowing that we wanted AMYA to be a modern, friendly yet approachable brand, we settled on a mix between earthy and pastel color hues. We picked earthy red, blue, brown, and dark grey as our primary colors and pastel purple, turquoise, and green as our secondary colors. Our primary colors exude a sense of warmth, loyalty, strength and sophistication, while our secondary colors convey wisdom, serenity and refreshment. We used these colors not just for style but to help convey the right tone.
Picking Your Platforms
In today’s world, deciding which platforms your brand will exist on will not only help propagate your brand but also safeguard it from being diluted. To start, you must first understand what each platform has to offer. The meaning or benefits of a platform might also differ depending on your industry. News media, for instance, can derive tremendous benefits from Twitter and other real time platforms, whereas something like Instagram might fall flat. Fashion media might find the inverse to be true, with Instagram’s editorial aspect falling hand in hand with more traditional magazine platforms.
To make things a bit more complex, you might also focus on a different aspect of your brand depending on the platform. Vox is an excellent example of a brand that adapts its message depending on platform. Vox takes to Twitter like a typical newspaper, tweeting quotes from articles alongside imagery. However, on Instagram you will see engaging infographics and beautifully typeset block quotes. In short, Vox capitalizes on the individual strengths of each platform to further its brand and company goals.
Examine the strengths of each platform you are investigating and compare these with your mission and vision statement. Do you think this platform will help you achieve those particular goals? If yes, then create buckets for each platform, placing your values into the relevant buckets. By doing this, you can form a clearer connection to how your brand might manifest on each platform, allowing you to properly utilize them to your advantage.
AMYA already had existing accounts on a few social media platforms, along with an array of traditional media platforms. We started by considering which traditional media platforms still seemed relevant for us. We decided that a monthly print newsletter was best replaced by an email blast, whereas keeping the quarterly magazine was still essential to our goals. We analyzed our YouTube channel and realized that the current format required more resources than we could justify. We consciously decided that Vine and Snapchat did not align with our brand but that Instagram and Twitter would play an essential role in the future.
We wanted to make sure that we had a clear target audience for each platform. For Instagram we decided to keep our focus on our internal membership, crafting content that would excite our members. We determined that it was okay for us to risk alienating certain demographics on the platform because it helped us serve our specific purpose. Twitter became a more official channel, with a complex internal infrastructure. We set up a series of accounts to mirror our internal organization, meaning that we established national, regional and local accounts. Each level had its target audience, but all worked in unison to keep everything moving forward. Our local accounts focused on the needs of our grassroots members, as well as their local communities. Regional accounts helped promote the good work that our grassroots were doing, and our national account, in turn, could broadcast our activities as a national brand. We used the strengths of Twitter to our advantage and the results have been outstanding.
Letting the Brand Grow
Searching Google for examples of successful brands, you will often come across things like Brand Bibles being heralded as the pinnacle of a brand. It is important to note that a brand cannot be built in a day, a month, or even a year. The BBC, NASA and McDonald's have had decades to mature, and even they have found the need to adapt in this modern age of responsive design. You are not going to perfect your brand or finish your ‘deliberate conception’ overnight, and that is okay. Let your brand be flexible and grow as it needs to. Be open to new ideas and don’t be afraid to test and iterate, just be sure to use your mission, vision and values as your guiding light.
We decided to convert our guidelines into a digital format to help keep them fresh and up to date. You can view our latest brand guidelines here: