Defining your Brand Strategy with the Brand Brief

A couple of years ago Distill worked with Inner City Advisors to design a branding workshop for small businesses. ICA helps Bay Area small businesses grow and create good jobs for their community. There were 27 businesses that took part in the workshop, most with revenues in 6–7 figure range.

We do quite a bit of brand work at Distill. Throughout the years have used a variety of questionnaires and worksheets to support the process of designing or redesigning identities. In the case of this workshop, the businesses weren’t necessarily doing identity design, their goals were related to marketing initiatives, new product launches, or new channels they were trying to grow. A creative brief is a common tool to use for design projects in these realms, but we wanted to help the businesses create something that could have lasting impact on their brands, and help them achieve their more immediate goals.

So, we dug through all of our favorite brand and strategy books, reviewing worksheets and questionnaires we had used in the past. Stepping back to look at it all, we developed a framework that considers three core areas: Business strategy, competitive strategy, and brand strategy. We called it a Brand Brief. The hypothesis was this: If we could get people to write down, and refine these 3 viewpoints on their business, they would be able to make better decisions for their company and brand. The Brand Brief would support someone whether they were designing a campaign or logo, or designing interactions with their customers.

Download a Brand Brief template here.

Here’s a little bit about how to complete the different sections of the Brand Brief:

Business Strategy

Don’t feel the need to re-invent the wheel here. Some clients ask us to help refine their business strategy, but more often than not, we are just writing down an existing strategy in an organized manner. There are 3 components of the business strategy section: vision, mission, and values. Your vision answers the question “why does your business exist?” It describes some future state you aim to reach. NASA’s vision statement at the start of the 1960s was “Advancing man’s capability to explore the heavens”. The mission, on the other hand, is much more literal and specific. It describes what you do, day to day, to achieve your vision. NASA’s mission was: “Put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s”. Your values show what your business stands for. They are the principals that drive your company and guide your actions. Follow your gut and put down what feel like best answers; you can always come back later and adjust.

Customers and Competition

The competition section identifies the people that will connect with your vision and values (your customers), the alternatives they have (your competitors) and the reason they should choose you (your competitive advantage). To start with, instead of describing your customers through demographic information, try describing them through the problems you solve for them. For example, “people 21–40 in who drink alcohol” is a demographic description. It doesn’t say a whole lot about the customers or the context they are in. On the other hand, “People that are looking for something fun to do on Friday night” gives us a clearer picture of the needs the customers want met. Once you have a sense of the types of problems your product or service solves and contexts in which you solve them, consider how customers could solve their problems without using your products. In the case of these Friday night fun-lovers, a bar or nightclub is a competitor, but so is going to a cafe or having a dinner party with friends. The last element of this section is your competitive advantage. This is what makes you different and better than your competitors. It’s why customers should choose your solution. This is a tough one to really nail. Lots of businesses compete on many different angles, but don’t have a true, defensible competitive advantage.

Brand Strategy

This section is most recognizable as ‘branding’. We have 3 elements under this, but I think only 2 are essential: the big idea, and brand attributes. The third element, the brand promise is most useful when you need to produce a public facing message, or customer experience.

The big idea is probably the toughest part of your brief to decide on. Put simply, it is the concept behind your brand -what you are ‘about’. Eventually it should become a short, simply worded statement, but it is not necessarily your tagline, and it doesn’t have to be packaged for public consumption. A good big idea meets a few key criteria:

1. It is clearly different than your competitors’ ideas/brands. You want your brand to inhabit a totally separate space from your competitors. I like to examine competitor brands and try to identify what the big ideas behind them. I then put all of the competitors ideas onto one list and make sure my big idea is nothing like them.

2. It’s an idea that your target customers can embrace.
Apple’s big idea, which doubles as a tagline, is “Think Different”. People want to think of themselves as special and unique, so this is an idea they can embrace. If your customers can’t get excited about your big idea, its not a good one.

3. You can actually deliver an experience that matches the idea. If Apple product worked like all the other PC products out there, their big idea would be pretty worthless. In fact, it would hurt them, by setting customer expectations and then failing to meet those expectations.

How you go about creating and selecting your big idea is more art than science. You might want to look at your vision and think about why you started your business, alternatively, you could consider your competitive advantage, and how you solve your customer’s problems. If you’ve worked on a business model canvas and have a set of value propositions, you could try looking at them as a group to see if there’s an overarching theme. I encourage folks to follow their intuition and generate lots of ideas, then use the other elements of your brand brief to whittle down the options. For example, once you have a bunch of potential big ideas, write them down all in the same place, then look at the rest of your brand brief. Which of the ideas will your target customers just not care about? Cut those from the list. Which of your ideas are your competitors already working with? Cut those too. Which ideas don’t match with your values? Cut ‘em. Eventually you should be able to narrow in on some ideas that are feasible, and haven’t been done to death by others in your space. Take your time with this one. Develop a shortlist and then sleep on it. You want to get this right before you do too much design.

Brand attributes is another tough section, particularly for people who haven’t done a lot of design. Basically, brand attributes are adjectives that describe how your brand looks and feels. You decide on a set of attributes and they help you communicate what visual styles are appropriate for your brand, and how interactions with your brand should feel. Apple is almost known entirely for its brand attributes: innovative, stylish, intuitive, cool, casual, easy-going and friendly.

Choosing brand attributes is hard. Non-designers just don’t have as large a design vocabulary as designers, and there isn’t clarity about how different attributes might be reflected in the design. When you develop your attributes, share them with your design team, and have a discussion about how they interpret the different attributes.

Learn More and Create Your Own Brand Brief:

Go here for a more in-depth look at the Brand Brief.

Finally, much of our ideas and content for the Brand Brief came from the work of Marty Neumeier and Alina Wheeler. To really understand brands and branding, I recommend buying their books:

The Brand Gap

Zag

by Marty Neumeier

and

Designing Brand Identity

by Alina Wheeler.