Collaborative Branding

Or How We Learned to Play Well with Others (and Start Charging Ourselves Our Hourly Whenever We Use the Word ‘Strategy’)

Sep 17, 2014 · 7 min read

Branding agencies are notoriously bad at explaining what they do simply. Take a good look at most of the players in the space and you’ll see some pretty common themes — and rampant overuse of words like ‘co-creation’, ‘validation’, and ‘holistic’ and ‘futurism’. Now, we can’t say we haven’t been guilty of doing pretty much the same thing — especially way back in our early days when we were still struggling to define our particular take on what branding actually is. But we’re getting a little better at it lately.

Hard thing is, branding isn’t really a fixed thing. It’s always changing. Its meaning is constantly shifting. Once upon a time, it was all about basically repeating yourself, loudly— and boring your way into the collective consciousness of consumers to create desire (often for things that people didn’t actually need). It used to be about control and consistentcy (thus the massive, ultra-proscriptive brand guidlines books our clients used to ask us for). It used to be about standards and enforcement. Thankfully, those days are largely behind us.

Nowadays, brand building (or at least our brand of brand building) is more about letting go. It’s about figuring out what you really, really stand for (i.e.: what’s actually true about who you are), figuring out what your audience actually cares about (i.e.: what’s really on their minds), and finding the right ways to show up for them when they need you most. It’s not about hogging the conversation and hawking your wares. It’s about honest give and take, in a ‘we’re in this for the long-haul’ kinda way. It’s a process, not a project. And it never. Ever. Ends.

All of which, as it happens, is also a nice way of desciribing the best sort of branding engagements. When companies hire agencies that believe in honest give and take — agencies that are in it with you for the long haul — the results tend to be much, much better.

So basically, don’t hire some crack team of purported geniuses and expect them to come back to you with some magic formula for how you should look, sound, and act. Instead, prepare to get your hands dirty. Prepare to go deep — and get to the heart of why you’re struggling with being who you know you should be. In other words, hire an agency that can let go of its ego so that you can let go of your brand — and make it its bigger, better self.

Hire an agency that can let go of its ego so that you can let go of your brand — and make it its bigger, better self.

Okay so how, particularly, does this actually play out in the real world? Without getting too wonk-y or too sales-y about it, here’s a (relatively) quick moment-by-moment breakdown of how we make it work for our clients. Note the peculiar absence of the word ‘strategy’. And feel free to call BS on anything you think feels like process talk. We’re always looking for ways to make this crisper — if only for our own sanity.

This is us getting up to speed on what makes you you. It’s us talking to people throught the company (in the C-suite and the mailroom) to suss out what’s standing in your way or how things could be better. And it’s us (and you) taking what we hear at HQ and using it to frame up the sort of questions we ask real people when we head out together and talk to your customers. This is definitely not the sort of one-way mirror focus group hocus pocus stuff — it’s not validation basically. It’s us trying to get an honest take on what people already think and feel about you — and then bringing it back to the company in a way that makes people on the inside sit up and take notice.

THE GOAL: A deep and shared understanding of the current state of the brand.

Getting Up To Speed /

Often this is as much about inteviewing your customers as it is about interviewing your employees. It’s about understanding both — and finding ways to connect what they care about. And, when Intuit called us to help them better deliver on the brand promise of Simplying the Business of Life, we talked to SO MANY PEOPLE it made our heads spin. But in a good way.

This is us taking what we learned in the discovery phase and beginning to make sense of it. It’s us working with your team to distill things down to their essence. It’s not us disapearing to the comfort of our studio for two weeks and coming back with a lovely but massive deck that feels totally dialed. Uh-uh. It’s more like us camping out with you in a conference room and turning it into something that vaguely resembles the Unibomber’s cabin. It’s sloppy but surprsingly efficient. And, even though it looks like choas to the untrained eye, the end result tends to be diamond-like. Becuase it’s true, and we arrived at it together.

THE GOAL: A set of driving principles that get everyone on the same page.

Hashing Out the Fundamentals /

Ah, Post-It Notes. What would we do without them? Especially when we’re free-forming our initial take on what we heard from your customers. On our recent Intuit project — where we were charged with bringing the voice of the customer into the organization in ways that people could grasp, be moved by, and act on — the goal was to tell a complicated story crisply. Simply.

This is us giving you a little peek into the future. It’s where we explore big ideas hammer out prototypes (often with your designers and engineers in the lead) of a blue sky future where you’re saying, making, and doing the sorts of things that stoke your audience. It’s not us going away and coming back with pixel-perfect solutions. It’s all of us iterating on provocations that serve as a catalyst for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking from the team. Because your people are deeply involved in fleshing the big idea(s) and the artifacts of that thinking in action, moving from prototype to product later tends to a whole lot easier. And tons faster.

THE GOAL: Tangible provocations that illustrate various possibilities for evolving the brand.

Imagining the Future /

Once we have everyone on the same page re: the fundamental concerns of your audience, we sketch out lo-fi, big-picture prototypes of a range of experiences that began to point the way forward. In Intuit’s case they were simple enough to keep people from getting too hung up on the details, but pointed enough to get the (big) idea across quickly and clearly.

This is us getting our hands dirty and executing on the ideas we’re championing (which, for us, feels more honest than the typical fire and forget consulting gig). It’s us sparking the imagination of the doers within your company — and working with them to reimagine how your brand actually shows up in the world. It could be hashing out what you look and sound like. It could be redesigning your entire idenity. It could be evolving your digital presence. It could be building out a whole new product platform. But whatever it is, it’s us and you taking tangible action together on the insights we gathered at the outset — and using them to bring your brand to life in a way that’s fundamentally true.

THE GOAL: Branded creative that follows through on the ideas we’ve developed and discovered.

Actually Making Stuff /

Whether we’re building public-facing branded creative or internally-facing narrative content, the goal is pretty much the same — tell a story that people can get behind and take action on. In Intuit’s case, one of the internal pieces was a long-form documentary about the triumphs and travails of running a small business — and what it feels like when Intuit makes it harder, not easier.

It’s kind of impossible not to use the whole ‘teach a man to fish’ analogy — because that’s pretty much what the whole thing’s about. When you and your agency come away from a project not really sure who actually did what or which idea was whose, it’s a really, really good thing. Beause you both own it.

Or so we tend to think.

Branding for Humans

Miscellaneous thoughts about marketing brands in a noisy…

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