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Brand vs Brand Identity: Is there a difference?

A brand is not a logo.

Nor is it just a combination of logo, typeface, and color. And it’s not just the products and services the company offers. It’s a bit more. It might seem like a silly distinction to draw, but we believe it’s an important one to recognize.

So, let’s set some quick definitions.

Brand identity is the tangible, visual component of a company (name, logo, communications, how the collateral looks and feels). And then there are touchpoints. Touchpoints are moments in time where people interact with a product or service. Touchpoints and identity are the parts we can see, touch, feel, and interact with. Every product or service ties together multiple touchpoints into what some might call a journey.

Does the sum of all this equal a brand?

Not quite.

It’s like a relationship.

The brand itself is more of an intangible thing – the gut feeling (as Marty Neumeier describes it in his book The Brand Gap) about the company that its customers have. Brands are an abstraction that exist in the minds of those who interact with them. The brand itself is not created by a company alone – it is also created by the people who interact with the company’s offering. Their gut feelings, memories, or experience will be anchored or attached to the brand identity. The visual identity becomes a symbol to hold all of that meaning. When they see the logo for the company or hear its name, they quickly recall those positive or negative feelings. Ideally that identity feels authentic and an appropriate fit for the associations it takes on.

In that sense, a brand is like a relationship between two people. The relationship isn’t a physical thing you can drop on your foot, but it’s very real and represents an emotional connection you have with another person. Over the course of time, that relationship takes on meaning through shared experiences, future expectations, and how we choose to talk about it.

What does this all mean?

You can’t create a great brand just by having a clever name or creating a cool logo. Just like you can’t develop a strong friendship by only looking like an interesting person. Branding as a discipline is more than slapping a coat of glossy paint on at the end. It takes time and intention.

You can’t create a great brand just by having a clever name or a cool logo, any more than you can develop a strong friendship just by looking like an interesting person.

Creating a visually stunning brand identity can do more harm than good. If the company is not operationally sound and is creating a negative experience for its customers a strong identity will serve as a lightning rod for negativity and brand terrorism.

A strong brand identity will make it easier to identify the good and the bad alike. Before you invest in a new identity, make sure that the experience you offer customers is a quality one. And then craft an identity that will help solidify the connection between hard-earned good experiences and your company.

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The Shape of Our New Business Cards

When we set out to redesign our business cards, we knew we didn’t want to go the standard route – we wanted something that would help tell our story. We had already been digging into the symbolism and imagery of wayfinding when we redesigned our logo. In that process we stumbled upon a fascinating shape called the reuleaux triangle – and it was perfect.

Reuleaux: /roo – LOH/

The reuleaux triangle has been used in many applications, from architecture to mathematics and map making. The overlapping section in the center of a three-set Venn diagram? That shape is the reuleaux triangle.

three-set venn diagram

Reuleaux triangles are geometrically beautiful shapes with surprising properties. They have been used as clever solutions to a variety of challenges in engineering and other fields. Its shape has a constant width – the diameter is the same no matter the orientation. It can rotate within a square while constantly touching all four sides, which allows for the creation of a drill bit that can create a square hole. How’s that for squaring the circle? Pencils in the shape of a reuleaux triangle have a couple of benefits: users often find them more comfortable to hold, and because they are not perfectly cylindrical, they are less likely to roll off tables and under your coworkers’ chair.

As creative guides for strategic journeys, the reuleaux triangle’s rich history in map making and trail signage is what ultimately captured our imagination. Leonardo da Vinci used the shape in an early map projection of the earth. It has been used in trail signage to help hikers find their way, such as along the Lewis and Clark National Trail. So it felt appropriate as the shape for our business cards, which help you find members of our team.

the cards tile into interesting patterns

We knew we wanted to feature topographic textures on the cards. But it couldn’t just be an image of topography – there needed to be some actual topography to our cards. They had to be tactile, where you could literally feel the terrain under your fingers. So of course we had them letterpressed! We are very pleased with the results.

Subaru: A History of Advertising Excellence

Car advertising can run the gamut of wonderfully genius to utterly divisive. On one end of the spectrum, you’ll find the endearing message present in Porsche’s 2006 ad “Through Children’s Eyes” that boasts the child-like wonder that a luxury sports car can conjure up. On the other end is the ad campaign that Chevrolet has been running for the past couple years showing “authentic” reactions to new models of vehicles and industry awards they have earned. The irony here is that the reactions have been edited so neatly that any actual earnestness that should be present is gutted for time and content. This is where Subaru has consistently deviated with their advertising in their history.

Subaru first entered the US market in the 60s with the 360. This vehicle was known for its efficiency but not exactly for its aesthetic. That’s putting it lightly. The car was a major eyesore. But this is where Subaru did something brilliant with their marketing. Instead of sugarcoating the benefits of the car, they steered into the skid. Literally.

“Because it’s cheap and ugly, a little Subaru goes a long way to make you happy”

Their ad campaign at the time actually stated that their car was “cheap and ugly”. That’s a brave statement to make about your product. But the draw is still there. Even though people get a chuckle out of it today, the commercials are honest in a way that advertising is usually not. Only a few brands have been able to capture the same truly authentic message.

A good example of another car company that has taken from Subaru’s retro playbook is Smart’s ForTwo Offroading commercial from 2013. This ad shows how poorly Smart’s vehicle performs in an off-road setting. It thuds into an unfortunately placed rock and is brought to a punctual halt by a shallow creek. But Smart doesn’t care. That isn’t where their machine thrives anyhow. It transitions to an urban setting and a larger vehicle passing over a parking spot that is slightly too small to fit in. Then the Smart car bulldozes in and takes the spot with ease. All of this is accompanied with some delightfully dated nu-metal for a humorous edge. But the same message is there. Everything has its cons, but you’re better off knowing them upfront.

“Smart reveals that the hero doesn’t need to win all of the time, but just needs to win in the end.”

Now it’s worth auditing Subaru’s strategy in the modern age, where high-angle shots of cars driving down stretches of roads or dirt at high speeds with pulsing synth and a deep-voiced narrator dominate the industry. They currently are running a broad campaign called “Love” that focuses on the people using the car and the how it benefits them, not just on a logistic level but on an emotional one as well. The specs of the cars themselves are rarely touched on in an intrepid move by Subaru.

“Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

A fantastic example of this is their Impreza 2017 ad “Moving Out”. This commercial tells the story of a boy growing up before his parent’s eyes and heading to college with the family car. The vehicle itself takes a back seat to the people that own it as a toddler packs his bag to leave for school and by the time he reaches the car, he has grown into a man. It really tugs at the heartstrings in a very Hallmark movie-esque way. The dog aging from a puppy to a grey-jowled hound is the cherry on top.

This is only one of many of the ads in this touching campaign that Subaru has been running. While admittedly more refined, it does having something in common with the “cheap and ugly” roots of Subaru’s American marketing. The emphasis isn’t so much the car itself, but what the car will do for you, the people around you, and your wallet. That’s a welcomed fresh perspective in the automotive industry that other brands can and have learned from.

Keep on keeping on, Subaru. The roads ahead are clear.

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Brand Identity Guidelines: Consistency Is King

Or at least kind of a big deal.

When we collaborate with our clients to help them refine, reimagine or build a new brand identity from the ground up, we always recommend codifying the good thinking that occurs into a set of identity guidelines. These guidelines spell out the essential elements that an organization uses to consistently communicate its identity, story and messages.

So… what’s a brand?

Consider that a brand is a collection of expectations, experiences and relationships that a customer feels towards an organization. As Marty Neumeier defines it in his book The Brand Flip (a recent favorite addition to our shared library), this collection is like a gut feeling that a customer has. It’s their immediate impression when they hear the name or see the logo.

A brand derives its value from the impression or trust that its customers identify with it and the values that they share together. When a brand works hard to deliver a positive and compelling experience, it needs a strong identity for its customers to tie that impression or gut feeling to. That identity comes to symbolize the shared values between the brand and its customers, and the good work that the brand carries out on their behalf. The value is not in the logo or name, but in the good work and relationship it symbolizes. It’s important to apply and live out a brand identity consistently to reinforce that relationship and good gut feeling.

What do brand identity guidelines consist of?

There are many components. Some are related to belief and purpose: name and logo, story or narrative, taglines and messaging. Other components help define the tone or personality of the brand and its visual vocabulary. These include colors, typographic style, imagery and illustrations. The combination of these elements helps to create a unique identity—an identity that communicates purpose and a set of shared values that click on a gut level.

Finding the right combination of these elements takes time and hard work. And yet the process is rewarding. We’ll outline that process in the coming weeks, and why it is one of the favorite experiences we share with our clients.

One Mistake Losing Brands Make

If someone were to ask 10 of your customers to describe what makes your business or service different, what would they say? Would they all say the same thing? What if the same question was asked of all your staff, leaders, and owners?

Winning brands have a consistent story, a message that staff and customers understand and can explain. The words and the message are always similar, always clear.

“Winning brands have a consistent story—a message that staff and customers understand and can explain.”

Losing brands have no center. They haven’t claimed their story or their space. These brands lose to consistent, clear brands.

So, is your brand winning or losing? What should you do if you’re not sure about your business brand?

Start here:

Step 1: Write down what makes your brand different and better in one clear, specific sentence.

This is not as easy as it seems, but it is vital to your success. This one line should explain the problem you solve and what success looks like, all in simple language. Cut any unnecessary words. Be specific. Ask key staff and customers to help refine this sentence until it’s right.

Step 2: Teach this sentence to every staff member on your team.

Do what it takes to ensure that every staff member knows this sentence by memory. Make it a game or a competition. Reward those who learn it quickly. Recite it every day together. Do something to make it stick.

Step 3: Use this sentence as a guiding thought for all your market messaging.

Brochures, website, social channels, print ads – everything you use to reach and educate your customers should be built from this one sentence. If something you’re currently using is not built on this sentence, get rid of it. Recreate it. Make it consistent. The cost of confusing your customers is much higher than the cost of printing new brochures.

Long ago, Aristotle taught us that excellence is only created when we repeatedly do the right thing. This lesson remains true for modern brands and businesses. We need to do the right thing, create one clear message, and repeat that message in everything we do and say. This is the secret of winning brands.

Be clear. Be consistent. Repeat.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
—Aristotle (as paraphrased by Will Durant)

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The Importance of Branding in the Medical Practice

The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines a brand as a “name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers.”

Branding in a Medical Context

How does this relate to a medical practice? Our patients today have access to more information than ever before to help them make a decision as to whom they choose for their medical procedure. There are markets and target audiences for everything but it’s your job as a medical practitioner to be crystal clear about the image for which you’re aiming and how that influences everything from services performed to pricing to patient experience.

Maria Ross, in Develop Your Brand Voice, Three Keys to Killer Messaging says, “The goal of the brand-building game is to get prospects to know, like and trust you so that when the need for your product or service arises – when they are most ready to buy – they think of you first.”

According to Laura Lake in What is Branding and How Important is it to Your Marketing Strategy?, the objectives that a good brand will achieve include:

  • Delivers the message clearly
  • Confirms your credibility
  • Connects your target prospects emotionally
  • Motivates the buyer
  • Concretes user loyalty

To succeed in branding you must understand the needs and wants of your customers and prospects. You do this by integrating your brand strategies through your company at every point of public contact.

Your brand resides within the hearts and minds of customers, clients and prospects. It is the sum total of their experiences and perceptions.

Branding and Social Media

How does social identity affect your brand? A patient’s first encounter with a physician is often through its online presence. 90% of 18 to 24 year olds surveyed said they would trust medical information shared by others on social media networks. 41% of patients said that social media would affect their choice of a specific doctor, hospital or medical facility. 60% of doctors say social media improves quality of care that patients receive. Providers should take advantage of the trust consumers have for them over other health companies.

Creating and establishing a brand takes time and effort. Maria Ross offers:

“Brand is a three-legged stool: It is conveyed visually, verbally and experientially. Visually is the easy part: your logo, your colors, your design, your packaging. Verbally is how you talk, what you say, and which messages you convey. For example, do you lead with price, or do you lead with value? Does your company speak in conservative, authoritarian tones, or are you more playful and whimsical in your copy? Ideally, your visual and verbal promises should align and lead to where the rubber hits the road: experience. In other words, once you’ve promised me the potential customer or client, something verbally and visually, does the experience match that promise?”

A Consistent Brand Builds Trust

Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Look to what you do know about the very essence of your practice and emulate that in a simple statement that can guide your brand in every aspect of your business. Be consistent and use that brand to define the visual image, verbal communication and the patient experience in all encounters.

If you fall short in maintaining the customer promise of your brand at any stage, the relationship and implied trust will be at risk. Instead, create the best possible experience for your patients and establish a long-lasting brand that will work for you.

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Why You Need a Good Design Brief

Try this next time you’re at a restaurant:

–What can I get for you, sir?
–Well, I’m hungry but I’m not sure what I want.
–Do you want me to give you more time with the menu?
–No, why don’t you just make some things and bring ’em out. I think I’ll know what I want when I see it.
–Oh. Um…are you thinking something light, like an appetizer? Or dessert? Dinner?
–I’m not sure–let’s just get the process started and I’ll let you know as we go.

That sort of exchange in a restaurant would probably end abruptly and you would leave hungry. Why should you approach a conversation with your creative team in the same way? Before the designers start their work, make sure everyone on both sides of the table has a clear idea of what they’re going to be working on. One way to do that is to take some time before diving into the project to develop a design brief.

What to include in your design brief

There are a lot of ways to approach it, but here are some things to consider when developing a good design brief:

Purpose

Before you answer any other questions, you should know why you’re even talking with a designer. What do you want this proposed project to accomplish? How will you know if it’s working?

Target Audience

Who is going to be reading or viewing this piece? How is the audience going to receive this piece? Will it be something to give to them in a face-to-face meeting? Or is it sent through the mail? Through social media?

Context

Nothing is produced in a vacuum.What other materials will accompany this piece? Unless you’re considering a complete rebrand, your current project is going to be used alongside your existing materials. If you are rebranding, your rebrand is going to be layered on top of the perceptions your audience currently has. Both clients and the designers should work to understand the context around the new project.

Style and Tone

What should this piece feel like? Is it informal and friendly like a warm cup of coffee? That might lead your designer towards a more casual look, perhaps with hand-drawn elements and organic textures. Should this piece feel formal and precise like a luxury car? Your designer might create a piece with a sleek gloss finish, crisp lines and dark colors. In this conversation, identifying what you don’t want is as helpful as what you do want. It’s also extremely helpful if you can provide your designer with examples of other materials you’ve seen that have the style and tone that you’re going for.

Color

It’s always helpful to have very specific color information about your brand. There is an infinite variety of shades of blue, for example–if the blue on this new piece is going to match the rest of your materials, your designer will need to know the exact color information for your brand–hex codes for web projects, and Pantone colors or specific CMYK values for print.

Content

What is this piece going to say? It’s especially important to define 1) who is going to be developing the content and 2) how much content there’s going to be. A 3-page Word document won’t fit on a business card, and shouldn’t fit on a billboard. The content should be finalized before the project moves to layout, to save on design time and costs.

Production Specifications–Size and Quantity

It may seem like the most boring aspect of the brief, but both the designer and the client need to have a clear understanding of what size the final deliverable should be. Be precise, down to the exact pixel dimensions or the exact trim size. Even small changes to the dimensions after the project has gone to layout can result in a lot of extra design hours. If you’re creating a physical piece, make sure that you talk early in the process about how many you’d like to produce–your designer may be able to lower your print costs if they know your quantities from the beginning.

Timeline and Milestones

You should both agree on when each phase of the project should be done (initial concepts, first drafts, revisions, etc.) as well as when the final materials should be delivered.

A good design brief means good expectations

One advantage of taking the time to create a design brief is that everyone’s expectations will come out in the process. Expectations are funny–you only realize that you have expectations when they haven’t been met. It’s invaluable to have a document that you can both refer back to as you develop the project. That common reference point will make future conversations about the project more productive.

You only realize that you have expectations when they haven’t been met.

Developing the design brief may mean a slower start initially, but it’s worth the time. The process will go smoother, with less wasted time and frustration on all sides. You’ll save time and money by communicating clearly from the beginning.

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Honest Marketing

Making fur hats out of kittens

When people in college told me they were studying marketing, they might as well have told me they studying to make fur hats out of kittens. I thought it was universally acknowledged that marketers were in the same camp as payday loan peddlers, Ponzi schemers and email spammers. I remember wondering if you had to sell your soul in the second or third year, or if that was more of a capstone, a Faustian final project in exchange for your diploma.

Do you have to sell your soul to work in marketing?

Marketing as a zero-sum game

“Marketing” doesn’t have to be dirty business where one side manipulates the other into acting a certain way. What I was reacting against at the time, and I what I still reject, is the kind of marketing that appeals to the lowest desires in a person and causes them to act in a way that is not actually in their best interest. Marketing that flatters, belittles or bullies its audience into a response that only serves the organization’s interest is mere manipulation and a waste of creative energy.

Marketing, and marketers, should not:

  1. Create a false “need”
  2. Appeal to the worst in people (our vanity, our pride, our hatred)
  3. Prey on people’s vulnerabilities (our insecurities, our fear, our ignorance)

I’m not interested in spending my time to do any of those things. Marketing or advertising that pits itself against the audience creates an adversarial sort of relationship, as in a zero-sum game. (In games like basketball there is no limit to how many times each side can score, and one side’s points don’t alter the number of points their opponent has. In zero-sum games like poker, the winner gains only as much as the other players lose.) But there is a way to “market” that is collaborative–one where both sides win.

So what should marketing do?

Honest marketing should tell the truth about the product, and it should also keep people from believing things that are not true about themselves. Companies have products to sell, and organizations have messages to promote. At the same time, if those products or messages are legitimate, valid and useful, their customers or audiences have a real need to buy those products or hear those messages. In this case, both sides benefit from marketing done well.

Marketing that is legitimate:

  1. Communicates what a brand is clearly and accurately
  2. Connects people with products and messages that help them live their lives
  3. Helps companies or organizations meet their goals

Tell your story well

A few years ago we developed some materials for a cabinet maker and carpenter to help him showcase his work. He’s a craftsman, and his work is beautiful, and in some ways his work speaks for itself. But the fact was that his work couldn’t speak for itself unless his audience and potential customers saw it. We took photographs that showed off his work. We developed a logo and a visual style for his printed material that matched the style of his work and his personality. We helped him create a web presence that was easy to find and to navigate. We “marketed” him and his work, but I think a more accurate way to describe it is that we told his story well. We didn’t try to show him as something he was not, or create false need for his products. We represented him well and people that were looking for products like his began to find him. Everybody wins.

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The Graveyard of Good Ideas

Years ago I read in the preface of a collection of a photographer’s work about a book that was impossible to make.  The book he was describing would never exist because it was a collection of  images that had never been created.  This photographer (whose name I’ve forgotten) was referring to the missed images–the moment when a spectator walked in front of the lens, the moment his finger missed the button, the moment just before the picture was taken, or just after.  The idea intrigued me enough that it’s stayed in my mind ever since.

I have a similar body of work.  In the process of creating logos, or layout projects, or web designs, a lot of decent material hits the cutting room floor and is never seen by anyone. In a logo design, for example, we create a series of initial concepts, and a small selection of the ideas generated are shown to the client.  The client identifies one or two as possibilities, and then we refine those further.  The final logo is chosen and the art is finalized.

The process works well, but at each phase a lot of good ideas are discarded.  The question is what to do with those good ideas?  Some of the general ideas may apply to other projects, but if we’ve done our job well, those concepts and design solutions are unique to that client’s situation.

Unlike the collection of the photographer I mentioned earlier, the ideas in this collection aren’t lost–they’re on my hard drive gathering digital dust.  It’s hard to imagine a context where that collection might be displayed.  Most clients would not like to have a handful of alternate, non-approved design pieces floating around with their names on it.  Because the concepts are inextricably bound up with the names and identities of the organizations they were created for, it’s impossible to make them anonymous without destroying the idea.

I’ve thought about ways to present this collection in the future, either on our site or in print, but for now our graveyard of good ideas is closed to the public.

(If anyone knows who this photographer is, please let me know.)

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Read More Fiction

A recent study has found that reading works of fiction has a strong correlation with increased empathy. As a designer, seeking to understand a client’s perspective, as well as their audience, is vital to an effective design solution. Which means I’m swapping out a tome on typography for C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (thanks for the recommendation, Tim!).

Consider the details of the research study and you too might be convinced to put down that dull technical book you are reading for work and grab your favorite piece of literature that’s been collecting dust on the shelf. The researchers found that people who read fictional stories and experienced emotional transportation into the narrative showed increased empathy over the course of one week. The important qualifier there is that readers are emotionally transported—without that key element the study found that readers actually experienced decreased empathy. And those who read non-fiction displayed no signs of either positive or negative changes in empathy.

This is more evidence of the power of storytelling. If you want your customers to be emotionally engaged with your brand, build a narrative around it. Share testimonies in a compelling way, but don’t just share the stories of your patients or customers—tell your story as well. I’m not suggesting that communication between brand and audience be fictional. Rather, we should critically consider the ways in which we communicate to ensure this key element of emotional transportation is present. Be authentic, be engaging. And when your audience tells your story they will be, too.