2020 will not soon be forgotten. It’s been tumultuous, restless and confusing. But it’s also been enlightening, hopeful and creative. Impossible things have been made possible with the pandemic acting as a catalyst. Uncertainty has definitely become the new normal. Are we “all in this together,” or have we never been further apart? Should we rely on ourselves or governments? Should businesses be responsible for more than simply what they sell? Elvis Costello must have felt something similar in 1979 when he wrote the lyrics, “As I walk on through troubled times, my spirit gets so downhearted sometimes. So where are the strong, and who are the trusted? And where is the harmony, sweet harmony?”
Where are the strong companies you can count on? Who are the trusted people in your life? If this year has found you getting back to the basics in many ways, you’re not alone. The truly important has a way of clarifying itself in the face of adversity. As business leaders, we should be looking within as well. Are we a company our customers can trust? Are we offering value or are we simply a distraction in their lives?
“Branding” is defined as the ability to position a company or product uniquely and memorably in the marketplace. This differentiated position is crucial to every step of the sales funnel, from preference to choice to loyalty.
While branding does affect every other aspect of communication – advertising, public relations, customer experience – it is bigger than those things. It is more emotional than tactical; it is the very core of who you are and your value to the world.
For established companies, the idea of “re-branding” has become almost synonymous with “the nuclear option,” only to be considered when the company is losing market-share or making a radical shift in strategy. At best, it’s considered of secondary importance to operational improvements or a new ad campaign, but that’s the wrong approach. The longer a company operates, the more expansion happens – more staff, more products, more messaging, more channels. But all that “more” can lead to less – less strategic clarity, less ease for the customer, less of a differentiated position. Evaluating your own brand can lead to a renewed focus and enthusiasm from internal teams, better quality in the services you deliver, and more value for your company.
Not convinced? Here are four things I’ve learned about brand development in my 20 years in the design business:
1. Books are judged by their covers
As much as we’ve heard the age-old idiom and been instructed to go deeper than the exterior, it’s very difficult not to assume that “what you see is what you get.” Trusting a reader to get past the cover to fall in love with the content is a risk you can’t afford to take! This is especially true when the distractions of life mean a reader might not even make it past the first chapter.
Did you know that most published authors don’t have a say in the design of their own cover? You might think that’s unfair, but consider this: because of the time and energy invested by the author, they are less likely to see things as their potential readers will. A different perspective is needed to understand how the psychology of symbols and colors can draw in people who might otherwise walk past. This is “perception,” and it’s too powerful to ignore.
If your company’s brand identity feels out-of-touch or out-of-date, customers will assume your products or services are that way, too. Research has shown that these assumptions will be made by potential customers in less than two seconds. In a highly competitive economy, those are two seconds you’ll never get back.
2. Addition happens by subtraction
Have you heard the quote about how to create a sculpture of an elephant? “You just take a hunk of marble, then you chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.” The source of this quote is unknown, but the idea can serve as a metaphor for the design process; by chipping away what isn’t necessary, you can reveal the masterpiece that was there all along. What can be subtracted? As a company evolves, so do the variations of messages, processes and ideas. Even if this growth is well-intentioned, over time it can begin to blur your brand’s clarity of message and purpose. By bringing your purpose back into sharp focus, teams can be more efficient when creating customer-facing communications.
Since the pace of business screeched to a halt for many industries this year, why not consider getting back to your core? Re-discover the real you, before it seemed like a good idea to be all things to all people. Reducing the clutter and the noise within your own organization has a trickle-down effect that customers will appreciate, too.
3. It’s more than window dressing
Brand guru Scott Lerman says in Building Better Brands that “identity is often the most immediate and visible sign of change.” People take notice when a brand changes its logo. Even small modifications become fodder for commentary and buzz. A change will definitely get noticed, but don’t think for a minute that it ends there. Your brand identity is your front door, but if the experience doesn’t match the promise, the relationship crumbles.
Has anything significantly changed at your business over the past decade? Are you still using the old identity to market this new reality? Do employees feel proud to wear your identity as a badge of honor? Is your identity selling the experience short? The two should not be separated; your brand and your company must evolve side-by-side.
4. Courage is contagious
Change can be difficult, even when it’s the right thing to do. The key is to see down the road, past the difficult part, to envision another reality. Are you willing to take calculated risks to make this reality possible? The alternative is complacency, even stagnation. Do you want your employees to innovate and find new solutions? Then foster an environment where this is encouraged. People are hard-wired to want to be a part of something meaningful. A brand with a strong purpose and a clear identity can inspire people to be better versions of themselves, for the greater good.
Change is in the air. Doing things the way they’ve always been done is no longer an option. It’s time for companies to craft a differentiated brand identity based on solid principles, not trends. Customers will be drawn to the authenticity. Employees will embrace the clarity of mission. And your company will be one of the strong, one of the trusted.
Kyle Floyd is head of our partner company Stature, a branding & design studio based in Chicago.