Imagine a world where your life carries you down a singular path. You are uncontrollably propelled forward. Each few steps down this path is another day in your life. Along the way you are forced to make choices. Intersections branch off and eventually lead to flower-filled fields or dark dangerous woods. At the time of decision, though, you don’t know the outcome. Each choice in the landscape of your life helps you grow stronger and face more adventurous paths; still, you’re never sure of what your next challenge might bring. Given this life journey, some people opt to select a path as they come upon it while others choose a point in the distance and pursue a course. With this imaginary world in our minds, we come to the land of branding.
There are many paths into the land of branding.
One might grow into branding through advertising or marketing careers, utilizing MBAs and trained analytical skills to discover unique perspectives for businesses. On another life path, graphic designers may advance into creative direction, gaining experience and the perspective to grasp the elusive big idea behind a brand. There are dozens of career paths into the land of branding, and the path that each career walks adds distinct knowledge and perspective to a specialist.
Marketers might describe brands in terms of products, sales, distribution, marketing, and the quality thereof—cohesively thought of as the health of their revenue generation machine. Marketers form a hypothesis that, if quarterly revenue is down; the brand is under-performing and action must be taken. This focus on business, finances and ROI often drives marketing’s understanding of a brand. In a business, a Marketing Department (whether one person or twenty) carries the responsibility of proving investments in the brand are worthwhile. They prove ROI with the health of the company’s revenue generation machine. Ergo, the marketer’s thought evolution, brand is equitable to the revenue generation machine.
From a graphic designer’s perspective, a brand may be described in terms of logos, packaging, and corporate identity systems. A graphic designer will focus heavily on the tactical deliverables necessary to increase brand awareness with customers. Deliverables define the graphic design trade and often form the backbone of industry experience and growth from junior designer through creative director. A hypothesis for graphic designers states, if the work successfully communicates with an audience; then the design is good and should increase brand awareness. The focus on communication and the trade of design drives the graphic designer’s understanding of a brand. Graphic Design Departments don’t generally exist in small- to medium-sized businesses, but graphic designers often work within a Marketing Department. The synergy of marketers needing to move the needle of sales and graphic designers wanting to complete tactical deliverables generally functions well.
However, neither of these two professional paths alone can successfully elevate a business to the level of a brand. Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap and Zag, defines a brand as, “A person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.” To create that type of reaction takes buy-in from every level of a company and a concerted effort to craft a meaningful vision and generate passion. It means establishing a market identity which stands apart from competition; not simply enacting the same daily, monthly, and quarterly business. It means taking a position and releasing something special into the world which makes others stop and pay attention. When we hear customers describe a product by its quality, excitement, or feel—that is the brand.
A brand isn’t a logo.
Look at the trademarks for Nike’s swoosh or IBM’s monogram. Neither of those are brands. They’re just marks. Nor is a brand the identity system for stationery, packaging, advertising, and anything else a company needs. Designers often sell brand identities as “brand design.” However, brand identities, defined in Designing Brand Identity, consists of a logotype design, stationery design, color palette selection, typography, key applications, look and feel, and visual assets. No feelings. Just good old design deliverables for the brand. Last, a brand is not a product. It’s not the sales, marketing, or advertising.
Brands are determined by customers; not companies. Neumieier postulates, “When enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling, a company can be said to have a brand.” Neumeier believes it’s not possible to create feelings, but it is possible to influence the way people feel. It takes guts, grit, and intention. The challenge is aligning people behind the same gut feeling; it takes time and consistency. To get there, we use the active verb: Branding. Debbie Millman, Chair and Co-Founder of the Masters Program in Branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York, defines branding as “Deliberate differentiation.” Branding helps a company purposely stand out, buck trends, or Zag (as Neumieir writes), and is the trick to standing out for customers to find the brand.
Extrapolating the word ‘brand,’ we infer that the act of branding is to purposely differentiate to influence a particular feeling in an audience. It’s for this reason that graphic designers are particularly suited to the world of branding. Graphic designers are trained to dissect trends; to analyze culture and synthesize appropriate solutions. A graphic designer’s career is defined by finding creative solutions which communicate in various looks and feels for different brands. Graphic design is all about making visuals feel a certain way though images and type.
Millman isn’t alone in the belief that brands need to stand out. In his book, Brand Intervention, David Brier shares 33 steps to transform brands and over half are variations on ‘Be Different.’ In Sticky Branding, Jeremy Miller tries to elevate sticky brands above the standard variety by declaring that, “Sticky Brands have something captivating and special about them—they draw customers to them. And once the customer buys, they realize the outside was only a piece of what makes the business special.”
Not all companies are actively pursuing the path of branding. Those that invest in their brands strive to be sticky brands, creating their own niche through exceptional brand experiences at every touchpoint; consistently over time. The continued focus on exceptional brand experiences influences both employees and customers to “feel” for the brand. Neither marketing nor graphic design are focused on feelings; so, who guides the brand?
Welcome the brand specialist.
Let’s say a brand specialist is an individual who guides a brand over time. They might be contractors or employed as Brand Managers all the way up to Chief Brand Officer (CBO). They actively pursue an understanding of culture, business, local and global change, and group dynamics and motivations—if not formally; then with deep personal curiosity. The specialist utilizes skills in research and information synergy to help a client Zag, when others zig, and build a brand presence with a receptive audience. In Sticky Branding, Miller believes that brands are built with an inside-company perspective as well as the external perspective. Inside the company, as he shares, the brand is embraced behind a common goal, vision, or culture. Outside the company, the brand manifests in customers, suppliers, and market perception. This idea is also reflected in Start with Why, where internal alignment behind a company’s WHY—including goals, culture, and values—is the foundation of Simon Sinek’s brand theories. Sinek believes that people buy WHY a company produces its products more than the products themselves.
A brand specialist works with internal teams to promote brand enthusiasm as well as assist or direct external efforts, if necessary. A specialist may advise management on business decisions—logical steps for brand growth—versus options which potentially derail the brand or confuse customers. Brand specialists find a point of alignment between the internal and external perspectives and design a brand experience to connect them, a little like match-making. Brand experiences are designed to foster feelings, and the more the brand is reinforced, the more company culture and community align behind the vision.
Can marketers or graphic designers build brands?
Sure! My own path started with imagination and years designing tactical assets. As Wheeler states in Designing Brand Identity, “Design is an iterative process that seeks to integrate meaning with form.” I learned to make deliverables which solve visual problems.
Of course, more experienced designers also function strategically. Wheeler continues, “The best designers work at the intersection of strategic imagination, intuition, design excellence, and experience.” In other words, the best designers understand where the brand wants to go and create unique solutions based on their own artistic sensibilities, research, and experience to get there. After all, graphic designers are great at making one thing look and feel like another.
Unfortunately, focusing on deliverables is only a small portion of what makes a brand. While a logo is the perfect start to the journey, branding specialists envision static and motion design—as well as sight, smell, sound, touch; taste (all five senses)—in a consistent way which builds a brand’s appeal and influence feelings over time. Brand specialists constantly examine the big picture to guide the brand in the right direction, toward a chosen goal. Simultaneously, brand specialists make sure every experience touch point represents the brand. Creating a brand is a long-term endeavor with many deliverables, each of which slowly build consistency to establish the brand in the eyes of employees and customers. Over time, experiences build trust and both audiences correlate the brand with their feelings, building a community.
In my imagination, the land of branding is an enormous fertile valley with high mountains on every side. The air in the valley is cool and clean. The people are cautious and friendly. The paths into the valley are difficult to traverse as they thread in, around, and through various rocky spires. Upon discovering a pass through the rocky crags, in my imagination, my goals change. No longer am I focused on individual steps; nor am I climbing simply for my own success. Looking into the beautiful valley far below, my story is small compared to the stories I can help others tell. My years in professional design were practice paid toward solving bigger challenges: those of people, business, connections, and feelings. The value I provide is the tool of design, the intelligence to use the tool effectively, and the quirkiness to apply the tool where others may not see the appeal. My skills are creativity and curiosity. My goal is to work with brands who want my help; to listen and set the desired path toward an optimized future; to map a course, build a community, and keep everyone on track as the brand grows. My path brings people together and achieves goals. My superpowers are observation, empathy, and manifestation. My world is different than that of a graphic designer. Graphic design is black and white and I play in branding’s technicolor.
I am a brand specialist.