Branding is a thing designers have to explain a lot.
“That’s not your brand.”
“Let’s make this more on brand.”
“Let’s look one more time at our brand guidelines and see if we can find Giddyup anywhere near the section on brand fonts.”
But recently, I had to explain brands to a bunch of people who already knew what they were in a class at Rice University, which meant I finally had to sit down and define exactly how we (the Black Sheep Agency) think differently about brands — what they are, how they work, what they need to do.
Brands live within culture, and so they are a reaction to us and our world and the things that are happening in it. That’s huge. A brand is so much more than a logo and a color palette and not-terrible typefaces. We should be building brands people are excited by and curious about, brands they’ll rally around. We should be building brands that actually make a difference. Why? Because that’s what humanity needs. Because every little bit helps, whether it comes from an individual or a brand. And because if you don’t, someone else will.
The reality is that people’s expectations for brands are very high. Having a good product is not enough. Having a website is not enough. Doing good is not enough. If you’re not wrapping all those things and then some into a cohesive brand that people find delightful, or relatable, or memorable, or human — something — whatever your niche is, you’re going to lose out to a brand that did.
Brands live within culture, and so they are a reaction to us and our world and the things that are happening in it.
What is a brand?
I could easily write a dictionary-style definition, but the reality is that a brand encompasses too many things to list, everything from typefaces to choice of social channels to, quite possibly, employee sock color. So instead we’re just going to think of our brand as a multifaceted, soulful entity with passions, preferences, and an aesthetic all its own.
In short, we’re going to think of our brand like a person. It has to live in the world.
It has to get dressed every day, walk around, communicate, make friends, make choices, maintain connections, have a point of view… and other stuff we’ve never even thought of yet because your brand has to live in the future, too. Whew.
I’ve listed six major areas Black Sheep thinks about when we think about brands. Are there even more brand blah-blahs I could have included? Yes. But this is the combination I think is absolutely necessary to get a handle on everything you need:
If you’re a nonprofit you call it mission or vision, or if you watched Simon Sinek’s TED Talk you might call it your “why,” but the bottom line is that every brand needs a purpose to guide it. Your purpose is not “to make artisan cheese” or “to make money.” Those are delightful side effects. To truly relate to people, you have to have a direction, a driving force for your brand, a pursuit of purpose.
Are you trying to make life better for others in a specific way? Maybe to ease the process of grief or give abused, neglected children a shot at a perfectly ordinary childhood? Maybe you work in construction, but your vision for your city is to future-proof it against natural disasters. This is the core of your brand, and if you don’t know who you are/what you care about, no one else will, either.
Whatever you determine your purpose to be, all your decisions, goals, and content should reflect it to your audiences. (This is how we get buzzwords like authenticity and street cred.)
If we’re thinking of our brand as a person, it may help to define a personality for it — internally, of course. It’s not a mascot, but it does serve to help everyone within your organization better understand how your brand works and behaves. It can be a celebrity or celebrities, a made-up persona you endow with certain characteristics, or possibly IRL leadership of your company.
Whether you choose a persona or not, you should definitely choose personality descriptors for your brand: edgy, energetic, welcoming, silly, sarcastic, passionate. You can even endow your brand with quirks and preferences that make sense with its personality (tells dad jokes, loves the Astros, can’t resist an underdog).
This is the obvious stuff: consistent and recognizable use of your logos, typefaces, color palette, photography, illustration, data visualization, and whatever else you come up with.
While visual branding is less rigid now than it’s ever been, your materials should have a fairly consistent look and feel so your audience can easily recognize you in all the places you are. From receiving a business card to visiting your website to meeting at your company or organization’s office, these touch points should look and feel consistent — that way you’re building on your story in layers rather than starting over to make a new and slightly different impression each time.
Your brand doesn’t stop with a checklist of visual items. It needs to behave like an engagement campaign: flexible, robust, memorable, and conceptual. All the pieces should work together to tell an interesting and powerful story.
Voice and tone of your written content go a long way toward relating to your audiences. Are you formal and verbose? Simple and to the point? Sassy and risqué? Brand voice is where you really channel that personality we talked about, and it should always sound the same, even when the subject matter, media channel, or person writing the content changes.
For an audience to begin to love your brand, their experience needs to feel consistent, like a (very cool) person they’re getting to know.
This is the stuff not included in the more literal checklist items we’ve discussed. Brand environment is more about where and how your brand lives. It’s the social media channels you choose to have profiles on. Where (or if!) you advertise. What kinds of influencers you might work with. What your office feels like. Whether or not you give away
The more your brand shares the same environments as its target audience, the better it will work.
I mentioned earlier that your brand has to walk around in the world, and our world is constantly changing. It’s influenced by pop culture, current events, wins and losses, emerging technology, the weather, and even an unknown future. This means your brand has to react to things that are within the realm of your audience: an important album drop, a cultural tragedy, viral content, a political decision, or the ever-increasing popularity of, say, VR. Do you know how your brand would respond to something like Hurricane Harvey? Would it participate in something like #HotGirlSummer?
These are the things we should decide in advance, because these are the moments during which your brand is the most interesting, or relatable, or memorable. These are the moments where you can make or break relationships in a big, big way. (Lookin’ at you, Pepsi and Kendall Jenner.)
How do you know when you’ve done it right?
I’ve written a lot about how Black Sheep builds creative campaigns and where ideas come from, so I won’t duplicate that content here. But what I will give you is this super-short checklist that lets you know when you’ve nailed it:
- When it reflects your aspirational self. (This may not be who you are now, but it’s where you’re headed!)
- When it tells a story from the first glance. (This is how we draw people in — curiosity, the promise of a narrative.)
- When it couldn’t belong to anyone else.
That’s really all. Once you’re telling a cohesive story about something interesting that’s speaking to the right audience, you’ve succeeded with your own, original brand.