BY CHUCK GREEN “Branding” is one of those issues we picture the marketing VPs of Intel or Kraft Foods worrying about—hardly something for a small or medium sized business to concern itself with. It’s easy, after all, to appreciate the value of a brand like Coca-Cola, but near impossible to see how the same principles apply to an organization with an advertising budget something less than 30 million dollars.
Or is it? Like it or not, your organization and the products or services it sells, have a brand. It is the sum of all the impressions your prospects and customers collect from the first time they hear your voice, see your brochure, or link to your Web site. And if you don’t take branding seriously, you’re leaving a critical piece of the marketing puzzle to little more than chance.
Establish the idea behind the brand
Advertising pioneer David Ogilvy referred to a brand as a “product’s personality…its name, its packaging, its price, the style of its advertising, and above all, the nature of the product itself.” How important is your personality to your everyday life? That’s how important your brand is to your business.
The brand is less about your organization than it is about the product or service it offers. Customers buy a product or service because it offers a benefit—it solves a problem, it saves money or time, it supports their attitudes or beliefs, it is pleasing to their senses, and so on. They favor a particular company because it offers the best price on a widely available product, it provides better service, has a superior reputation, and so on.
The first step in creating a new brand, or fleshing out an existing one, is to define those benefits. They should be the very essence of your organization—the foundational elements of every marketing effort and advertising campaign. Defining those benefits is the conceptual side of branding, but I want to focus on the other side—the visual side.
Develop a visual palette
I call the visual elements we use to present those brand ideas, a visual palette (figure 1). It includes all of the basic components you use to design most, if not all of your print, presentation, and online materials—a logo, typefaces, artwork, photographs, and color. Combined, they equal an image that distinguishes your organization from all others. Once it’s established, everyone involved with selling your organization, inside and out, can use it to build a brand that is both unique and consistent.
Should you create your own visual palette? If you’re not a designer, the question is an important one. I’m a big believer in doing only as much as you are comfortable doing. If, for example, you feel the type of talent you can afford to hire couldn’t possibly do a better job than you could do yourself, by all means, develop your palette yourself. If, on the other hand, you aren’t comfortable designing your own logo, choosing typefaces that work well together, or picking a palette of colors, and don’t want to learn, pass the pieces you are not comfortable with to a pro.
Remember this: developing a compelling message and a strong visual palette is not the place to skimp on time or money. I’ve seen countless cases of companies willing to invest tens of thousands of dollars for printing, ad space, and the sales staff to publicize a brand they spent next to nothing to create.
Start with the result in mind
Start by deciding how you want people to see your product, service, or cause. An outdoor outfitter, for example, wants an entirely different image than a bookkeeping firm—a natural, relaxed attitude versus a buttoned up, highly organized one. Study the brands being developed by your competitors. Read their advertising and marketing materials, visit their Web sites and those of similar businesses in other parts of the country to see how they distinguish themselves.
Remember, focus on branding your product or service, not your company. By that, I mean a company selling turn-of-the-century furniture reproductions may have a technologically advanced manufacturing facility and a progressive management structure, but its message and its image should focus on that turn-of-the-century style.
If you have drastically different types of products and services, do what the big guys do—develop a different brand for each. I’d venture to say we all know more about the individual brands of Doritos and Tropicana Orange Juice than we do about their parent Pepsico.
Assemble the pieces
Start with a logo and a display typeface. Typically, your logo is the foundational element on which you build your visual palette. If it is included on your signs, product packaging, brochures, stationery, and such, it stands to reason that it should be the visual center of gravity.
The example (figure 2) shows a simple logo I created from a clip art image of a surveyor’s transit (Objects & Icons, Image Club). I added two circles and a shaft of light to symbolize and emphasize the design and technical skill it takes to plan and build a road.
Once I had the logo in place I matched a typeface to it-–in this case (figure 3) the bold, clean Boca Raton Solid. Though I might certainly use other faces for body copy, and may add a third typeface for headlines and subheads, I’ll select faces to match the Boca Raton. The beauty of a palette is, the more comprehensive your choices, the fewer decisions you and others will need to make on individual projects down the road.
Combine it with an illustration style. The best artwork and photographs express something words alone cannot—they establish a mood, explain your idea, demonstrate a benefit, or show people, places, and products.
Today, you’ll find lots of image collections that are style specific (meaning they all look somewhat alike but cover a broad range of subjects, or they are subject-specific) roughly the same subject matter but in a variety of styles. There are also collections that are both subject and style specific—a single style representing a single subject—those collections offer the best solution for building a brand.
In this case (figure 7), I chose a series of transport-oriented images in vivid primary colors (EyeWire Photography). I could use these and similar royalty-free images to illustrate most of the client's materials and, if need be, supplement them with specific custom images shot by a professional photographer using roughly the same technique.
I’ve also chosen a collection of construction clip art images (figure 8) (Image Club, Construction) to add more visual interest. Combining simple clip art images with photographs makes your materials that much more unique.
Last but certainly not least, I selected a combination of colors to use throughout the client's materials—in this case, shades of red, yellow, and orange. One sure way to do this is to choose the colors from the photographs. In this case, I even went back and applied a shade of the same yellow-gold to the logo design.
The same selection process applies to any palette—design the logo first, choose the primary typeface second, select a collection of photographs, an assortment of clip art images, and last, choose two or three basic colors. For an outdoor outfitter it might look like this (figure 9):
Typeface: Bernhard Modern, Image Club; Photographs: Natural Landscapes, EyeWire Photographs; Clip art: Simple Silhouettes, Image Club
Or, for a computer networking consultant, a visual palette might look like this (figure 10):
Typeface: Bordeaux Roman Bold, ITC; Photographs: Business Connections, Digital Vision; Clip art: Objects & Icons, Image Club
Create a palette and stick with it
If your message and visual style are working, stick with it. Too often clients get bored with a long-standing brand or new players make change for the sake of change. Though you may see your brand every day, remember that your prospects and customers do not. They need to hear, read, and see a consistent message over a long period of time for your brand to have maximum effect.