Category Archives: branding

Defining Your Brand

Seth Godin, the popular author and venerable thought leader of the marketing industry, once defined a brand as follows:

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.

A brand’s value is merely the sum total of how much extra people will pay, or how often they choose, the expectations, memories, stories and relationships of one brand over the alternatives.

This definition serves as a useful reference and practical starting point when laying out the underlying strategies for your organization’s advertising and promotional activities. It also helps us counter the widely held misconception that your brand is merely your logo or the catchy tagline lining your marketing collateral. On the contrary, your brand is much more. In fact your brand is really a complex blend of tangible and intangible characteristics, perhaps more intangible as elaborated upon in Seth Godin’s definition.

Intangible Elements

The intangible attributes of your brand are arguably the most elusive to define aspects of branding your company, product or service. What does your brand represent? What are its core values, its culture, benefits and personality? How does your brand speak to your target audience? These are just some of the key questions that, when answered, can greatly influence the tangible side of your branding equation. These could also be regarded as the things people do not readily see, but rather feel and experience when they engage with your brand. For example, how ergonomically designed is your product and how do customers feel when they use it? When your customers fill out a contact form on your Web site or call your customer service department, how are these interactions handled? In each instance there is an opportunity (or failure) to brand your organization. These are often referred to as brand touchpoints. That is, points of contact between your products and services and customers. These touchpoints form a series of associations, feelings, attitudes and perceptions which ultimately shape people’s opinions of your brand.

Your customers’ associations, feelings, attitudes and perceptions are what essentially differentiate your brand. The challenge is to zero-in on what is most unique about your particular offerings in ways that will be memorable to your prospects. For example, your company may sell financial planning services, but so do dozens of other companies in your immediate locale. The question then arises, how is your company different from the competition in ways that are meaningful to your target customer? One of the first steps in branding your organization is to create a positioning statement or point of difference. This could be written in a few bullet points articulating the essence of your organization’s core purpose along with your brand’s ethos. These points may also encompass more abstract and aspirational qualities such as your company’s mission and vision statements. Your company’s mantra or 30-second “this is what we do” elevator pitch, if clearly defined, will guide your company’s brand positioning efforts in the marketplace and act as a catalyst in the creation of tangible brand elements.

Tangible Elements

Once your brand’s intangible attributes have been clearly defined it’s now possible to start building a visual language around your brand’s essential attributes. Your brand’s visual identity will ideally be expressed through your logoform, wordmark and often a succinct tagline or positioning line. These core elements should distill the essence of your brand’s overarching characteristics and speak to the intangible attributes we defined prior.
If, for example, your brand is luxurious, fun and energetic and caters primarily to a sophisticated urban-minded female audience, then it makes sense to support that narrative with appropriate visual elements. Designing your brand in this context begins with selecting a colour palette and a typographic style that relate to the story you are telling. From there, all imagery and graphic symbolism should optimally relate to your brand’s tone and manner and empathize with your audience’s complex array of wants and needs.

This groundwork will guide all future creative, marketing and design efforts associated with your brand. This includes traditional and digital media campaigns, merchandising, and promotion, all working together to build a loyal customer brand base.

Branding your business starts with a coherent understanding of its intangible attributes. Once these elements have been solidified they will support the creation of tangible brand elements. From there we can start to think about the bigger picture in terms of defining the scope of your branding.

image credit: loop_oh

Would You Really Crowdsource Your Brand Design?

art installation by Sophie Cave (2009), Kelvingrove Art Museum, Glasgow Scotland - photo by Trent Strohm

A couple weeks ago I had an impromptu meeting with a company who approached me through a digital marketing and recruitment agency I’ve been working with here in Toronto for several years now. The company, which will remain confidential for obvious reasons, liked my portfolio and were keen to retain my creative services to help revamp their digital presence.

Normally when I meet with a potential client for the first time I’ll take a step back and look at their existing brand and communication collateral to find out where things stand. In this case I wanted to begin with several fairly routine questions to better understand the overall scope of what they were looking for and also gauge the business objectives on the table that would ultimately influence the creative strategy and design approach undertaken.

But before I could go down this path I was quickly railroaded into 2 rather revealing questions:

“How long is this going to take?”

followed by:

“How much is this [new Web site] going to cost us?”

Naturally these are legitimate concerns, but when a potential client leads the initial meeting with these 2 questions before discussing anything else it sends mixed messages. Regardless, I was all too happy to frame a few possible scenarios but careful not to throw out any specific numbers at this point. After all, I wanted to know more about the company’s brand, their products, services, history—the usual background information, before delving into specific deliverables.

I managed to steer the conversation back to their brand. I asked about their existing digital and print collateral in circulation. One of the company’s senior stakeholders quickly jumped in and said that they had recently gone through a “rebranding” exercise and that they were ready to start thinking about applying their new and improved logo and brand positioning to specific pieces of marketing collateral. First on their hit list was a complete ground-up redesign of their flagship Web site.

Perfect, I thought, they were on-track with a solid approach.

Then one of the company stakeholders said something that literally stopped me dead in my tracks. He said, rather proudly:

“We had the design of our company logo crowdsourced on that site something-something-dot-something.”

(I can’t remember the URL —it doesn’t really matter).

He went on to say, almost boastfully:

“We received hundreds and hundreds of logo submissions from people in over 150 countries from all around the world, (ehem) and we only paid $$$”

Hearing those words, “we crowdsourced our brand design”, sent a cold chill up my spine. I quickly realized this wasn’t going to be a good fit.

Following our meeting one of the company stakeholders emailed me a copy of their new logoform. My initial reaction, to be perfectly frank …well, let’s just say it’s what you’d expect from a crowdsourcing site: a thoroughly unfocused mediocre solution.

While I can’t speak for other professions, crowdsourcing creative services completely undermines one of the basic tenets that drive our field forward: relationship building.

You see, in a typical crowdsourced project the client / designer relationship is basically nonexistent. There’s no sense of collaboration or trust and the process itself is reduced down to a contest —a contest in which participants compete to win the project with no real guarantee of compensation for their submitted creative work.

The traditional advertising pitch process on the other hand is very different. Usually a limited number of agencies (typically 3 or 4 at most) are invited to pitch ideas and there’s almost certainly a level of rapport established between client and agency before the pitch process begins.
Crowdsourcing sites by contrast can involve an infinite number of participants and, comparatively speaking, deal with miniscule budgets with very little—if any—chance for ongoing or follow-up work.

I recently came across an excellent post written by James Archer on this very topic. In Crowdsourcing your brand design: the math just doesn’t work out Archer points out that companies who use crowdsourcing resources for their branding and design are only getting a fraction of what they’re paying for —usually generic, or worse, plagiarized work from hordes of strangers with questionable motivations and credentials.

Archer uses the example of a $1000 logo design contest in which a company might receive on average 100+ logo variations from different designers. The designers submitting concepts almost certainly know they have a 1-in-100 chance of getting that $1,000. With that in mind the effort put forth will be fairly consistent with the odds: about 12 minutes of effort.

Contrast this approach with the same $1000 commissioned to an individual or small design team who will gladly focus 20+ hours of their creative problem solving abilities on research, ideation and concept development and the results start to look very different. This is where the real investment in design and creative thinking deliver the best possible results. 

There really are no shortcuts.

Crowdsourcing Web sites are, to say the very least, a colossal waste of time for everyone involved and only lead to mediocre design solutions.

Image source: Trent Strohm

Groupon: Clever Isn’t Clever When It Offends

Groupon Super Bowl ADs 2011

This morning it was fun to skim through some of the fallout from Super Bowl XLV. Among the popular train wrecks of discussion, Christina Aguilera’s unique rendition of the American national anthem and of course the Black Eyed Peas heavily scrutinized Tron Legacy-esque cover song-laden half time performance. Oh, brilliant work Slash—dude effectively finances his retirement with a few guitar licks and a couple minutes on stage with Fergie.

These were certainly noteworthy moments from what will no doubt go down as one of the biggest televised events of the year. Yet I’ll always remember this year’s Super Bowl broadcast not as the sporting event plagued by the usual technical glitches or vocal malfunctions, but rather the moment the world’s fastest growing company Groupon chose to debut a series of bizarre television spots, to a global audience of 111-million no less, promoting their online group discount service.

Groupon have been around for a couple years and until now have abstained from ‘big spend’ advertising in the media spotlight. Apart from a tidal wave of Web banner ADs Groupon have largely advertised their services through word-of-mouth marketing in the social media space. So what better venue than the Super Bowl, the most talked about advertising event of the year, to roll out a series of big budget television spots created by none other than Crispin Porter + Bogusky to dramatically raise their profile among the general public.

In particular three [now] infamous ADs: the Tibet spot with Timothy Hutton, the Rain Forest spot featuring Elizabeth Hurley, and the Save the Whales spot with Cuba Gooding Jr have caused an enormous stir online and in the news for their bewildering, perhaps unintentional, tone.

I’m really at a bit of a loss to understand the logic behind these spots (perhaps get people talking?) so rather than reiterate the overwhelming negative impression these ADs left upon people, let’s examine Groupon’s intent. Explanation from Groupon’s official blog:

The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as “Save the Whales”), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in “Save the Money”)?
Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site ( and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause. So we bought the spots, hired mockumentary expert Christopher Guest to direct them, enlisted some celebrity faux-philanthropists, and plopped down three Groupon ads before, during, and after the biggest American football game in the world.

If I’m reading the above explanation correctly, Groupon were trying to be clever, perhaps too clever, with audiences. Unfortunately the ‘PSA-style-mock concept’ backfired incredibly. Most people, certainly the semi-inebriated football fans who initially saw these spots during the game, were perplexed and generally put-off by what they saw. Groupon’s response seemed ambivalent to the negative feedback circulating the Twittersphere.

Sure, we all get what Groupon were trying to say with these ADs but ultimately clever only works where trust already exists. Groupon’s sheer lack of history and brand recognition among consumers perhaps explain why these ADs have been so widely condemned.

As one of the popular re-Tweets of the day goes, “Groupon have achieved the unique feat of paying 3 million to lose customers who previously loved them”. Still, it’s quite impressive to think a 2-year old Internet startup are able to fork out this kind of dough for 30-second spots during the Super Bowl—arguably the single most expensive event to buy advertising time.

As the saying goes, live and learn, and Groupon will almost certainly live to advertise another day.