Earlier this week I wrote this on Twitter:
Random late night thought: a huge part of stewarding a brand well is defending consistency against the boredom of insiders.
It hit enough of a nerve to warrant a few favorites/retweets, so I thought I’d expound a bit. It wasn’t brought about by any one interaction or client or even brand, really, but having done this design thing for a few years now, you begin to see trends.
The nature of working closely with a brand logically means your interaction with that brand increases exponentially, typically far past the threshold of even the most ardent fans/users. I like and use Twitter on a near-daily basis, but if I worked at Twitter I’d constantly be interacting with it—like a foreign language student studying abroad, learning through immersion. The closer to the source, the more I know, see and experience.
But that presents a few problems, the most perceptible of which is that you’ve ceased to be your audience. If you’re not careful, you cease to build things for your audience and start to build things for yourself. You stop serving them and you start serving self. There’s a tricky line there—some of the best products, services and experiences are born from people building things for themselves—but rarely does anything large exist long term solely to scratch the proverbial itch of its creator(s).
Practical example: I work at a church with multiple campuses, each with multiple services (experiences, gatherings, what have you). On any given Sunday I interact with our brand, our services and our content for hours. I helped create our brand and have worked within those constraints for close to four years. So that video that runs mid-service? I’ve seen it 10 times before that Sunday. I maybe helped plan it, or write it, or set type for it, or review it. I see it run multiple times, on multiple days, maybe spanning multiple weeks. Dozens and dozens of interactions and touch points with the same content. Immersion.
So when I’m tempted to think “I don’t like it, we should try something else” or “this feels stale, let’s change up this sign or that template or that ritual” I have to remember that the average attender—the person we do all this stuff to communicate to and serve—might come to church once every four weeks. Or a handful of times a year. For the dozens of interactions I have with a solution or aspect of our brand, our primary audience probably has one or two, at best.
“I’m bored” is a horrible design strategy for implementing change. It proves you’ve lost focus on who you’re building a brand for in the first place. When you start catering to the bored whims of insiders you start confusing outsiders who are less familiar with your brand.
And when you start confusing outsiders, you stop reaching them.
The web is full of lists. “10 Ways to Get Fit Now,” “101 Photoshops Tips for Turbo-Tacky Text Effects,” “20 Underrated Mildly-Deformed Movie Villains”. We can’t get enough lists. But if I see another list of “Like, Totally Awesome Logos” I think I might cry.
The problem with these lists is that logos don’t do anything outside the context where they exist and the environment where they live. A logo in a big list of other logos is simply one more visual cue to identify something. It’s not a brand, it’s just a logo. Logos, in and of themselves, are far less important than we think they are.
With no context of what the represented company, organization, product, etc. is or how that logo is supported by typography, colors, standards or more importantly, culture, people and ideas, logos are fairly worthless. A logo can be described along the lines of “a combination of letters and/or graphics arranged in a distinctive design used to identify something in advertising and promotion.” They are a calling card, a big nametag. Some of them are ugly, some are beautiful, some are clever. With the right strategy and personnel, a logo is easy to manage, use and/or implement. In most cases, we directly control the destiny of your logo in terms of how it makes its way into the public eye. “Reproduce no smaller than 50.8mm,” “Use Pantone® 17-2031 TCX for print,” “80lb text weight with raised lettering for letterhead”. We’ve got our visual identity on lockdown, so we’re good, right? We’re like, totally branded.
A logo may communicate modern, friendly, and professional but the people who interact with our brand may see unclear wayfinding signage, a poorly-navigable website or, perhaps worst of all, lackluster customer service. Even if you hired a professional designer who picked the “right” typefaces, the bold complimentary colors and the coolest award-winning letterhead ever, all the logo in the world can’t change someone’s impression of you because everything meant to support your logo actually says the opposite about you.
Do you ever wish you could hear what other people are saying about you when you’re not around? Those are the conversations that define you and your brand. Did you catch that? You’re not in complete control. Your brand is who you are, what you do. No amount of standards, guidelines, rules or forbidden phrases will reign that in completely. A brand is built from perceptions, impressions, experiences — all of which happen in the mind of someone who isn’t us. How can we possibly think we can control that? Your brand has a life of its own the minute you interact with people for the first time. We can do our best to direct the conversation, to be transparent and open, but we have to admit (revel in!) the fact that our intentions in creating a brand are often irrelevant in the way that brand will be interpreted by others. You may have turned the ignition, but you’re just along for the ride.
Your brand should be ever-changing. Branding endeavors should understand and implement strategies that acknowledge the relative smallness of the logo in the overall take-away impressions of what we do. By all means, have a great logo. Make people jealous. Win awards. Be Big Chief Awesome Logo. But more importantly, make sure you’re actually living up to what that logo conveys in all your interactions.
Brands, branded, branding — the terminology is all wrong for what we need to be doing. If we want to be effective in our brand-building, we can’t approach it as an attempt to sear our message onto unsuspecting people (whether they like it or not). Branding like that is only skin-deep. It doesn’t add value to others, it imposes our rigid view of who we are onto them. It doesn’t involve anyone else. It isn’t interactive (and how can anything survive right now if it isn’t interactive?)
If our strategy is so dogmatic and inward-focused, we’ll always be limited by what we perceive ourselves to be. In turn, we’ll burn those same limitations into the people we’re trying to reach. We’ll never grow beyond the initial mark because we’ve choked all the life and possibility out of our brand by dogmatically trying to define it as a static, fixed thing. That disrespects, diminishes and seeks to manipulate people by shaping them into our image when we should realize that they’re the ones defining us.
You know the old adage that the customer’s always right? Well, I kind of think that the opposite is true. The customer is rarely right. And that is why you must seize the control of the circumstance and dominate every last detail: to guarantee that they’re going to have a far better time than they ever would have had if they tried to control it themselves.
—Charlie Trotter, A Leader Left Behind
I’m fairly sure the standards bearers of most of my favorite brands would agree with Charlie.
On my drive to work this morning I passed a residential neighborhood and noticed a small, likely-homemade yard sign in front of a house. The template was familiar:
Three lines. No fluff. No flash. Just the facts.
I imagine the small town local handyman market is fairly saturated, and word of mouth marketing amongst neighbors will make or break you. But this handyman isn’t hiding—not behind another name, another location, or any number of marketing tricks.
Do you believe in your business enough to brand your own front yard?
I booked a hotel online this past weekend in Charlotte, NC. I did my typical due diligence on reviews, sifted through a few negative ones, and then decided to take a bit of a chance anyway. Lesson learned. You should probably trust (the average of) peer reviews.
When I walked into The Blake Hotel, I got the impression that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The Blake is frozen in time, seemingly mid-renovation, with the bare minimum of effort, furniture, and fixtures to suspend the facade. The labyrinthian walk from the parking garage, through the attached conference center, and eventually into the hotel is a bizarre journey through the last few decades. And once I got to my room, I imagined I could take a ladder, set it up in any corner, and, if I pulled hard enough, remove the entire pseudo-boutique facade, like peeling off sheets of fresh latex paint.
Which is how most of us approach communications and design. A little gloss here, some fancy words there, and poof, all is well. But if you start from the outside it’s just a facelift. If the bones are rotten (or, in the case of The Blake, woefully outdated) putting on a coat of paint and throwing some modern touches at the problem won’t give you a cohesive, intentional, or finished result. Smart folks will see the cracks and feel the dissonance.
All your attempts at updating your look or your voice have to begin with the internal, or any attempt at a facelift will be wasted effort.
From Gap’s Monday press release (emphasis mine):
Since we rolled out an updated version of our logo last week on our website, we’ve seen an outpouring of comments from customers and the online community in support of the iconic blue box logo…ultimately, we’ve learned just how much energy there is around our brand.
The outpouring of comments wasn’t in support of their iconic logo. The outpouring of comments was because the proposed redesign was horribly unimaginative and lacking in any supporting collateral to show how the identity might be successfully implemented. The outpouring was a gigantic, crowdsourced “seriously, this is not an improvement.”
Don’t mistake outrage at a new solution for unswerving support of an old one. Sometimes new ideas are just so bad that the old ones were a lesser evil. And lesser evils are not the same thing as energetic support.
Rubenstein’s quote sounds pithy in retrospect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. When you call something what it is, it better enables on-the-spot decision making. If you dress it up with different clothes, clever names, and branding bell and whistles it’s still the thing—you’re just making it more difficult for people to know it on first pass. You can’t build long term trust by misleading people.
If you want to be a different fish, you’ve got to jump out of the school.
Most people don’t have enough time to interact with their kids, let alone your brand. Respect that.
I hate the word ‘branding’ as a claim of expertise. An expert is someone who has a deeper knowledge of the subject than others trading in the area. I wonder if there’s even such thing as a branding expert. There are just too many people in it and very, very few that have meaningful knowledge that others do not. A designer claiming expertise in branding is like a fish claiming expertise in swimming. It’s not expertise; it’s the price of entry.
— Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching
If your experience with client work has been anything like mine, you’ve done a lot more pitching without winning than winning without pitching. And even when you get jobs, they’re often poor fits with bad clients—which is still a loss. I’m only recently discovering what Enns has to say about client work and business in general, but it’s good stuff. You might start by perusing his website or subscribing to his monthly-ish email newsletter.
Start listening to people who are smarter than you. Your bottomline will thank you later.
This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about bbbbrands.com, a new project I’m working on with my good friend and fellow brand loyalist Noah Stokes. If you missed it or just need a recap, here’s part 1.
As Noah and I began to talk through the initial gist of bbbbrands and I started some sketches and typography explorations for an identity, I also began the task of thinking through taglines. Not every brand needs a tagline, but in this case it made sense to craft a line of copy that described the site’s core functionality to the user and helped us have a clear mission as we design and build it. A statement of purpose helps the user know exactly what value we’re providing to them and it gives us a main identifier for decision-making (e.g. does X or Y feature fall into what the tagline describes us as? If not, kill it.)
Here’s the first round of tagline attempts:
All of these more or less describe what the site will be full of, but there are problems with them, too. There’s way too much “brand” in there. The site name already has it, so repeating it in the tagline, especially twice, is overkill. These choices are passive. They’re a description of something, not an action or a call to participate. Some of the language of each individual tagline doesn’t hold up. What’s a label recommendation (#2)? What if they aren’t actually new recommendations (#4)? Are they really the best (#5)? All of these fall short.
As Noah and I bantered back and forth on IM (this is a bicoastal operation we’re running here) we settled on the concepts of sharing and discovering as the main verbs we want our users to engage in. Are you looking for recommendations for a new messenger bag? We want you to discover trusted brands on bbbbrands. Do you absolutely love your new American Apparel Tri-Blend Track Shirt? We want you to share that on bbbbrands.
The passivity is gone, but #6 still suffers from word overkill, #7 feels awkward, and #8 is just too long. #9 is close, but stops just short of what we want for users—sharing and discovering the brands themselves, not just the reviews of the brands. And then there was #10. Short, sweet, active, bold, truthful. If we do our job to build a site that attracts like-minded brand loyalists, then they’ll naturally share the best brands with one another. And over time our catalog of brand recommendations will become a playground for discovery.
On a design note, I initially fought myself on #10. Then I realized I was doing it for the wrong reason; I simply liked the typographic lock-up of the lowercase serif “from” in there. I liked how it looked. But this isn’t solely about letters and aesthetics, it has to act as a rudder and identifier. Ultimately, the content has to be more important than the form, even if it hurts.
We want our users to share and discover the best brands, so that’s our working tagline. But is it the best? Are we missing a better opportunity? We’d love your feedback.
My name is Joshua Blankenship, and I am a brand loyalist. A connoisseur of highly functional, beautiful things. Bags, jeans, toothbrushes, water bottles, pens, whiskey, guitar strings, and so on and so forth. If a thing is worth having, it’s worth having the best of it (that you can wisely afford.) And if there is a category of thing, I likely have an opinion on where to find the best of it.
So when my left coast friend Noah Stokes asked if I would be interested in collaborating on a site for like-minded brand loyalists, I jumped at the chance to handle design and branding. And when he started throwing out ideas about sharing our process for the project with our respective readers while we were still in the process, I got even more excited.
And so we begin humbly with the easy part: a name, a URL, a logo and a loose tagline to help serve as a mission while we start putting our money where our (collective) mouth is.
Noah has a great write-up on the beginnings of this idea here. If you don’t already, subscribe to Noah’s RSS Feed and my RSS feed to stay up to date on bbbbrands, and be sure to follow @bbbbrands on Twitter for other updates.
White Pages just launched a rebrand, and they have a few in-depth articles on the brand building process including site design, market research, visual identity, etc. Great work and insight.
If you ever wanted to see what it looks like to ditch 10 years of brand equity in favor of bland, lifeless sameness, check out Chipotle’s new visual identity. I wasn’t exactly a fan of the original branding, but at least it was simple and didn’t put them in the Taco Bell category. Sad.
Holy lack of brand architecture, Virgin has a lot of logo.
Quote, “[Monster Cable does not] have a concern if a company is using the word ‘monster’ in a purely descriptive sense to describe actual monsters.” Oh, the joy of trademark disputes.
Here’s Peter Arnell, he of the ill-fated Tropicana rebrand that was so quickly pulled from the shelves after a reported 20% decline in sales in 7 weeks, talking about the rebrand and using lots of references to “love” and “emotion,” very uncommon design terms. Perhaps for a reason.
A man without a smiling face must not open a shop.
— Chinese Proverb
Personality begins where comparison ends.
— Karl Lagerfeld
My powers of deductive reasoning tell me Karl is probably talking about fashion, but the same thing goes for your brand. Or your design work. Or your writing. Or your music. Etc.
(In case you missed it, you can read Part 1: The Logo)
Towards the end of the logo design process, I began seriously looking at typefaces to determine what kind of supporting typography would work well for NewSpring Church. I like to think of typefaces in corporate identity as a type of handwriting unique to an individual. One of the constraints this identity package needed to work within was budget. Quality typefaces are often not cheap (and rightly so if they’re well-made), but from a stewardship perspective our budget simply can’t/won’t support more than a handful of font licenses. I wanted a complimentary combo of a solid, modern sans-serif and a functional, ubiquitous serif but knew there had to be some tradeoff involved to get something appropriate and affordable/sustainable.
I researched a number of san-serif typefaces, particularly Hoefler & Frere-Jones’ Whitney which much of the final wordmark was based on. Ultimately, Whitney was a tad too playful and didn’t work as well on-screen for some of our video applications. But when I began using Berthold Akzidenz Grotesk Extended for the “Church” tagline in my logo iterations, something clicked.
It’s still fascinating to me that a typeface released in 1896 can somehow feel fresh today. Crazy Germans and their great typographic legacy. AG has much in common with other realist san-serif typefaces like Helvetica and Univers (both of which were based on it), but a few of the characters, particularly the capital R, led me towards AG when I began the first comps of wayfinding/environment signage for our facilities. In the end, a combination of AG Extended (for all-caps signage applications and AG Super for mixed-case applications started feeling cohesive and appropriate. We bought two 5-CPU licenses for Berthold Akzidenz Grotesk Collection, which includes all weights of the standard, condensed (occasionally used for web graphics) and extended versions. The Communications and Creative Arts teams create most public-facing graphics and visuals for NewSpring Church, so those teams are the only ones who have/use this typeface. That keeps things tidy and within our licensing budget.
Having settled on AG for “the designers” to use, we still needed something ubiquitous/affordable for the rest of our ministry staff to use in common applications like sign-up forms, internal documents, etc. As much as I wish the Communications team controlled everything, I also don’t — we’d never get it all done. The reality of life in a large organization is that this identity needs to make room for non-designers to create visuals in keeping with the visual identity that is being established. Narrowing the type choice down to something free and widely available obviously dramatically decreased the number of options. This is where my web design background actually helped solve a typography issue for once — the font family Lucida can be found on most modern computer systems. As I understand, it’s on all Apple computers with OS X and on most PCs that have Microsoft Word installed, so there’s no purchasing/licensing to deal with.
The Lucida family includes a rarely (at least from my experience) used version called Lucida Fax, a slab serif originally designed for fax sheets. The geometric nature of slab serifs appeals to my general design sensibilities, and worked well in partnership with Akzidenz Grotesk in some of my first typography experiments (which littered my workspace for weeks). Other members of the Communications team undertook the fairly large project of resetting all the internal documents and forms and such in Lucida Fax and making sure it was installed on all the computers at the office. We’ve been coaching our other staff and volunteers to think of Lucida Fax as “the NewSpring font” when creating documents.
The combination of a licensed sans-serif for the designers and a free serif for everyone else saves our church a great deal of money in font licensing, enables us to present a united typographic front in all applications, allows for enough interplay between the two faces to not feel limited and puts certain “design tools” (in the form of templates and a single font) into the hands of untrained ministry-level people so that they can produce visuals that are still in keeping with the NewSpring visual identity.
If I had an unlimited budget, I might have chosen a more-refined serif face (like H&FJ’s cut of Didot they did for Harper’s Bazaar), but that would’ve cost thousands of dollars that we can spend in better ways elsewhere. I think the AG/Lucida Fax combo gets us mostly there, and works within our constraints without cramping our style too much.
Still to come: signage, standards guides, copywriting and the relaunch of www.NewSpring.cc.