In 2019 I started a small segment called the Brand Spotlight in my weekly newsletter. They were awesome and I really enjoyed writing them, but they were scattered. I was covering everything from lifestyle brands, digital products, video games, jeez I needed focus. That being said, the structure of them was useful, especially to those who need a tangible example to associate with the branding principles I speak on. I'll be resurrecting this every month with a focus on software and breaking it up into five pieces over a week.
It seemed fitting to write about the pillars themselves since they make up the foundation of building a software brand.
Positioning is a framework that was laid out by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book bearing the same title. Without getting too far into the weeds, the premise is that the top three companies in a market category are the big players and that everything else is fighting over scraps. Reason being is that people only have so much of a cognitive load that only the top three per category will stick (unless you study brands for a living). For example, name three ESPs. Easy, right? Can you name a fourth? Probably not.
Positioning is crucial to a brand's success because market categories are created based on a user's need and those needs vary from individual to individual. If you can get inside their head and claim a position, you have a shot at growing your user base to people who fall under the same market. It puts the focus of the brand on solving a specific problem for a specific group of people.
Ranging from tone of voice to the actual calls to action, messaging is the first step out of the emotional ether of branding. It's a concrete, tangible part of an organization that is used to speak truth and tell a user how you will impact their life. If done properly, messaging will spur creative ideas, generate effective campaigns, delightfully guide your user, and make it possible for them to understand who you are, what you stand for, and how you can be of service.
You thought design would've been first, didn't you? Not today! The best way to describe the impact of visuals is to compare it with a person's clothes. They say a lot about you. From the colors of your shirt, the material it's made of, how it's cut, the accessories and small details like the watch on your wrist, all of it gives insight into who you are and what we can expect from you. Good visuals, like messaging, help users identify who you are and make it easy for us to recognize something from you. Akin to a countries flag, they are a symbol igniting a user's trust.
The most impactful amalgam of the above pillars is, of course, the product your company creates. If anything should reflect your positioning, your messaging, and your visual identity the most, it's the software people are expecting will change their life (no matter how great or small). In this pillar it's important to be aware of the other pieces of your brand that are out there for others to interact with. Including your website, your email marketing, digital and physical ads, physical collateral like business cards, social campaigns. All of these experiences add up to a cohesive brand or divide it. A good user experience feels the same no matter the medium.
Wasn't sure if I should include this last pillar, but I like odd numbers and it seems like a useful place to end the analysis of a brand. More importantly, it's something that a software company should be doing regularly anyway. After defining a brand, you will always be working to move closer toward a pure, concentrated manifestation of it. Since brands are emotions and it's difficult to constantly hit the nail on the head every time. But if we can use that emotional value, after having defined it in great detail, as a yardstick of aspiration, we can move toward it objectively.
I was giving an identity presentation to a client today and everything was going phenomenal. He liked the strategy behind the mark, thought it had a lot of character, and he was overall pleased with it. He did ask if he could see a slight variation of the mark.
What he had asked for was not going to work (I could see it in my head and it would've ruined the integrity of the logo). But, in the spirit of transparency, I replied with "let's try it out, right now."
Within five minutes, we had the options side-by-side and could clearly see that the previous mark was the better option.
If I had said, "ok let me get back to you in a day with these revisions," we both would have been frustrated. It's an unfortunate trope within the design community to never show the client your workspace or your design files. Which I don't understand, because I certainly feel engaged and have more respect for other craftsmen who show me their process. More important, it helps me hold it in reverence and respect the decisions they make.
Design is no different. If we are willing to be transparent and walk clients through the entire process, show them how our opinions are formulated, and talk through the solution, everyone is happier.
Show your work and talk about it. Being creative is simply not enough, you have to be able to articulate your thinking.
If you plan on having an element of your brand identity for a long time, say your name or your logo, it's imperative to research and make sure it will stand the test of time. Reason being that you want names and logos to be around for a while. You shouldn't push out these elements unless you're prepared to have them stick around for years.
However, when it comes to items that can (and should) adapt, your goal is to move fast, do good work, and change as needed. Pretty much everything your customer comes into contact with like your website, collateral, software, etc is going to adapt with technology and alongside user testing. In this case, make good stuff, test, and iterate.