Cinema has done a phenomenal job of showing us drama. Think about it, if everything in a movie went according to plan and the characters acted rationally, there'd be no tension and therefore no movie. It'd just be a walk through of good decision making and civic discussion about what to do next. It'd follow a logical progression.
What sucks is that creatives often infuse that drama into their creative process in the form of a pitch or a big reveal.
This isn't good. Pitches put both parties in a bad position and create an ultimatum from the event. How do we fix that?
We scaffold. More importantly, we build an ugly scaffold.
A scaffold? Yes, like the one's you see on the sides of skyscrapers. These structures follow the building from the ground up and work alongside the deliverable until it is ready to show. They are hideous, but they allow everyone to safely navigate from the ground-level to the top.
What does scaffolding look like for building a brand identity?
A good designer can educate and guide folks along the process (and it better be a process) from nothing to something. Instead of a giant presentation where clients give a giant "yes" or a giant "no," scaffolding allows for small tweaks along the way and a unified effort.
Build an ugly scaffold.
We are approaching the end of 2020, so there will be an inevitable slew of posts and articles titled "Design Trends 2021." This punch is for the faces of these articles.
Why am I against design trends? Three reasons:
1. They aren't really trends (mostly)
A trend is an upward, macro progression. They shift societies as a whole and alter what we perceive to be the norm. For example, data transparency, responsive design, artificial intelligence, public health (thanks COVID), or E-commerce are trends. Trends are movements that you either get on board with or your company becomes irrelevant. Design trends, therefore, do not fit the criteria... mostly. So let's play a game, which of these three seems like a genuine trend: gradient color swatches, serif typography, accessibility.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Accessibility is the only true trend within that trio. Why? Because your company is not going to be put into jeopardy if you do not adopt gradient color swatches or use serif typography, but it will suffer if it doesn't take into account user accessibility. Remember, trends are macro movements, not subjective, fad design practices.
2. You will have to change it eventually
Expectedly, if you shift with the design trends, you will be shifting a lot. Stand firm on your voice once you find it. Which brings me to my last point:
3. Trends pull away from your story
I'm a firm believer in stealing your identity. Meaning, you have a story to tell, there are things that have influenced you and you can use language, visuals, and other assets from those muses to cohesively fuel your brand. More importantly, you can do so in a way that is impactful and different. Rather than focusing on trends, focus on what you want people to feel. Find things that help foster that feeling and use them in your branding.
Design "trends" are shiny objects. Screw 'em.
There is a lot of science and research to building a brand. Knowing the right things to say, the right colors to differentiate yourself from the competition, all that other stuff that is tactically important to the job. It is important, absolutely. However it is easy to approach branding with all head and no heart, which is where things go wrong. Most likely, it is because entrepreneurs and change-makers overlook a giant piece of the puzzle: themselves.
That's right, you. You have a story. You have been places others haven't, you have a personality, and you have envisioned a world different than the one you currently inhabit (that's why you're in business after all, to change the world). You are a rebel because you've decided that the current way things are is not satisfactory. You are driving change.
My ask is this: don't lose sight of how important your story is. It is your biggest asset in building a brand.
"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."
Go change the world you rebel.
Good creative is hard to come by. There are a lot of designers out there, but few of them can focus their talents toward other people's goals. More importantly, if they are given a set of to-do's, their talent dries up from micromanagement. The solution? A compass.
Yes, by golly, a compass. A special compass. One that you and your designer come up with together. A north star guiding the decisions made and inspiring your designer to keep moving.
What goes into a compass? Context, expected outcomes, boundaries, and aspiration. A good designer will take these and run. Wanna get good work? Make a design compass.
I want you to imagine a drum kit. Now imagine someone sits on a stool behind it and persistently pounds the snare, the toms, and cymbals violently, repeatedly, and without rest. The resulting bash of noise is nothing you would expect from a top performer or something you'd want to hear on a record. It sucks.
Now think about someone else who tactfully and precisely plays each piece of the kit with rhythm and technique. They create a series of harmonious tones that entice your ears. They don't hit every piece at the exact same time, they let them breathe and give each its due space in the spotlight. They rest between notes.
Same principle applies to design. If you try to play all the pieces of your kit (a call to action, a tagline, your logo, information, graphs, charts, etc) at once, you will create noise.
Rest between notes.
"We imagine this will take 20 hours of work."
Well, I can imagine quite a bit too. I can imagine the work would take 4 hours and that would be something, wouldn't it? I can also imagine it going over 20 hours, which would be a real bummer because we'd lose time.
What's the point? No one knows how long projects take. Billing by the hour puts the risk in my client's hands, since anything that takes longer than we'd initially planned becomes their problem instead of mine.That's not the kind of assurance I want to provide.
Sure, it could be easier to just keep the clock running and send a bill, but that is conformity. That is being unsure of how good you are as professional and being unable to create innovate solutions for clients. Billing hourly is not the rebel way.
People amaze me. I never get tired of the stories that comprise the life of another human being. They've been places I haven't, done things I haven't, and have skills I don't possess. It's these pieces of humanity that make people interesting.
What bums me out is when others don't see it that way. When they choose to hide who they are, where they've been, and any other sparks of individuality that make their story worth hearing. That story is woven into the brand of your company, whether you like it or not. The way I see it, you can either embrace it and tell it to its fullest or hide behind the mask of what you think others want to hear.
Take off your mask.
Identity design and website design are partnerships. It is someone coming to a designer asking them to solve a problem, create something awesome, and do so with as little bumps as possible.
Now here's the problem with that statement: you have no idea what problem to solve, what constitutes "awesome," and what could be a bump.
All of those are subjective elements. If the designer and client are not aligned on what these all mean, then the project is not gonna end well. Both sides will feel unhappy.
How do you mitigate against that?
Research. You develop styles capes.. together. You sitemap and plan out features... together. You define the goals and success of the project... together. Client and designer, you work together to sift through the nuance.
The Nike swoosh, the Apple apple, the Target bullseye. All of these logos are recognizable in an instant and yes, it took a while for them to get there, but there is a common thread between them oft-overlooked in the success of their brand identities:
They have good names.
Since the name of a brand is further up in the headwaters than the logo, it makes sense that a crappy name will hinder the success of the visual identity. Don't believe me? Well, let's try these with different monikers.
Nike -> Elegant Running Solutions.
A swoosh would not fare well under this.
Apple -> Creative Computers, Inc.
Why the hell is the logo an apple?
Target -> Minneapolis Market (Target started in this city)
The bullseye loses all gusto.
You get the picture. Brand identities, just like people's identities include a lot from the name. Why do you think authors and screenwriters obsess over the names of these characters they create? It matters and there is an emotional value to the name of a company.
If you don't nail your name and have it aligned with the emotional value you want to manifest within your audience, your identity as a whole will suffer. How do you do that?
Define your brand.
You will not always hit the mark. This happened today with my morning routine. Didn't feel too well, slept in. Phone starts blowing up with messages from family, friends, and clients. Not my ideal start to the morning.
Now, I can dwell on that mishap, which was my fault, or accept that I missed. Missing is part of the game. What I will not accept is missing tomorrow as well.
Be it a morning routine, a sport, or even building up your brand, promise yourself "never miss twice."
Design is subjective... if you don't have a defined brand. I've sat through meetings hashing over which icons, photos, and colors to use. It sucks. Most likely, these kinds of conversations fall onto the executive order of whoever is in charge, like a CEO or equivalent position. Apart from the issues of scalability and freeing someone like a CEO to do what they are best at, it's a shitty situation to be in. Spending all that time trying to figure this stuff out only to have the decision be made by someone else. Not because it's the right decision, but because it was their decision.
Get aligned. Spend time diving into strategy. You will save hours in the long run. More importantly, you will have an objective viewpoint for creating things in the future and give your team freedom to move.
If you don't know where you're going, nothing will help you get there. No map, no compass, hell, not even the stars can guide you if you have no aim.
No one is going to buy a product to make you rich, it's a shitty goal to reach for.
Build something that brings people joy. Something that inspires, something fun. Create an excalibur that allows someone to slay the dragons in their life.
Have some freaking empathy and don't waste people's time. It is the only way you can build an impactful brand.
Often subjective in approach, selecting a color palette is not something to be taken lightly. Color is one of the core ways users are able to identify a company from afar. Starbucks green is instantly recognizable, as is the sunset hues of Patagonia or the gold and red of McDonald's. It's unmistakable.
Here is how you approach color with objectivity:
Define your brand
If you don't know what you want people to feel, your selection will be off-base. Know what you inspire within your customer and the emotional qualities you want them to associate with your company.
Seek and Steal
The world is full of cohesive palettes already. Be it an amazing landscape photo, title sequences to a TV show (I used the colors from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for a keto-Chinese restaurant once), anything really. If you see something that points you toward the feelings you are trying to evoke, steal it and modify it accordingly. Adobe Color makes this process simple. Plus, it beats the hell out of meandering through a Pantone book.
Compare with Alternatives
Color is a fast track to differentiation. If 80% of the alternative choices to your company use corporate blue as their primary color, don't do it. Be rebellious. Try and be something different. The only way to find out is by researching what is out there. 10 minutes of scouting gives more insight than you'd think.
The color palette for your brand is out there. With a little bit of direction from understanding your brand and guardrails established from what's already in your marketplace, you can make color a strategic advantage is differentiating your brand.
Typography is the use of letterforms in design. It's everywhere. In logos, in signage, in websites, everything. Figures that when designing a brand identity this is given a lot of attention. Truthfully, I think people underestimate the power of well selected typefaces. They are certainly just as important as crafting a memorable logo and can make or break a brand identity. So how do you figure out which one(s) to choose? There are three things to consider:
Simplicity, distinction, and appropriateness.
Typefaces selected for your brand need to be easily seen and legible. This means no comic sans, no papyrus, no curly q's. You can't write a paragraph in those typefaces without straining a reader's eyes. When selecting a typeface, consider asking yourself this question: can I read a blog in this typeface and not be annoyed by all of the characters I see before me? If you are, time to change.
There is a fine line between choosing typefaces that are plain and overtly stylized. The key is to understand that a typeface does not need a lot of swirls and flourishes to make it beautifully individual. It could be the way the O's are crafted, the subtle rounding of corners, or sharp, stylized serifs. Whatever it is, I guarantee it doesn't have to be much. A little spice goes a long way with typefaces.
In all things brand identity, you cannot deviate from the core emotional values of the brand. Meaning, if you call people to be gritty and tough don't use a typeface fit for a wedding invitation (and vice versa). Typefaces have an emotional quality to them. Take time to think about what it makes you feel. Do you feel nostalgic or futuristic? Where have you seen this typeface before and what does that make you feel? Whatever you do, make sure the typeface is aligned to the gut-feeling you want your brand to connote.
It's just three things, but they can carry your brand identity a long way. Go snag some typefaces!
There is one constant in business: change, Changes in economic models, changes in market needs, changes in internal structure, changes in the medium, all of it shifts. With this in mind, how do you prepare your brand identity to deal with the changes to come?
Marty Neumeier described branding as changing shirts to suit the mood. For example, my go-to uniform is a black t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. But, I wouldn't wear that to workout or to a wedding. While working out, I'll wear black and grey athletic shorts and a black dri-fit. Wedding? Black blazer, white shirt, black slacks. Swimming? Birdwell trunks with a California Flag patch.
Here's the thing, while the actual elements vary, they appear uniform. The same feeling of simplicity and timelessness is what I am going for and it seeps into each circumstance.
So long as the brand is defined and your personality is detailed, you can adapt the physical appearance of your brand to suit the medium. Will it be different per circumstance? Yes. A video campaign is gonna be handled differently than a poster. Same thing with a website compared to business cards. But as long as they are aligned toward your brand, you are doing things right.
Remember, the brand is a gut-feeling. As long as you use your brand identity to reinforce that feeling, you are on the right track. It's like using multiple modes of transportation to get somewhere. So long as the experience feels the same and they are headed for the same destination, you are winning.
You found an identity to steal. A theme that you can dive deep into and extract a visual story from. Now, your goal is to use these elements coherently. So much so, that even if your company's logo is absent from a piece of collateral, an ad, or website, it should still be recognized as something from you. Note, every design deliverable is different and the medium you are building within can have a major impact on how you will apply the visual identity. That being said, these are the top things to be aware of for cohesion:
I cannot overstate the value of a unified color palette, especially if you've selected on unique to your market. Keeping your colors intact and uniform makes your company appear more organized and it helps establish a subconscious connection between you and the selected color. When cigarette advertising became prohibited, Marlboro paid bars to paint entire walls of their spaces Marlboro red. Their sales increased as a result. That's just from establishing a brand color. Or think about Tiffany Blue and the associations of prestige that come along with it. Color has major impact.
Of all the visual elements startups get wrong, this is most common. Type is both science and art, hell, some people dedicate their entire lives to the study and creation of beautiful letterforms. Point being, it ain't easy. But there are some overarching principles one should consider. Firstly, limit yourself. Pick two typefaces max and stick to them. Secondly, choose typefaces that are legible and timeless. No curly q's or any of that Microsoft WordArt shit that sends you back to 2nd grade. If you follow those two steps, your visual prowess will be 50% ahead of anyone not doing so.
Layout is the arrangement of elements on a design deliverable. Here is what you need to decide: does your brand reflect order and cleanliness or chaos and creativity? Both are good, but you need to pick one side. By establishing a game plan for how you will layout design elements, you can create templates for websites, presentations, ads, etc and they will all bear the same amount of order. If you bounce back and forth between hyper-create and hyper-structured you lose cohesion.
Subsequent Design Elements
This is where your stolen identity comes into play the most. Brand identities need spice, transcendent elements that make them unique. Let's say you decided to steal your visual identity from a Brooklyn pizza parlor. You know, a real-deal shop with red and white table cloths, twine-wrapped wine bottles, boisterous families talking across the table, Italian flags everywhere, and old-time, sepia-toned photos of the city. That is a treasure trove. You've got patterns (tablecloth), illustrations (of cool stuff like twine-wrapped wine bottles), voice and tone (boisterous families), photo styling (sepia-tone photos) all from one unified source. The same would apply to motion graphics (maybe a pizza being tossed in the air), icons, or any other element.
If you refuse to use the clichè icons, illustrations, and photos present within your industry and replace them with something out of context, you can make something impactful. You can tell a better story. It's all in your stolen identity. Unlock that treasure trove and create something awesome!
One of my favorite stories about Apple (one that os actually applicable to building out a brand) is how Steve Jobs came up with the idea for Apple store layouts.
Think about a traditional computer store, or any store for that matter, what do you see? Boxes, boxes, and boxes. Boxes on shelves, boxes on the floor, boxes everywhere. In short, the place is packed with product and no matter how neatly arranged and organized, it treats products like cattle for slaughter.
True to his rebellious nature, this concept didn't sit well with Jobs so he sought out inspiration. But he didn't look at other stores, he looked at museums. Museums that house priceless works of art and marvels of nature like dinosaur fossils. These items are treated with so much respect and given ample space to let viewers bask in their presence. You feel awestruck staring at them.
Now think about an Apple store. There is one variant of every product they have placed on single metal stand for a shopper to interact with. There is minimal product storage happening in the consumer facing end of the store. Apple treats their products like the works of art seen in museums and it makes them special.
When applying this to brand identity, it opens up the door for magic. Where can you find a name that starts a story? Where can you find a symbol to represent your company? In whom can you find a personality to best characterize your brand? Where can you find patterns and imagery to reflect who you are? Lastly, how can you mix it all together to become something novel?
This applies to everything. From experience design, brand naming, visual identity, collateral, packaging, whatever. Seeking and stealing creates magic.
Let's set the record straight: brand = gut-feeling. Done. No if's, and's, or but's. The brand is the emotional resonance someone has with an entity. More importantly, the brand manifests itself differently in each person who forms an emotional connection. Your job as the founder of a company or the person responsible for brand management is to ensure that the feelings are not disparate.
Why? Because if an emotional connection is established, a business will recoup more customers, at a greater value, for a longer amount of time. Cult-like brand followers are hard-pressed to leave their brand of choice. Where this becomes an issue is when the mood shifts frequently (i.e. voice and tone misalignment, a rash, "salesy" email, negative customer experiences).
So how do you know if something is off-base for the brand? You define it. Usually in the form of a purpose and brand personality. You see this all the time. McDonald's focuses on happiness, while Jack in the Box focuses on comedy and poking fun at the establishment. It's why McDonald's creates Happy Meals for smiling children while Jack in the Box creates Munchie Meals for stoned college students.
Point is, both of these brands are defined and manifest in visual identity and even in the marketing initiatives they take.
Here are the questions I ask founders to extract a brand:
1. Your company dies twenty years from now, what is on the tombstone?
This practice sets your gaze on the future and how people will remember you and your impact. Pretend you are giving a eulogy for your beloved company.
2. KYC. Know your customer intimately.
Beyond demographics. Walk a day in their shoes. What goals do they have? What keeps them up at night? What is making them seek your help? What's at stake? What do they love? What patterns can you derive from their lifestyle?
What macro movements are having an impact on your industry? Is there one that you can use to propel your positioning?
4. What is missing in your industry?
Take a look at the alternatives your customer has to your company, what is missing? What irritates your customer with these alternatives? How can you be different emotionally? How can you be different tactically and in your offerings?
5. Who are you?
Yes, you, the founder with an amazing story. Whether you believe it or not, your story has an impact on your brand and you need to put it on paper. Where are you from? Where are you now? What does that say about you?
6. What qualifies you?
What puts your company in a position of authority to lead your customer to their goals? What helps you empathize with their current predicament?
7. Brand Attributes
Describe the culture, customers, voice and tone, feeling (post-interaction), and impact of the brand. Simple, one-word answers work best.
8. Establish a brand archetype
I like to use this cheat sheet.
What do you offer?
How has your customer changed after working with you?
Why you do what you do.
These questions go deep. Don't be satisfied with surface-level answers. Dive into them. Think them over. It's ok to take time. Most importantly, be honest and don't be afraid to tell your story, it has more impact than you know. Remember, if you do not establish this foundation, no messaging or visuals will ever feel right.
Crafting a brand identity is fun and it can skyrocket a startup's legitimacy. But it's hard. Especially if you're jumping into it for the first time without a whole lot of experience or direction. So here are some steps that I'll be expanding on later this week. This initial run is an effort to get these thoughts out of my head and on to something tangible.
1. Establish and define the brand
The brand is the gut feeling someone has about an entity. Without defining what this feeling is, it's impossible to craft visuals that are aligned with it. The route to this definition comes from asking a lot of questions, empathizing with who would love this company the most, and precisely detailing the personality of the company. Think of it as creating a movie character. You want to know them intimately.
2. Seek, steal, and repurpose
Visual identities are often relegated to what I call the "design aesthetic." The design aesthetic doesn't have a unique personality to it but has good command over whitespace and simple layouts. While there isn't anything wrong with utilizing those design principles, establishing an emotional connection is contingent upon a humanistic element. Something unique, tasteful, and appropriate. The design aesthetic is a fail-safe for those who do not have a deeper story or who are afraid to be something different. As such, they try to create something on their own and fall into the design aesthetic trap.
What's the antidote? Find inspiration (from a book, a movie, a place, another brand), steal as much as you can, and repurpose the elements for your brand. Something inspiring and impactful already out there, magic happens when you place it in a new context.
3. Establish visual elements
There are foundational elements in every identity build. Namely, color, typography, layout, logo, and subsequent elements like illustration, pattern, photography, iconography, and motion. Once a visual theme has been set, the task is now to apply that theme to these elements so there is a cohesive look to everything. It's been phrased before that any piece of collateral should be recognizable without the brand's logo on it. This is done by aligning and consistently using branded visuals.
4. Flex and be ready to adapt
Change is inevitable. Prepare yourself to move and adapt your visual identity as time progresses. New mediums will arise, styles will change, your company will change, and eventually, your visuals will need to as well. Be prepared to flex, experiment, and change.
I'm a huge fan of Buck Mason shirts. Pima cotton, well-cut, breathable, and classic. Que bella.
Something that dawned on me though was this question: why do I admire this brand so much and why do I go out of my way to buy almost exclusively from them.
Back up to my college years. The hipster movement of adorning button-up shirts, chukka boots, and thrifting your way to style was in full swing. I recall spending hours searching through thrift stores to find trendy looking shirts that would match my barrage of beaded bracelets and my patina ring made out of a quarter. But, I didn't believe all that stuff was really cool. In truth, I found myself hating how much time I spent shopping for all that trendy shit and how complicated the process was. Turns out, I believed more in simplicity.
Flash forward to today. I keep a Buck Mason tag in my bible as a bookmark. What's the first line on it? "We make fashion less complicated."
Boom. Instant brand alignment.
Here's the thing: the reason I buy exclusively from Buck Mason is because of this shared value. If you want to build a rebellious brand, you must find that overlapping belief residing within both of you.
Without a genuine and honest view of ourselves and our visions, we cannot expect to move forward.
Our culture abhors imperfection. We alter beautiful people in photoshop to achieve god-like standards. We post pictures of our significant other during our vacation to Fiji on Instagram, but neglect the brokenness of the relationship. We lie to preserve a false sense of perfection.
Fuck that and damn it to hell.
That is not the path of rebellion. That is conformity. That is a fearful shell of what could be and shifts one's focus to what others might think instead of what one can do.
/ˈfôrTHˌrīt/ direct and outspoken; straightforward and honest.
Being forthright doesn't beat around the bush. It means stating simply whether something is good or bad. Yes and no, not maybe. Being forthright demands that you speak up and stake a claim.
This is most important when looking inward. A rebel must be honest with herself if any improvement is to be made. It is honesty that allows her to notice what could be better and act upon it earnestly. Even on a grander scale, it allows her to examine the impact of her vision and whether or not it is truly valuable to the world.
A rebel must be forthright.
Creative, entrepreneurial people have an innate desire to explore. After adopting a fearless attitude, it becomes easy for them to seek out newness and experiment with confidence. But, there is a shadow side to these seemingly harmless cravings of novelty: absent-minded innovation.
In part, it seems like this need to find something new or start several projects without finishing them stems from a need to grow. Be it more market share, more customers, more offerings, whatever. The point is that rebellious brands cannot afford to be all things to all people. Instead, they seek to focus.
I want you to think about taking a picture of somebody. You point your camera at them and they are blurry. The image sucks and your intention of capturing the moment is lost. Now focus on the subject. Clarity, definition, context, all of these things become evident in light of focus. You get the full picture.
Now try focusing on two people at different depths and distances. It gets much harder.
What's the point? In a world that cannot seem to satisfy its desire to be all things to all people, rebellious brands fearlessly focus. They are ok with gaining the full picture of one subject instead of trying to capture many.
During my month off from writing, I wrestled with the concept of rebellion. There is a vision in my head of what a rebellious brand looks like, but it's hard to detail. Naturally, it seemed smart to try and breakdown the term into sizable chunks that could be combined into something more concrete. I landed on three "F-Words," starting with Fearless.
Understanding what it means to be fearless starts with defining fear. Cue Webster:
/ˈfir/ an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
In other words, fear is the looming awareness that things could go wrong. Unfortunately, our bodies can't help but be on the lookout for such threats because it is in our best interest to avoid pain. It's a primal function that enabled us to avoid meeting our doom at the jaws of sabretooth tigers and other adversaries hellbent on ending our existence. If that's the case, why is it so important for a rebellious brand to be fearless?
Cue Webster (again):
\ˈfir-ləs\ free from fear
In this instance, fear becomes a captor. A crushing slave merchant. Fear puts one in a cage and limits their potential.
Rebellion is anything but conventional or expected. It is a venture into the unknown and experimenting with what could be. A trip into chaos. To be fearless is to break free from the part of your lizard brain that tells you "this may be a bad idea, you might fail, you might get made fun of, people might reject you."
It is to liberate oneself from the chains of uncertainty. To understand that novelty, creativity, and change are found through a trial in the unknown. Most importantly, it is accepting that failure is necessary and to be expected in the search for greatness.
Rebels are not slaves to fear, they are free.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” — Anne Lamott
I'm taking August to pull back from my newsletters, MF Punches, and take some time to recharge.
But don't you worry, I'll be back 😎
If you're having rouble figuring out what your brand means to someone, try answering this question from a customers perspective:
"Three years from now, they are sitting down enjoying coffee, really happy with the progress they've got from doing business with you. What has made them so happy?"
If you can answer this, or get answers to this question, you will have a leg up on any alternative in your path.
It's easy to notice when you've cut yourself in the kitchen or by scratching against something you didn't intend to. You know it happened because blood starting to pour out from the place of the interaction. It's easy.
What happens when you start bleeding and you don't know why? Or when there is another form of pain in your body that isn't normal and unprecedented? You have a couple options: you could self-diagnose and hope your assumptions turn out ok, or you could go to the doctor and get a professional consultation. Surface-level problems are easy, deep problems are harder to spot and infinitely more costly.
Branding problems are rarely surface level, like a scratch or cut from a chef's knife. Branding problems are ethereal and hard to decipher, even harder to connect to the surface-level symptoms they produce. In the same way a doctor, who has run into medical problems for years and is trained to ask targeted questions, branding experts use experience and training to unearth the real problem.
Now I can hear you saying, "I know a good logo when I see one," congratulations. You still aren't sure why yours sucks and how to fix it. Shit, if asked, it's unlikely that you can even define branding in a succinct, easy-to-understand way. It takes courage to admit that. The same courage that admits you aren't a sushi chef, auto mechanic, or plumber, it's just not something you've taken the time to gain expertise in.
Back to our initial analogy, "I'm bleeding." Don't be surprised if the branding issue is deeper than what's on the surface. Cuts go deep, sometimes you can't even see them, thoughnthey are tearing your insides apart. Be it in the form of harsh rejections from investors, feeling like your company is without purpose, or doubting the integrity of this company that you have spent days, even years trying to grow. Bravely look inward and tend to your wounds, and if you're having trouble finding the cause, ask for help.
You stare at a wrinkly grey wall from one inch away. You can see every porous cavity, every abrasion, every molecule, but you cannot see the whole thing.
Is it cement? Is it brick? You don't know. Why? Because you cannot see the whole thing in context, you can only see tiny details.
You move back five feet and realize you were staring at an elephant. What's the point?
Details are important in branding, but failing to provide context is a recipe for confusing customers. You need to give them a bigger picture first instead of bombarding them with details like price, features, etc.
People buy from brands that will help them transform. Be it getting more fit, healthier, smarter, courageous, you name it. In some way shape or form, they are looking to become a better version of themselves.
While features and improvements to your products/services are needed for validation, they pale in comparison to the adventure set before your customers.
Focus on the adventure and be a brand that can take customers to new heights.
Be seen as a replaceable commodity.
Look and feel incoherent and unworthy of success.
Aimlessness. Without defining your purpose, vision, and mission, your actions will fall by the wayside.
Can you afford to be brandless?
Creating brand personalities is hard. In fact, I rarely create one from scratch because of it.
Why? Because it's easier and more effective to look at authentic personalities that already exist, win people over, and copy them.
You can do this by thinking of movie characters, authors, influential thinkers, musicians, etc. Point is, your brand's soul is out there, you just have to find it and steal it.
I was shopping at Smart and Final yesterday. While standing in line, I looked down at the placements stickers for social distancing. They said two things: "please stay six feet apart," and "we know you have many options, thank you for choosing us."
Next, when I was in line, the cashiers had done their job so well that they had eliminated a lengthy line entirely. Their manager came out and congratulated his team.
What's the big deal?
For one, this store took things that seem small and superfluous and made them something special. This could also be done with the welcome letter for a newsletter subscription, or cards sent to say thank you to clients, or phraseology around being open or closed. The point is that they put an authentic spin on it to make it memorable and relevant to this brand, when they could have just passed over it without much care.
The devil and the angels are in the details.
You choose who it is.
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.
Your customers are the hero and they aren't looking for you to join them in the winner's circle, they are looking for someone to help them find the path there. Someone who has been in the winner's circle before, but is not seeking to stand within it this time around. A guide who can confidently help them get on track and succeed.
What qualities would make for someone to fit this role?
Two things: competence and empathy.
Competence, meaning the ability to go forth and complete a goal thoroughly, honestly, and ethically. Why? Because no one is going to want a guide with zero experience or one who cheats. They want someone who has been there already and succeeded honorably.
Empathy, because having been there already, the guide will know how difficult the challenges ahead are and knows what it feels like to be in their shoes.
Want to build an irreplaceable brand? Become a guide for your hero – err customer.
What makes for a good superhero movie? A dastardly villain, yes, but there's something more there.
The most impactful villains are those who break the foundation of what we deem to be right in the world. Those who go beyond annoyances and challenge the makeup of our existence. Thanos, the villain in Marvel's Avengers, is a ferocious opponent and he can dish out a punch, but he becomes menacing only when he says that life is not valuable and that it doesn't deserve a chance.
By attaching the villain to a bigger, philosophical problem, he becomes someone we as viewers are invested in defeating.
If you want to rally people around your brand, find a common enemy. Not just the schoolyard bully either, find a big one and go after them.
When venture capitalists search for companies to invest in, they are counting on the competence of the founders and the entire team to win. Meaning, if there are more hints that this company will result in failure than it will success, it's unlikely they will invest in it. They look for indicators to assess worthy startups.
A similar and time-tested method is seen in the duck test coined by James Whitcomb Riley. You've heard it before, "when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck."
Now let's apply this to a startup, specifically two kinds of startups. One that is a good investment and one that is a risky investment.
A startup that walks like a good investment
The manner by which a startup carries itself says a lot. This includes outward appearance and poise. If you look like trash or are missing key pieces of attire, expect the reception of your appearance to follow suit. For example, not having a website in the 21st century is the equivalent of showing up to a party without pants. You're missing something and it reveals a hole in your competence. Same could be said of the design of your product or your branding. Negligence of these is reason to believe that you are not a worthwhile investment.
A startup that swims like a good investment
A duck's primary function is to swim. They are very good at it. Similarly, a startup's job is to make money through having a worthy offering. There needs to be proof of this. If you don't have a solution to a prevalent problem that will make a difference, customers will not use you. If customers don't use you then investors can't either. If you want revenue, of any kind, you need something worth giving up money to have.
A startup that quacks like a good investment
Trickier than the last two, but important nonetheless. A duck's quack is the outward expression to signify "I AM A DUCK." What's a startups outward expression? "I am valuable to others." Meaning, people will pay for what I have to offer because it is more valuable than their money. The brevity of a quack is just as important. The more succinct, the easier it is to identify. This comes in the form of positioning and high-level brand messaging. Failure to define your quack will make it difficult for investors to identify you as a good investment.
If it walks like a worthy startup, swims like a worthy startup, and quacks like a worthy startup... it must be a worthy startup. Worthy of customer buy-in and investor money.
Can you pass the duck test?
A common worry of most startups is that they've let too much time go without focusing on their brand that it would be too late to make positive change.
This is the same feeling I had this morning. My back was super stiff so I slept in. Waking up to think, "damn, my daily routine might as well be ruined. I shouldn't exercise, I shouldn't write the MF Punch, I shouldn't pray, I shouldn't journal."
And then I thought, "so because I didn't get to these important habits of mine at the start of my day, that means they shouldn't manifest at all?"
What's the point?
Don't let your brand be clock blocked. If you expect your startup to be around at the end of the day, end of the week, end of year, whatever, you can make a change for the better right now.
The brand is not what you say it is, it's what they say it is. Thank you Marty Neumeier.
Brands exists in the hearts and minds of customers. If you want your startup to be impactful and leave a legacy, you must accept the fact that you are not the focus.
Can you imagine in Star Wars was all about Yoda? We'd be bored stiff. Yoda already has the answers, there's no story there. No change to watch unfold. Luke Skywalker? That guy has a lot of stuff to work out. That's your customer. Focus on them.
The human brain has one core function: keeping us alive and thriving. At its core, this comes down to distributing our energy in the form of calories to things that will help us stay alive.
Naturally, there's a lot of things vying for our attention and subsequently our energy. So when we don't see something that clearly outlines how it can help us find food, shelter, enhance our relationships, or help us become a better version of ourselves, we tune it out. Why? Because our brain is protecting us from giving away energy to unworthy recipients.
Without clearly defining your message and how you emotionally impact a customer, you become a calorie thief.
Short term strategies: undercut competitors, have fire sales, adopt fads.
Long term strategy: build things that are useful and meaningful.
In branding, in sales, in everything planning for the long game ensures that you're given more time to play at all.
In Marvel's Captain America: the First Avenger, Steve Rogers is transformed from a scrawny pipsqueak into the formidable super-soldier, Captain America.
After completing a successful rescue mission using nothing but a stage-prop shield, famous inventor and colleague, Howard Stark offers to improve upon the shield design.
He presents Rogers with a dozen different designs, some outfitted with electronics to zap his adversaries, some with spikes and other baggage. He glances on the ground and picks up a round disc.
"What's it made of?" he asks.
"That's vibranium, it's completely vibration absorbent." say's Stark.
After being put through a spur of the moment bullet deflection test, courtesy of an angry love-interest, Rogers chooses the shield and gives it a fresh paint job to match his uniform.
That was in 1944.
Fast forward into 2020 and the same shield is used in later battles without losing its gusto or its alignment with Cap's identity.
Why? Because it was a simple, elegant, and timeless choice. Unhindered by fads, excess, or things that would weigh it down.
The point? treat branding design the same way. Don't be bogged down by choices simply because they are popular today, aim for something genuinely useful and timeless.
The clip from the movie, for you poor souls who haven't seen it.
If you don't know where you want to go, then any map, trail, tactic, or maneuver is useless.
The same holds true in design and branding. If you don't know what emotions/values you want your logo, colors, language, website, or collateral to align with, it's unlikely you'll be satisfied. At the very least, you'll have no objective way of dictating right decisions from wrong decisions.
That's the point of strategy. Strategy gets you aligned. It points you in a direction. How you get there can take many forms, so long as it gets you to the destination.
Where do you want your brand to go?
I hate social media. Specifically, I hate Instagram and Facebook. Granted, they are well-designed apps and I steal from their UX principles all the time, but the impact they've had as far as startups are concerned is mind boggling. Why? Because the metrics they provide for most are rooted in vanity and nothing else.
For example, I know plenty of people with over 30k followers, yet none of them make a good amount of money from those numbers.
On the other hand, I know several people who aren't on social media that are millionaires.
The point? Unless there is a clear, actionable metric that you can use to influence business results, don't focus on it. Otherwise it is vanity by numbers, nothing more.
Giving startups confidence is my mission. While this is related to design because that's the medium I've experienced these phrases through, it's applicable in other areas like pitching and sales.With that in mind, here are two phrases that make your startup sound desperate.
I just need...
This is a red flag as it implies that you are unaware of the gravitas needed for whatever you're asking for, or that you are aware and are trying to belittle the investment needed from whoever you're asking.
What to say instead:
I need to (task goes here), how can make it happen?
Damn, look at you and your confidence. This phrase is what would come from someone who is ready to partner up. They know what their goal is and they aren't trying to make it seem insignificant. Because if it was insignificant, they wouldn't care.
It's a simple site/logo/brochure/investment/whatever...
If it was simple you'd do it yourself. Don't bullshit. The truth is that simplicity is the greatest form of sophistication. Making something simple is hard and the fact that you're asking for help shows it.
What to say instead:
I need to (task goes here), how can we make it happen?
Notice a pattern forming here?
Look, the point is that asking for stuff is hard and it takes courage. But trying to belittle what you're asking for makes the results you want to achieve seem far fetched and not worth the effort.
Ask for things with confidence and be ready to accept answers you don't like. It will get you to the good ones.
When you are first starting a new habit, the key is to first get the motions right. For example, when I started writing these posts Monday-Friday, the goal wasn't to write perfectly, it was just to write every Monday-Friday.
Similarly, when you first get a new brand identity, you should follow your style guide to a "T." Why? Because you are learning to walk within your brand and if you start running you will fall, chip your teeth and look stupid.
Think about it, the kid who can consistently walk at a steady pace will get further than the one who pushes himself too far.
What's more? The kid who walks will get faster with time and practice, naturally.
Treat the design of your brand the same way, walk before you run.
Imagine an apartment. You see a living room with white walls, a tan couch, matching coffee table, and coherent artwork on the wall.
Now imagine another apartment. You see blue walls, a dark green couch, white coffee table, a poster of Sammy Davis, Jr. in black and white as well as a printed canvas of a beach scene.
Which of those mental pictures feels the most mature? How about most competent? Trustworthy?
Why? Because one of them looks intentional and provides a consistent feeling while the other is haphazard and mixed.
Treat your brand like the former.
In 1999, Kellogg's was seeing a shift toward healthy breakfast options. This meant that their top sellers like Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Pops, and Froot Loops (all of which are loaded with mass amounts of sugar) were becoming less and less desirable from consumers.
Now, Kellogg's could try and reposition their brand, which is known for these fun cereals. But it would take a long time, a lot of change, and hope that their fan base would still appreciate them. Or they could go a different route... like acquiring a La Jolla based company called Kashi that is already known for healthy breakfast cereals. They maintain their position and get to pump Kashi full of Kellogg's resources to gain more market share.
The point? Customers might need it, but you have to wonder whether or not they will buy it from you. Are you in a position to offer them a new solution? Will this new offering dilute your brand?
If you can't do it effectively, make a new brand.
Brands are best served when made for specific people. For years, I've been encouraging founders to focus on building a brand for one person.
In reading the Lean Startup, there was a moment of clarity: the person you build a brand for is the early adopter. Prior to reading this, I'd be referring to this persona as the ideal customer, but that isn't as objective as early adopter. Here's why:
Early adopters seek out uniqueness and difference, they are very particular with good taste, they have strong tribal associations, and they are willing to go out on a limb to try something new. Furthermore, they are the first dominoes to buy into a product that will eventually spill over into the early majority and late majority. You cannot impress the majorities if you have not impressed early adopters.
Build a product for your ideal early adopter. Not the average or ideal customer.
You would not prescribe a cancer patient to use a band-aid as appropriate treatment.
Likewise, it'd be stupid to prescribe a logo to fix a broken brand.
You have to be willing to undergo massive overhaul to make massive change. Dive deep into the fundamental flaws of your startup. Things like being aimless, having no defined culture, no spirit, a lack of confidence or purpose. Once those are fixed, everything else becomes easier.
Don't think a band-aid will cure cancer.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” -Einstein
What does this mean?
It means that to create an effective solution, you have to have a deep understanding of the problem. Otherwise you fall back on to predictable solutions that don't always work. It's similar to the hammer and nail concept. If you're a hammer, you look around for nails. But if there are no nails in sight, you're SOL.
In design and branding, an hour of solid planning saves countless hours of revision and allows for projects to run smooth.
Point being, take the time to think. Plan. Be strategic. Good solutions come easy to those with skill, but if the wrong skill is put into play then you're in trouble.
After 23 trials and test results, the Sloth Sanctuary concluded that sloths take an average of 16 days to fully digest food and rid itself of food waste. 16 full days is the same as 384 hours, 9.6 work weeks, or two working months to produce shit.
I'm currently reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. He talks about one of his first ventures and that they had spent six months working on a product that no one liked. No one knew how to use it, what good it did, or why they should buy it. Without mincing words: it was shit. It earned no money and it didn't help anyone.
What's the point?
It doesn't matter how long something took to make and how much effort you've put into it, if it's not useful to anyone, it's shit.
The remedy? Make something useful for someone and find out early whether or not it has value.
I had a call with a prospective client yesterday looking to get some collateral made for their company. During our call it became clear that there were going to be multiple people making the decisions and signing off on creative.
It's not like it was just two people either, hell it wasn't even four. On this project, there would be eight people that would have to look at this an approve it. Eight!
That's a lot of cooks. Respectfully, I said that it doesn't work out well to design by committee and that it didn't sound like it would be a good fit. They agreed and we got off the call.
Here is why design by committee is a bad idea: vanilla ice cream.
Allow me to explain, there are hundreds of unique ice cream flavors. From cookies and cream, mint and chip, rainbow sherbet, Ben and Jerry's Dairy-Free Peanut Butter Cookie Dough (my personal favorite), or even ice cream with candied grasshoppers. These flavors are memorable, whether you like them or not, because they have elements of distinction.
Now imagine you have eight different people in a room and you try and get them to agree on one flavor. Fat chance.
You will end up with choosing vanilla because it's good enough to do the job and it won't upset anyone. But it's not going to turn heads like the others. What's more is that if one person decided on getting a unique ice cream flavor, like cookies and cream, I doubt anyone would be morbidly detested by the choice. It's ice cream for Pete's sake.
Same thing with design. As long as you follow the basic principles, it's difficult to arrive at a detestable solution. It's well designed, that's what matters.
The alternative is this: understand that you aren't building something for yourself, you are building something for someone else. Be it investors, customers, whomever it is, build for them.
Next, establish one decision maker. Someone who can be trusted to make a good decision and let them do their job.
Do not design by committee.
It's been a couple days since the riots in Minnesota erupted over the wrongful death of George Floyd at the hands of police. It's all that's been talked about on the one social platform I use, LinkedIn.
Something that has been said repeatedly is this: if you don't say anything, you're siding with the racist status quo. But it seems to mean "if you don't say anything on social media then you are siding with the racist status quo."
I have said things. I have spoken to people. I do have strong feelings about the wrongful death of George Floyd. I do have strong feelings about protesting. I do have strong feelings about seeing other people get hurt from rioting/looting. I do have ideas on how to move forward.
But sharing them on social media is not going to help me make a change. Limiting the extent of my involvement to posting a picture of a black square, sharing a hashtag, or espousing my non-expert opinions about sociology, law enforcement, and politics as an irrefutable truth would be haphazard, noisy, and unhelpful. In fact, I can't think of a more blatant abuse of privilege.
What am I going to do? Be someone who listens. Have meaningful, real discussions with real people. And, of course, do my job educating people, ALL PEOPLE, on how to better brand their business. That's what I'm good at. That's the truth I can tell.
If you want to join me in having a real discussion use this link. It'd be great to talk with you.
This is the sixth article in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article, second article, third article, fourth article, and fifth article before jumping into this one.
You know what the alternatives are, you know the special things that make your startup unique, you've established what makes that valuable, you know who finds it the most valuable, and you can frame your impact in a market that makes it easy for users to understand your company. This next step is only optional, it isn't crucial to positioning, but it can help if implemented well.
Step six is riding a trend to give your positioning an extra boost. Trends are macro movements that continually grow and shift culture. For example, plant based foods, sustainability, data privacy etc. It's like adding a rocket to your positioning, propelling you along with the strength of the trend.
Now, the reason this is optional is because it's tricky and can easily fall by the wayside.
Imagine you were selling drinking water during the start of the gluten free trend. You could slap a sticker on your bottles that says "gluten-free" to hopefully ride the trend. But you'd be stupid. Why? Because anyone who is truly gluten-free knows that water doesn't have gluten... at all.
On the other hand, if you were a health-conscious brewery and could come up with a gluten-free formula, it'd be smart to jump on the gluten-free wave. Why? Because it's relative to the product, since almost all beer is made with gluten, and aligned with the mission of the company.
Which brings up the last point on this: trends say a lot about your brand. They are often political and carry strong emotional qualities. Before you jump onto a trend, you better know yourself and the beliefs shared between you and your audience. If you betray either of those, every step in positioning your company is forfeited.
This is the fifth article in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article, second article, third article, and fourth article before jumping into this one.
You know what the alternatives are, you know the special things that make your startup unique, you've established what makes that valuable, and you know who finds it the most valuable. Now, what frame of reference can you give to customers that will help them understand who you are?
This is accomplished through establishing a market category. For example, an automobile is a specific market, motorcycles are another. If you say your startup is going to be an automobile, it is assumed that it will be some kind of four-wheeled transportation. If a motorcycle, it is assumed it will be two-wheeled.
Same thing applies to software. If you are building out a creative software, it's assumed it will be capable of creating artwork digitally. Or if you were creating a video conferencing platform, it'd be assumed you could do something like connect with others via teleconference.
Why does this matter? Because it's important to make sure you don't allow for false assumptions. A famous mash of market category explanation is "it's like Uber, but for (blank)." What does that mean? It means that whatever you're building is going to have something to do with transportation, the shared economic model, and probably be app based, right?
When you repeat those assumptions to startup founders, you frequently get a response similar to, "well, kinda."
Ouch. Bad move. Now you've got a bigger problem. Now you have to combat assumptions and pay close attention to fix them.
At its core, market categories and choosing to associate your company with one is done to make your marketing easier. This happens because, when done right, those assumptions allow you to cut straight to the differentiating pieces of your startup rather than trying to explain what it is.
What does this have to do with branding?
I'd guess the biggest impact this has on branding is the ability to see what assumptions are already in place about the emotional value of the category. The companies in each market category have stigmas, jargon, and they tend to adopt similar brand personalities. You have the opportunity to break those assumptions and create a unique personality.
One company that comes to mind is Liquid Death, who blew past expectation when they took a death-metal inspired, brewery-like approach to selling water. They entered a crowded market with few companies straying from a fresh, clean, and renewing vibe. We know what it is, water, and because of the market category we are able to ascertain what separates it from the rest of the herd.
This is the fourth article in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article, second article, and third article, before jumping into this one.
You know what the alternatives are, you know the special things that your startup unique, and you've established what makes that valuable. All of these are great, but fall to pieces if no one buys.
The first approach most startups will take in finding customers is shotgunning any and every kind of market. Decent plan of action if you have time to experiment. Truth is, hardly anyone is capable of making this happen effectively, especially when concerned with time. It makes sense to be hyper-focused and test with less variables that you can either pursue further or pivot away from.
Because you need to communicate and trigger a response from someone who cares. Someone who feels that the solution you bring to the table is worth more than the dollars they will pay for it.
How do you do that? You think about them and craft messages around them that fit within their lifestyle.
What kind of person are they? Where do they work? What do they do for fun? What about their life sucks that they want to fix? Your goal is to get to know someone and find out if the solution you provide is of use to them. If not, it might be time to switch.
Tactically, you can do this with interviews within a particular segment or you can think of aspirational personas. The point is to have someone to make stuff for and be targeted. You're chances of hitting something become a lot higher if you know what you're aiming for.
This is the third article in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article and second article before jumping into this one.
You know what the alternatives are, you know the special things that your startup unique, now you need to establish what makes that valuable.
It's tricky to get lost in the weeds here and even harder to stay objective.Typically, startups say things like "great user experience," or "great customer service," but that's trite and, quite frankly, to be expected. If you don't have those components, your business is gonna fail anyway.
Value goes deeper and it's objective. For example, building a repository of customer feedback and concrete examples of your secret sauce in action. Personally, this is seen in my business through my reviews and the consistent compliments I get on organization. Organization is the secret sauce (or one of them, I hope) and the value is that it saves time and keeps projects moving smoothly.
As this pertains to branding, it's a difficult to see what the emotional component is to quantitative value. However, it is clear that in gathering the quantitive data on your startup, you will see how you make people feel. If you're doing your job right, what you want people to feel and what they actually feel is aligned. That's a mark of good branding.
This is the second in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article before jumping into this one.
Having gone through the process of seeking out the alternatives to your product, you should have a robust understanding of what is already out there within your market category. This is like being at a poker table and seeing each players' cards. You know what you're up against, now it's time to find a way to play.
The second piece in positioning a company is understanding what makes you special. From a product standpoint, this comes in the form of technical features, but it could expand into areas like delivery method (think Dollar Shave Club vs. Gillette), the business model (subscription vs. single purchase), or unique expertise (a developer with marketing skills or focus within a particular vertical).
After choosing the attributes and unique elements about your business, you could also examine the emotional qualities unique to your company. For example, Duluth Trading Co. and Patagonia make almost identical winter gear, but they are completely different emotionally. Duluth downplays any kind of sophistication despite the fact they charge $25 for a pair of Buck Naked Underwear. While Patagonia shifts its emotional value to serving the planet and altruism. Same products, different stories.
What do you care about? What story do you have? What personality can you bring to the table? It might be something you take for granted, but to everyone else, it is special. It's your secret sauce that shouldn't be kept a secret.
This is the first in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Enjoy!
Positioning is where your company falls in the mind of consumers. Specifically, why your company should matter to them. In here book, Obviously Awesome! April Dunford breaks down effective positioning into 5 steps with an occasional 6th. First things first, examine what's already out there and what people might do, or currently be doing instead of using your product/services.
Note, it's not about being "better" necessarily, but more about assessing why these alternatives to your solution are being used.
In branding, this step in crucial in assessing the emotional alternatives to your company.
What is it about brand x that makes it so special? What do I feel differently about them versus brand y?
Attacking this from the angle of "how are they different?" instead of "how are they better?" is crucial to understanding their positioning and where there is space for your brand to be positioning without being labeled a copycat.
More products, more money, more followers, these are hungry ghosts. Insatiable phantoms that have no value and never stop getting bigger.
More is an endless struggle. But, getting good at something, and improving your business, your brand, or even yourself is something measurable. You might have different goals, but the process is one that you can actually control and have a major influence on.
"More" will naturally result from being good.
When J.K. Rowling submitted the first Harry Potter book, it didn't have the same title as we've known. It was first called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and later adapted to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Why? These two things are synonymous.
Attitude. When you hear the term "philosopher," it sounds geeky and pompous. A sorcerer on the other hand, bolsters the idea of mystery, power, and elusiveness.
What's the point? Branding is full of nuance, while these two terms on paper mean the same thing, their emotional qualities are different. In branding, it's not just what you say, how you look, and what you do, but the attitude you bring to the table.
A buddy of mine and I have started looking for apartments to rent. Scammers have been rampant, so we're extra cautious.
One realtor had sent my friend an application, his license number, and lease agreements. My buddy sent them to me asking, "is this legit?"
I could see where he was suspicious. The design of the application was shotty and it made his ears perk up. It was a lot of small things like misaligned typography, no consistency in colors, no logo for the company, no footer. Not only from a design perspective, but things like not have a dedicated domain for this company and instead using a Gmail address made this entire experience feel scammy.
Despite the fact that he did indeed have a license number, his brand and legitimacy were being put to death by a thousand tiny cuts. Small wounds that bled his company of its worth and value.
Point being, the small interactions are where you get a chance to prove yourself as something legit and unique. Never underestimate them.
Alright, say you want a logo for your startup. For an experienced designer, this has a streamlined process as well as varying tiers of engagement. They also have a rate for which they will carry these services out. Unless added variables outside of these packages are added, the price shouldn't change that much.
Now say you want a custom e-commerce website, with a bunch of third party integrations, some help on copy, sourcing photos and icons, and then recurring maintenance. You don't know how many pages there are, who is responsible for a lot of the things that will go into the site, it's all custom.
Here's the thing, some design work can be structured within a detailed process. Projects like that should have fixed prices based on the value the designer is bringing to the table. Projects that are unique and require just as much planning as they do execution get custom prices.
In the instance of the latter, it makes sense to dedicate 10% of the estimated budget to getting three, tiered, custom options.
Design seems to have a drawn out and lengthy process. I don't know about you, but I really don't like it. Especially if you're working with startups that need to move fast. How do you fix it? You work together, show the ugly, and focus on getting a bunch of guesswork eliminated.
If you can move fast, you're good at what you do, and you can coach people through the process, this shouldn't be an issue.
This applies to everything. Logos, websites, apps, collateral. Hammer out as much of the details in low-fidelity form as possible.
Creative minds, though responsible for new ideas and solving big problems, have a huge shadow: the inability to give those new ideas time. This is especially true in branding. It's almost inevitable that after going through a new brand identity, strategy, etc, the desire to change will pop up. A new idea will strike and it must manifest or it will go away.
But int he context of branding, assuming you do a good job, you have to resist. Branding is something that should remain consistent and be given its due before making massive overhauls.
Commons areas where this desire arises:
Look, these things might need to change, but if you have to let them settle before you can make an informed decision as to whether or not they need to change. This doesn't mean you can't change small things, like experimenting with new ads, altering your layouts, running A/B tests, but it should all cohere to the strategy you are trying to implement.
Point being: resist your creative impulses to start something new before your previous task has been finished and given time to rest.
When we try to create something from scratch, it never really pans out the way we'd anticipated. This is especially true in finding the story for your startup's brand. Truth is, the story probably exists somewhere else and you haven't noticed it.
If this is something you struggle with, try these approaches:
What is your story?
Yes, you. Where are you from? Where are you now? What does that say about you? That story is unique and highly personable. You can use it in your brand too.
Retell a favorite
There are seven story arcs, period. You've seen them in movies, you read about them in books, and they can work for you. Your goal is to instead replace the characters, setting, and adventure to suit your brand's personality.
Don't create your story, find it.
My workout wasn't that great this morning. I'm having a hard time writing this. It was difficult to read this morning. I kinda feel lethargic.
I could examine each of these issues and think of a solution to each one, but it would just be addressing the symptoms.
You see, the issue was that I got sub par sleep last night. While I could have some caffeine, get shot of taurine, or do anything that would give me more energy, it wouldn't be a long-term strategy. Fixing the root of the problem, my lack of sleep, is what will makes these symptoms less prevalent.
Branding works the same way. If your marketing efforts, design systems, naming conventions, and other efforts seem off, you might have to backtrack a bit. Most likely, whatever is wrong is a symptom of something deeper.
You can spend all the time you want cleaning up the garbage downstream, but you'd save a bunch of time if you cleaned up the filth at the headwaters.
If you show up to a gun range with no target, you have zero chance of hitting something worthwhile.
Conversely, even if you can't hit the bullseye every time, a target makes the process exceedingly more enjoyable. You can track progress, you can try new methods, and you will hit a bullseye at some point.
If you try to build a brand without first defining it, you have zero chance of making something worthwhile.
Conversely, even if you can't be on brand every time, defining it makes the process exceedingly more enjoyable. You can track progress, you can try new methods, and you will be on brand at some point.
Point being, have an aim.
When doing design work, it's important to get feedback. However, the kind of feedback you get will make all the difference. Without beating around the bush, getting feedback that is entirely subjective is gonna end poorly, especially if you're trying to be different. The key is to be objective.
For example, when designing logos for clients, a client will often ask someone close to them: "which one do you like?"
Chances are, the respondent won't like any of them (for irrelevant reasons) or they mask the truth out of fear for hurting someone else's feelings. Either way, the feedback to this question is shit. Always.
Instead you have to think about the goals you are looking to achieve, such as aligning something like a logo to your brand. The best way to do this is what I like to call the binary method. If you know what you want someone to feel when they look at your company, then you can also define the opposite. If you want someone to feel edgy, modern, and sleek (you should define these in your own words, mind you) then the opposite of your goal would be to have them feel safe, nostalgic, and rough.
At this point you can ask, "does this feel more modern or nostalgic?"
Following up with "what makes you feel that way?" since the reasons might be extremely personal. Granted, a logo needs to be contextualized with other branded elements to get feedback on something like its alignment to the brand.
This goes far with getting valuable feedback that you can actual improve from and makes subjectivity less prevalent. Regardless of what design project you're working on, knowing what your goal is and the ability to articulate the opposite gives you framework for getting concrete answers.
FYI, I stole this concept and story from Sprint by Jake Knapp, enjoy!
I don't drink coffee, but I'd imagine the most people wouldn't if they had to drink coffee without using coffee filters. You see, before the filter coffee was brewed the same way you'd steep a bag of tea. The result was a lot of over-brewed, grit filled, coffee. Gross.
Filters had been attempted before, but to no avail. They were made of cloth.
It wasn't until a woman named Melitta Bentz saw blotting paper on her son's desk that the idea for our modern filters came to her. Blotting paper was used to clean up excess ink , it was porous enough to let liquid pass, but not enough to let the gritty grounds come through. Sure enough, after using it in place of cloth, she was astounded. The flavor was great and clean up was a snap.
What does this have to do with branding?
Sometimes the obvious solution to your brand isn't where you'd expect. You won't find it looking at competitors or digging within the muck of your day-to-day, it's somewhere else. Perhaps it's a different industry, or in a game you used to play, your favorite movie, a song. Instead of trying to create the perfect brand, find it and repurpose it.
I've been playing a lot of Call of Duty amidst the COVID-19 crisis. It's been quite a while, but something that's been all too familiar is the vast difference between snipers and grenades. Essential premise is this: snipers are extremely accurate. You definitely can't hit more than one person, but if you focus on just one person, you're highly likely to hit them. At both long distances and shorter distances with superb effectiveness.
Grenades, on the other hand, are meant to hit lots of people at once. But, they you generally chuck these and hope you hit something. It's highly unlikely unless you land in at the exact right place at the exact right time. Despite being more powerful than a sniper rifle, they aren't as accurate and less effective as a result.
What's the point?
If you want to brand with impact, focus intently on one person, scope them out, and snipe them. You're much more likely to hit the target.
Don't chuck a grenade and hope you hit someone.
Selfish ambitions don't really get you anywhere. They cause you to think narrowly about what's good for you and gives you a good pay out (one person), as opposed to thinking about what could give a good payout to others (multiple people). Not only that, but it makes for lame brands, since it's hard to make other feel something if you have not rooted your company in empathy.
There are blatant examples of this when startup founders go into a venture with the purpose of making a bunch of money so they don't have to work anymore. No one is going to hand their money to you so that YOU don't have to work anymore. It seems silly to reiterate that, but sometimes we all need a reminder. It's rare to find a company with a purpose like this that does anything innovative or builds something others find irreplaceable. However, it's not always as easy to spot such self-centered ambition.
Where selfish ambition gets tricky is when it's veiled in altruism. Here are some example: "I see all these big companies that are selfish with their money and do a bad job handling it, I think I could do a better job."
At first glance, it doesn't seem like that big a deal. There are indeed hundreds of big companies that get caught in scams and aren't very generous with their money. But take a look at the example again but with this question in mind: who is the beneficiary?
There's only two subjects in it, large companies and the founder of this startup, so it must be one of them. Sparing you the trouble, if either of these subjects are the beneficiary, then this purpose sucks. Despite the acknowledged problem of large companies' ill-spending, the solution of trusting one person (albeit, a stranger) to do a better job with it is not much better. It's certainly not something that you could rally a team behind, convince investors to buy-in to, and certainly not customers.
Why? Because it's all about the founder. No one is going to buy into that.
It's not all lost though, with a small tweak this could be improved. Let's try this: "I see all these big companies that are selfish with their money and do a bad job handling it, so I'm going to create a company where every employee gets to dedicate a portion of our profit to a charity of their choice."
Now who's the beneficiary? The employees and the charities they choose to support. Shoot, even the founder becomes a beneficiary because they now have recognition for giving others an opportunity to do good. Despite a purpose dedicated to the service of others, the company still grows because other people have bought in and get something in return.
Point being, if you want to grow your startup, make your purpose about other people, not you.
Yesterday, I wrote about measuring a brand's effectiveness and actually assigning a value to it. It followed a scoresheet with specific levels of customer appreciation for the brand. This article is going to address some of the tangible assets that lead to getting those number higher.
Level 1: Satisfied
The company/product has met my expectations.
People don't want to buy shit products, at least not more than once. Even the least affluent customer isn't stupid enough to buy something that continually breaks simply because it's affordable. At the most core level of your brand, you must be able to live up to your promises and deliver. Be it a product, service, experience, whatever. If you don't have this in order, fix it first.
The company charges a fair price for the product.
Aligning with the fulfillment of your promise is the value it is worth. This in part has to do with who you are trying to make something for. If said target wants to pay a premium for a premium product, you better give it to them. If they want to spend middle tier, you need to let them. "Fair," is relative and is determined based on the person you are making something for.
$100k is a fair price for a brand new Tesla if experience, ease-of-use, and being on the forefront of innovation are what matter to someone. $100k for a Honda Civic is not.
Things that can help affect this level:
Level 2: Delighted
I've been pleasantly surprised by the company/product.
This is a build up of small things that were pleasant surprises. Things like a special email follow-up after purchase, nice packaging, good design, or something as simple as saying, "my pleasure" (thank you Chick-Fil-A). It's hard to pin-point exactly what these elements would be, but I'd offer this general statement: if a customer comes into contact with it, can you make it special and unique to your company?
I would happily recommend it to others.
I'd ask this: do you make it easy and worthwhile to get referrals? If not, how could you make it a win-win-win for you, the new customer, and the one who referred you?
Things that can help affect this level:
Level 3: Engaged
I identify well with the other customers of this company/product.
We do business with companies and people that have the same values as us. That being said, you have to offer something that isn't found in other players in your market. You have to ask yourself "who would choose you over your competitors and why would they do it?" It can be for subjective reasons too, not just pricing or features. Some people just want things to match up with their lifestyle. Someone who values sophistication, aesthetic, and craftsmanship is not going to shop at Walmart.
I would go out of my way for the company and its customers.
Something to keep in mind with this statement, in order to go out of your way, there have to be other options available. This is about differentiation and why someone would seek you out, even it if wasn't the most convenient.
Things that can help affect this level:
Level 4: Empowered
The company/product is essential to my life.
Here is where you assess the value and permanence of your product. You own a couple items, I'm sure, that fit this category. Your phone, favorite pair of jeans, necessary software, or a favorite restaurant. Not only is the product so good, but the entire experience is enough to make you a repeat buyer.
I would be very sorry if it went out of business.
Are you irreplaceable or not? Have you impacted a core area of your customer's life?
Things that can help affect this level:
What are you going to work on first?
There are big elements of design and there are small elements. Both are necessary if you want to use design as an asset within your startup.
Design is the process of crafting with intention. This sets the trajectory for allowing design to be an integral part of your startup. In fact, it speaks to the idea that it should be intrinsically woven into every decision the company makes. If you act with the purpose of achieve a specific goal, you are designing. The opposite would be aimlessness or choosing to craft without purpose.
While such endeavors can lead to interesting results, it's not the best mindset to adopt with investors breathing down your neck or crucial deadlines looming int he background. Choosing to adopt a design-driven mindset is what allows you to measure progress and iterate with precision. In short, design turns wandering ideas into obtainable goals.
That's way different than making things prettier.
Yes, this concept tends to be confined within the areas of improving the aesthetic of apps, websites, interiors, products, or brand identities (a bunch of small elements), but these outlets don't give it power. Look beyond aesthetic and focus on creating things with purpose. How you want them to make people feel, what you want them to do, the goals a project is supposed to achieve.
I guess the main point is this: if you see design as only making things look pretty, even the things you want to look pretty will fall short of expectation. But, if you decide to see design as crafting with intention, you will be able to get results... and maybe make something beautiful int he process.
Since branding is an emotional subject, it gets hard to manage. Specifically, it gets hard to measure. Cue Marty Neumeier (again). In his book The Brand Flip he lays out a structure for measuring the effectiveness of building a brand in what has been called the Brand Ladder. The goal of the Brand Ladder is to see how well you are elevating a customer's experience with your company. If you score low, it means you're a commodity, easily capable of being replaced. If you score high, customers are likely to become repeat buyers, evangelists, and feel like they can't live without you.
Here is an outline of the scorecard (from your customer's point of view):
Satisfied Grade 1-5
__ The company/product has met my expectations.
__ The company charges a fair price for the product.
__ TOTAL (highest score of 10)
Delighted Grade 1-5 and multiply by 2
__ I've been pleasantly surprised by the company/product.
__ I would happily recommend it to others.
__ TOTAL x 2 (highest score of 20)
Engaged Grade 1-5 and multiply by 3
__ I identify well with the other customers of this company/product.
__ I would go out of my way for the company and its customers.
__ TOTAL x 3 (highest score of 30)
Empowered Grade 1-5 and multiply by 4
__ The company/product is essential to my life.
__ I would be very sorry if it went out of business.
__ TOTAL x 4 (highest score of 40)
__ Grand Total (Highest Score of 100)
But it doesn't end there. Like any other assessment, you have to dive deeper and unearth the reasons behind them. What is it about your company that affects these scores? Is it design? Is it your messaging? Is it the product? You can measure the effects of branding all day, but if you are not willing to check on the factors contributing to its success, you might as well not even bother. Sounds like something I should write about tomorrow...
The most common answer a startup will give to "what is a brand," is something along the lines of "logo," or a "visual representation of your company." While the visuals are a key part in making a brand, they do not describe its entirety. Marty Neumeier, author of the Brand Gap describes it this way:
The brand is a gut feeling. It's an emotion felt by someone after interacting with an entity, usually a business.
What is a brand? A gut-feeling, don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.
Positioning is the spot your startup fills within the head of your customer. It matters because most people already have a go-to brand for most products and services they need. For example, Apple is positioned as the leader for personal technology, for most, non-technical people. Unless you are a developer in which case, you probably prefer PCs and Android phones. They claim different positions for different people and it gives them authority as a an option for people to buy.
Here is where startups go haywire with their positioning,: they play the wrong game. Specifically, this one: they try to look, feel, and act like a large company and go head-to-head with the ones already out there. This trickles into their branding efforts, making them appear sterile, stoic, and dehumanized. Why? Because they see large companies they are trying to compete with do the same thing. Here's the secret: large companies have to act that way so they don't get sued for upsetting people with their character.
As a result, customers long for something more personable (someone to claim a different position). This is something your startup could offer them if you weren't playing the "we're a big company too," game. You will lose every time. But if you gave a minimal amount of effort into giving your startup a personality and stopped trying to look, act, and feel exactly like the companies you are looking to dethrone, you'd win more often.
Play the right game.
Design is a gargantuan undertaking, namely because there is so much stuff to consider. From logos, icons, illustrations, layouts, man, the list is endless. But, there are two things that set the trajectory for good design and good branding within a startup: color and typography.
Things go haywire with color really fast. Why? Because most startups want to impress people and peacock their way to good branding. The more flash, the better right? Wrong. Honestly, when you are starting out, it is imperative to rely on one core color (unless you design out a full color palette). Why one color? Because it helps you focus and reign in all of your energy on keeping your branding consistent. One color, with neutrals (black, greys, and white). That will make your startup appear far more mature than a one boasting yellows, blues, and pinks like a clown at a sideshow.
Type is hard, even for designers who have been trained in choosing tyoefaces and using them properly. In the prospect of boosting your startup through design, please heed this suggestion: pick one, good, timeless typeface. Why? Because typography connotes so much emotion and is often chosen based on what looks "cool." "Cool," usually translates to distressed, obnoxious, or flippant. None of which you want to be associated with your startup.
I get it, you want to be extravagant and show that your company is creative (and it is, don't you forget it). But is selecting an overtly illustrative or stylized typeface going to be the best way you communicate that? It could be, after you get a grip on what you're doing from a design perspective. But that takes time and expertise. So, for the time being until you can fully invest in picking typefaces that have personality and are selected with on-brand intentions, pick something neutral and timeless. I'd recommend pulling one from this font bundle on Design Cuts.
Implementing these suggestions into your startup is not going to solve everything, but it will at least help you appear more trustworthy until you can really build out and refine your branding.
I normally work from home and, for the most part, it's pretty easy for me to get into a groove. But there are some days, especially during the COVID-19 quarantining, that make it difficult.
Specifically because the elements of my routine are barred. New floors are being installed in my house so there are quite a few construction workers here playing music, hammering in pieces of flooring, and moving around. My desk is in pieces and all of the furniture is scattered. Even the garage where I normally do workouts in the morning is unavailable.
In short, I'm in a massive deviation from my routine and it is taking a toll on my effectiveness. But, there is a silver lining in that it has never been more obvious the kind of routine I need to function at my peak.
What does this have to do with branding? Well, you can understand what you want for your brand by understanding what you don't want. By cross-examining your competitors, other brands, or even something as granular as aesthetic, sometimes the fastest way to understand what you want to become is to discover the opposite.
Full disclosure, I am a Webflow Affiliate and I get monies for sending people to Webflow. Full story, I didn't start out that way and after using the platform to make epic websites for three years, I was given affiliate status.
The website of a startup is like a 24/7 sales person and it's the most extensive component of your branding efforts. It's the only place where investors and customers can experience your company and get a feel for who you are. It stands to reason, then, that if you cannot keep it alive and make it a pleasant experience, it becomes a crutch.
Before you even get started on building a site, chances are you'll do some research figuring out what platform to use. You'll probably explore options like WordPress, but, in my not-so-humble opinion, WordPress sucks compared to Webflow. For these three reasons: time, functionality, and creativity.
Time is your most valuable resource and while WordPress was great in being a first mover into making the web more accessible for makers, they fell off the tracks. It's still time consuming and difficult to make a WordPress site look and function exactly the way you need it, even with the help of developers. Webflow's designer tool allows you to skip over the back-and-forth between design and development. This saves time and it also cuts down on costs, since you are no longer dependent on developers to make design changes.
Any time the development team is taken out of the picture, the question of compromising functionality arises. Blanket statement: whatever you are looking to do Webflow can handle it. If you're worried, just ask these giant tech startups how much Webflow helped their marketing teams.
Furthermore, if you do need to bring in your dev team after 99% of the site has been built, they can add custom code with ease.
Lastly, creativity. New ideas come on quick and you have to move quick as a startup. Can you afford to wait for a designer to put something in sketch, pass it to the dev team, go back-and-forth to make sure it's right, have your marketing team edit it, and then launch? NO! You've gotta move and at the speed of creativity.
As if that wasn't enough, WordPress templates are rigid as hell and can't be molded easily. Certainly not without developer help. Startups can't afford to wait that long or have their developers doing rudimentary coding like front-end website building.
Point being, if your startup is not on Webflow, you are missing an opportunity.
What is the opposite of having great customer service?
It's not a trick question, the answer is shitty customer service.
What is the opposite of having the best products and the best prices?
Having the worst products and the worst prices.
You see, the flaw in baseless superlatives like "best products," or "great customer service," is that they don't help a startup sell product because it's expected. Think about it, what company doesn't want to have the best product or the best service? None of them, the same way none of them want to have terrible customer service. If the opposite of the claim is not also a unique selling point, then it's not unique.
For example, tech startups jump to "easy to use" as another feature. Since "hard to use" is not a selling point, neither is "easy to use." It's expected. Now, what makes the product easy to use is a unique selling point. Webflow, the tool I use to build websites, has a drag and drop interface built for designers who usually work in Adobe Creative Suite, that is the feature that makes the product easy to use. They also have a customer support team filled with designers and developers who can answer technical questions, that is the feature that makes their customer service great.
If you are going to rattle off a list of features and selling points to investors or customers, ask yourself if the opposite of this is also true. If it's not, you have a baseless claim.
There's a two-fold mission to this statement: one part applies to your startup's value proposition/unique selling proposition and the other pertains to the brand (how your startup makes people feel).
In short, you must know what is out there so you can create something that stands out. Let's break it down using the categories listed above.
Most startups will resort to "lowest price" on this point, but we can do better than that. Instead, ask yourself what are the alternatives to your product and what do they lack that your customers need? Sometimes it's as simple as a better interface or a different distribution method (i.e. Dollar Shave Club going subscription for razor blades). This should indicate what the big selling point of your product is or at least inform you of what is lacking within your competitors. From there, you can adjust your messaging to hit on the specific pain point your customers are looking to ease.
No two companies are alike in nature. Not even if they are in the same industry. Guaranteed, there are cultural nuances and quirks within every company that make them unique and special. Frankly, most of them hide it behind a professional demeanor and an unwillingness to be human. So, your goal is to assess your competitors personalities and find a void to fill. If the majority of them come off as stoic and cold, you have an opportunity to be friendly and vulnerable. Granted, you have to know yourself, since you can't put on a false identity in the hopes of attracting people.
These two bits of research can inform almost every decision your company should make in marketing itself. They give you the reason people should buy your product and why they won't forget you.
Let's set a boundary here: the design elements of your startup can change and evolve as your company grows. As such, the earlier your startup, the simpler the solution. As you grow and scale, things can get more dynamic. This article is dedicated to new startups that are experimenting on their own and have found choosing fonts to be a hurdle.
I'd imagine the scenario that led you to this article is something along these lines: you're putting together pitch decks, business cards, websites, etc. and you feel like you have to pick a new font every time. It's draining and you're not even sure if you're picking a good one for your brand.
The solution? Pick one, generic, easy-to-read typeface and use it everywhere.
Yep. Skip over mulling through MyFonts or TypeKit and use something that has been around for a while as a starting point.
"But Zach, I want something unique and pertinent to my brand."
Yes, you do, but you're not ready yet if you can't afford to hire an in-house designer or outside consultant to even define your brand. Your goal right now is to appear trustworthy and dependable to investors and customers. Trying to choose unique typefaces will end poorly and hinder you from getting you to a point where you can pay someone to take this off your plate.
Pick a typeface from any of the above, use a bold, regular, and light versions, and play with hierarchy and scale to create compositions.
I admire the confidence of startup founders. Everyday, they get up and get after it in the hopes of doing something to change the world. It's inspiring. However, it's sad that most of them fail to see the obviously awesome things about themselves and their companies that would make them unforgettable. Instead, they try to focus on what they think people want them to be. It's an inauthentic approach to building a brand and it usually results in being labeled something they are not proud of. In time, they become something they fail to recognize.
I call it, "pickle syndrome."
Since they spend their lives in a jar, pickles have no idea what they look like from the outside. They also don't recognize the unique qualities that make them special either. They float in the jar hoping someone will recognize them and see their worth.
It's in moments like this that is pays to have an external voice chime in and tell you all of the things that make you and your startup significant. To give you a new label based on the obvious truths you take for granted.
You are still a pickle and you're freaking awesome at it. Don't be afraid to tell everyone.
No, you're not going to remodel the kitchen in your startup. This is an analogy. You see, when you renovate your house to increase its value, there are two areas most recommended: the kitchen and the bathroom. Doing this adds the greatest increase to a home's value.
Is it out of the question to think that design could be the equivalent to increasing a startup? Not unlikely. I was at a pitch competition last month and all of the judges made comments on the design of the winning team's slides. How well they flowed, the ease of reading information, and the personality they added. There were other participants that had ideas just as good as theirs, but good design made them win.
Furthermore, in comparison to other things startups might do to increase their value, design isn't that expensive. A solo freelancer can make a run-down, scrappy startup look like it is worth millions for under $30,000. If it results in the recoup of millions in fundraising, that sounds like a drop in the bucket.
Here's the thing: if you're looking to tremendously increase the value of your startup, you might want to consider design as a starting point.
I was chatting with my friend Brian yesterday about his startup. He asked, "what did you think of our branding?"
I asked, "it depends, who are you trying to talk to and what do you want them to feel?"
He wasn't sure. It sounded like there were multiple target markets he was trying to reach with his product and he wasn't sure how he could build a brand that would reach all of them.
Here's the thing:
You cannot build a brand for everyone. In fact, it's smart to build a brand for one person. Since the brand is an emotion, an already vaporous concept, you make it far less tangible with the more people you try to affect. The best brands are constructed for one person. This allows you to focus entirely on making something that somebody will love. Fortunately, there is always spill-over and, because humans are so complex, chances are that we all have a piece of that one persona within us. You have to accept the fact that your brand cannot win over everyone. Even Nike and apple have their haters.
Marketing your brand, however, can be done to multiple people. I gave Brian the analogy of seasoned salt. Seasoned salt is like the brand, it's essence, flavor, and makes whatever meat it's combined with taste like seasoned salt. You can put it on fish, chicken, steak, pork, whatever, it's hasn't changed. Same thing with applying your brand to your marketing efforts. You might have a very specific message or offering for different target markets, but you make sure it's still contains the essence of the brand.
In short, you build the brand for one person, but you can market it to many.
Of all the things wrong in this world, telling a lie is my least favorite. Mainly for this reason: it prevents anything from improving.
If you tell a lie about a situation, you are intentionally shoving any prospect of fixing it out the door. In the startup world, this comes in many forms, "we're gonna have a billion dollar valuation," "our financials are steady," and my least favorite "we're the best."
Look, don't get me wrong, I think you should strive for a billion dollar valuation, you should strive for steady financials, and you should put your best efforts forward, but don't let these aspirations replace the truth. Like the fact that your startup is maybe worth $20,000 as it stands. Or that your financials are super shaky and your revenue streams are scattered. Lastly, don't confuse your best efforts with being the best solution available.
Why? Because if you let these lies replace the truth, you will certainly overlook what is stopping them from becoming true.
Without a doubt there are aspects of your startup that are amazing, and that you are brave enough to go out there and make something happen. But you will never get better if you cannot look your shortcomings in the face and accept that things could be better.
"Well, I'm my target market, so I should design a brand for myself."
I hear this a lot, especially from startup founders who think they have an amazing product that is going to solve world hunger and end war forever (I'm kidding, but you get the idea). However, despite the product being so amazing, they can't get sales, have a hard time pitching, and are constantly pivoting to the point of exhaustion. What's more, they all have shitty brands.
Why is that? Because going into business to build something for yourself is a surefire way to have an aimless brand, one that you cannot objectively validate. It's doomed from the start. Think about it, if you fully embody the exact persona of someone who could use your product, then they don't need you. They are able to solve this problem themselves. Good luck making them feel something other than contempt for you imposing yourself on their day-to-day.
I get it, you want to enjoy the work you do and have a brand that you can appreciate being a part of. You cannot find that focusing on yourself.
The key is to find overlap, a common thread between what your customers value and what you value. There is a reason they are listed in that order, as you, being an entrepreneur, can build a kickass business and brand whether you feel personally attached to it or not. You'll crush it because solving problems for other people is what you're best at, that is your job.
If you happen to have a passion for the brand and can align with it personally, all the better. But, you have to focus on a customer first or you have no business. Not only in the products you create, but the way you make them feel. That's where the branding magic is born.
I was sitting at Barrel Republic with my friends, Allyson, her husband, Brandon, and her sister, Jessica, and her husband, Joey (that's Allyson and Brandon, Jessica and Joey for you comma haters).
I don't drink, but beer branding has always fascinated me. Mostly because it's incredibly well done and shows the magnitude branding has on a product with thousands of companies to choose from. I was curious, though, if this group had any favorites.
Allyson is a fan of Coronado Brewing Company. Brandon chooses Ballast Point. For Jessica, Modern Times. And lastly, Joey went with Stone.
There are a couple things to keep in mind here. Some overarching themes in the brands they chose are as follows: local, independently rooted, craft beer from their hometown of San Diego. Seems to be the baseline.
A deeper dive: each person's personality is reflected in the brand of beer they chose.
Allyson loves to be at the beach and spending time with good people. When she's having a beer, her goal is to simply relax and enjoy herself.
Brandon also loves the beach, but he's also a craftsman and skilled woodworker. He loves to build things and has immense attention to detail. It's no wonder he opted to go with a beer brand "dedicated to the craft." When he has a beer, he wants to relax, but he's still looking for that craftsmanship.
Jessica is a neo-hippy with a passion for eccentricity and flair (funky, one-a-kind clothes and such). What better brewery for Jessica than one with a post-it mural of Michael Jackson in it's tasting room?
Joey is rugged and straightforward. Need I say more? He aligns with the gritty independent nature of Stone's ethos and can respect their rebellious attitude.
Here's the thing:
The beer itself is relatively similar. The flavors these companies provide could be swapped and no one would really know the difference. However, the personalities and attitudes of these breweries resonate with specific people.
Each of my friends made their choice for a reason: that beer brand was intentionally made for someone like them.
This will be simple.
If you want people to love your brand, don't give a half-assed effort into the design of it.
If you don't care, carry on as you have been.
A minor effort into a major problem is a recipe for disappointment.
You've heard it from me before that logos are not the most important part of your brand, however, they are a part of the experience nonetheless. With that in mind, it's important to get them right.
What are the core indicators of a successful logo? According so Sagi Haviv of Chermayeff, Geismar and Haviv (the identity agency responsible for the Chase Bank, MSNBC, Nat Geo, and Conservation International logos), it comes down to three things:
Simple, distinct, and appropriate.
Simple, meaning that it could be replicated at various sizes and applications without additional effort.
Distinct, meaning that it could be described after looking at it or perhaps doodled on a piece of paper and different from others in the same field.
Lastly, appropriate, meaning that you wouldn't have the same logo for a heavy metal band that you would for a cooking line designed to make people feel calm and tranquil. This doesn't mean tell the whole story, it means don't contradict yourself emotionally.
Simple, distinct, and appropriate. Logos that fail to meet this end up becoming blemishes wherever they are placed. The most elegant package, flyer, or product becomes tarnished with your hideous zit of a logo.
Take a look at your marketing collateral, your website, billboards, ads, business cards, etc.
Now ask yourself, do you have a logo or do you have a blemish?
Let's get on the same page. By "boring," I mean logos that are less detailed. They don't have 10,000 colors, multiple elements, nor do they convey every detail of the company they represent. Truth be told, without being placed in a specific context, they are useless (unless you're a logo designer interested in analyzing them). It would seem that it is the elements that surround the logo that give the logo power, its longevity, and then structure would be last on the list.
Logos live on things. Lots of things. From app icons, billboards, collateral, even products. These logos are almost always accompanied by some form of messaging or other interactive piece. What's the point? The point is that the logo has little influence in making someone respect a company. Not nearly as much as the surrounding colors schemes, messaging, calls to action, or personality of the brand that it is encased within. If anything, the logo's job is to be there without becoming a blemish.
Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola have spent decades (over a century for Coca-Cola) using the same shape as their logo. There might have been slight adjustments in color or structure over time, but nothing that would make you think the mark was completely new. There's a reason for this and it's to drill the mark into people's minds. Thankfully, they have logos that have been able to serve them regardless of the surrounding political climate, era, or trends that make other companies feel the need to change their logos. It's the same reason cartoon characters don't change their clothes, the artists are making it easy for you, the viewer, to be visually primed for their character. By keeping the logo the same for decades, you are more likely to let your guard down when you see that logo, assuming the company is one you cherish.
This is the last point because a logo it's the cherry on top of the branding sundae. If the rest of a company's marketing, positioning, service record, products, and messages are on point, they can get away with having a less-than-great logo. Having a good one just seems to add the little extra delight or, at the very least, give a potential customer one less thing to have an issue with. This is accomplished be keeping the mark consistently recognizable regardless of where it is placed.
That's what all great logos have in common, they are boring and do their job really well.
My favorite color to wear is black. Typically, I'm wearing a Buck Mason black T-shirt, Levi's blue jeans, and white sneakers. However, I would not wear that to the gym. In the gym I wear a black dri-fit, black shorts, and black training shoes. And while that's great attire for the gym, I would not wear that to a wedding. Instead you'd find me in an all black suit. Regardless of what I'm wearing though, I'm still the same person. I have patterns, yes, like wearing black, but it's important to fit the occasion.
You can run with the design of your branding the same way. What is the occasion we are designing for and how do we flex our visual identity to match? What matters most is whether or not the personality underneath stays the same and can be felt.
Dress for the occasion and be yourself.
Alright, let's make sure we're on the same page, as one of the biggest issues with being professional is lack of concrete definition. You probably think of professional as suit and tie, clean cut, and stoic. But that's bogus. And it is off-base for what the actual definition of professional would entail.
relating to or connected with a profession.
"young professional people"
engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.
"a professional boxer"
a person engaged or qualified in a profession.
"professionals such as lawyers and surveyors"
Nothing in those definitions implies that one has to give up their personality, character, or style to be a professional. It seems that the only defining characteristic would be the practice of a specific activity that one gets paid for. You could pop pimples for a living and you'd still be considered a professional, so long as you get paid for it. Do you hear that? So long as you do a job and get paid for it, you are a professional. You don't have to wear a suit, you don't have to refrain from saying what you think or using slang, you have to provide something deemed valuable to be a professional.
Why do I want you to stop being "professional?" Because you box yourself in with your definition (the clean cut, suit and tie version). It makes you boring and totally diminishes the elements of your personality that make you special. Granted, this doesn't mean you should stop taking care of yourself or give the impression that you aren't put together, but that's not a hard standard to meet. If you wear a nice, unwrinkled t-shirt with a good pair of jeans, and sneakers, no one is going to think you're a slob. If they do, screw 'em. They are clearly not supposed to do business with you, but instead with someone who takes pride in posturing themselves to look wealthy rather than doing good work.
Stop trying to be professional and instead double down on being yourself, whatever that means. If you like getting dressed up, go for it! But don't let those fancy clothes become a shock collar that stops you from being yourself, telling your jokes, and saying what you feel is right.
Nothing could be more discouraging than pitching your heart and soul to investors or having a potential customer visit your site only to hear them say it looked unprofessional. Ouch. It sucks because you put time and effort into your products and services, but because you had a poorly constructed deck, a shitty website, janky business cards, you were perceived as incompetent and unworthy of their time. Despite your capabilities, you got kicked in the teeth based on presentation.
Two harsh truths are coming:
We live in a shallow world, flooded with messages and things asking for our attention. It is not the fault of other people that they make shallow judgements in an effort to stave off wasting their time and energy.
You can bitch and complain about how people shouldn't judge your startup by its looks, but you won't change anything. So suck it up and roll with it.
What do you need? You need a haircut. Something to turn that hairy mess of ideas and thoughts you have into something presentable and trustworthy. Just like the guy in this video:
Even from the thumbnail. Simply cleaning him up makes him appear more trustworthy and dependable. However, unlike this guy, your startup is not an alcoholic and is ready to get out there and make something for other people. Tired of investors and customers not trusting you with their time and money? Make yourself appear more trustworthy.
Also, good luck not crying and laughing during this video.
I've been racking my head around this since the initial quarantine mandates were put into place. It sucks that we are in a situation like this, but there is one key things that has seemed prevalent throughout all the chaos:
Remote Work is now commonplace and it actually helps in a lot of ways.
Obviously, I'm biased, since I work from home normally, but it seems that COVID-19 was the push we needed to expand our abilities in working from home or outside the office.
What makes this important is showing the flexibility of the workforce when forced to adapt. Maybe there is something more there, a microcosm of a greater potential to overcome adversity, but I digress. Anyway, back to remote work. It's a good thing and for many reasons. These would be the top three:
More time doing things instead of commuting
Double-edged sword on this one, as more people working from home means the people that have to go in will endure less traffic. On average, this would save people two hours per day, 10 hours per week, and 520 hours per year (give or take). Wow! Can you imagine putting that time toward personal health, cooking, or spending time with family? You'd be a different person if you really took advantage of all that time.
Less chit-chat, more deep work
Being an extrovert, like me, has its advantages, but the downside is that I will always prefer to talk with people rather than being left alone to do important work. When I worked for a startup after college, I would lock myself in a private room to focus for a couple hours because I knew I would take any opportunity to talk with coworkers. And while interaction is not a bad thing and should be used when doing brainstorming or collaborating on projects, a majority of our work can be (and should be) done independently. Why? So you can focus, dive deep into the problem, and get the thing done. Which segues into the next point.
Intentional social interaction
Though working from home has its benefits, we all need genuine social interaction. This is a shot in the dark, but if everyone is able to focus on the actual work they need to get done while working at home, then they can dive deeper during social interaction, especially with coworkers. Follow me for a sec, would you rather have 10, five minute conversations spread out over eight hours, or one, hour-long conversation without interruption? If you're like me, I prefer the latter. Deep conversations, like deep work, cannot be interrupted. My guess is that working remotely will create an environment where longer conversations take the place of spaced-out small ones as meeting up in person will be more intentional and focused.
What does this have to do with design and branding? I'm not entirely sure at the moment, but there is definitely a connection to the depth attained when working by yourself on a project without interruption. Maybe this shows that work, like design, is all about intention. If you intentionally make time to work, have conversations, or have fun instead of juggling them all at once, we'll be better off.
Before you touch a new name, logo, or messaging, it is imperative to list out the values of your startup. I know what you're thinking, "values? We have those. Honesty, Courage, and Innovation."
Cool, but do you know what they mean? What they really mean? I think I know what they mean, but there are nuances about these virtues that unlock their importance.
Values are nothing without their definitions. Specifically, they are nothing without your definition of them.
Here's what I mean: I define honesty as telling the truth regardless of how it will make others feel or what it does to your image. Is that how you define honesty? Maybe, but you can't instill that into your startup and turn it into an actionable element unless you define it for yourself. Your definition will vary slightly and that's where the magic of your brand comes into play.
Give it a go, whatever your values are, define them in your own words.
Before we jump into details, we gotta get one thing straight:
A brand is the gut-feeling has toward a business. By definition, being "on brand" would mean that the feeling you want people to have is being felt by your target consumer. Being off brand would mean they feel the opposite or something unrelated. For example, if I want people to feel "rebellious," then similar feelings like edgy, badass, and cool are right up my alley. What I'm looking to avoid is the opposite; safe, quaint, pretty, timid, etc. With me so far? Cool, here are the three steps:
Define your brand
This is done through a brand discovery workshop, it's borderline therapy for business owners. Founders sit in a room with an objective third-party and tell everything they can about their business. Their customers, their dreams and goals, the culture they desire, all of it is put on the table. In doing so, nuggets of information can be pulled that show what someone should feel about the business. The goal is to create a definition of the brand that can be used as a yardstick.
Review all marketing collateral
Social posts, brochures, swag, websites, the name, logo, identity systems, business cards, email templates, everything that comes into contact with a customer is put up for review. It goes without saying that if you're jumping into a rebrand, you are probably not happy with all of these assets anyway, but you need to clarify why that's the case. If you don't you open the door to repeat the same mistakes in recreating them.
Make a game plan
Using the items in the review, make a plan of action prioritizing the elements that would have the greatest impact on the brand. Then, get to work updating them and getting them on brand.
With every challenge comes new opportunity, especially in times of crisis.
With that said, you can curl up into a ball and let the world trample over your dreams or you can do something about it. Whether you have founded a company or are involved in making a company awesome as an employee, here are three things that every brand could do right now to beef up their brand.
Set up Virtual Meetings with Customers
Think you're alone in feeling alone? Not remotely. If you have a long-standing relationship with good customers, see if they're willing to talk with you over the phone or using a screen-share. Ask them specific questions like why they chose you over your competitors, what they think could be improved about your business, and if there are other things (besides COVID-19) they wish were better in their life. You might find they show new opportunities and that recurring patterns are going on within all their lives.
Do a Brand Audit
You've got a lot of time to yourself right now. Take this as a chance to look inward and see where the gaps are. Take a look at your marketing collateral, your social media feeds, your website, anything a customer might come into contact with. Are you doing the best you can to make them feel a cohesive, emotional connection with your company? Do you look like a company that is worth talking to and doing business with? Is it out of the question to think it could be improved?
Try New Digital Marketing Tactics
You will probably suck at this when you start, but what do you have to lose? You can't meet with anyone face-to-face, so you need to have a strong presence online. Create a newsletter using Mailchimp (it's free to start), create a YouTube Channel (also free), host a webinar using Google Hangout (also free). It's estimated that we are going to be distanced for the next three months, but you can close the gap by getting online in someway. Just pick one and go for it.
I'll keep this short.
Things are weird right now, but you have two options:
Keep playing or quit.
You might fail if you keep playing, but I guarantee you will fail if you quit.
Get in the game.