Your visual identity is the first and most important contact you have with the outside world — make the most of it with a considered design program.
Developing a brand identity can often seem like the preserve of big companies with large marketing budgets — and the consultants and agencies on whom they spend them. In fact, an organization of any size can and should enjoy the benefits that a good brand identity brings to business. At its simplest, a well-expressed brand can give you the same kind of advantage a wellcut suit might present at a sales meeting. Beyond that, your brand identity can be a tangible symbol of the goodwill your business earns, positively influencing your value, while also providing some insulation against the difficulties that can arise from time to time in business life.
True to its origins in the marking of property, most people associate a brand with the visual sign or symbol a business uses to identify itself. Certainly one of the hallmarks of a successful brand is when a company’s symbol — is instantly recognizable without the need to spell its name out in words. But to get to that point all the factors that underpin a brand, sometimes invisibly, need to be well established. If a visual identity represents the flowering of your brand, it will need the ongoing support of healthy roots, stems and leaves to feed and support it. Understanding how all this fits together for your business comes under the heading of brand strategy, a subject to which many books and articles have been devoted. But however your thinking about branding is dressed up, the key is to think clearly about what you do, and to connect the dots between how you see yourself and how your market sees you.
If you can pin down the essence of your business in a few words that make sense from the perspective of customers, suppliers and employees, then you have the building blocks of your brand. Talk with colleagues, with customers, friends and family; ask them what they think it is you do that’s special. Remember you’re not looking for a tagline for public consumption: t doesn’t have to be polished, just true to what you are.Without being too rigid, you can use this phrase as a reference point against which any aspect of your business can be measured, from your choice in office refreshments through to how you chase late payers and everything in between. If it all more or less adds up, you’re on your way to creating a brand.
When you’re happy that you have arrived at a believable set of words that sum up how you do what you do, you can begin the process of applying your brand. Of course, the first point of contact a brand has with the world is usually through its visual identity, so it’s not surprising that most people start here, and a good deal of effort and often expense can go into arriving at a logo design that fits the bill. But so long as you’ve done your homework and have an understanding of the essence of your business, this process can be stimulating and enjoyable, and the cost can be kept to a minimum.
Leslie McKeown owns Poppy, a boutique clothing store in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood. Deciding that she could put her love of fashion to work, McKeown established her small independent business on the hunch that she could express and commercialize her distinctive vision for women’s retailing. Like many start-ups, in the beginning McKeown got a friend to help with Poppy’s visual identity, signage and packaging. The sense she wanted to put across was newness — designers, styles, cuts — before all else, and so a certain rough-around-the-edges feel was not only permissible but welcome. McKeown used innovative, low-cost ideas that did a good job in communicating Poppy’s cutting-edge status, and she gave thought to a persona for Poppy — “the smartest girl you know” — expressing it in the range and pricing of her stock, as well as in the décor of the store itself.
Clearly she did something right, because Poppy’s success is now an established fact: McKeown’s customers keep coming back. They value her commitment to remain ahead of the curve, the risks she takes with new designers and the discernment she applies to the few vintage pieces the store carries. In the meantime, McKeown and her husband started a family, and her thoughts began to turn to the possibilities of new lines — babywear, perhaps — and to raising her sights in terms of challenging a new level of competition. She began to feel that although Poppy’s original brand identity had been admirably suited to the job, she’d outgrown it, and that it was time to give it some fresh thought.
At growth points such as this, the services of an outside design agency can be particularly useful in helping you to express your extended ambitions. A good agency has the technical experience to provide you with a new brand identity that will grow with you and that can be produced in a variety of possibly unforeseen settings. They will also work with you to ensure that your identity continues to express what has made you successful to date, as well as embracing your new aspirations. In this way your existing customers will still recognize you even as you reach out to new audiences.
Hiring outside help comes with a cost, of course, and you’ll want to be certain you’re getting value for money. If you’re starting out, there’s every chance that your budget will direct you towards a freelancer. Happily, a lack of overhead doesn’t equate with a lack of creativity: many highly talented individuals simply choose to work this way. Ideally you’ll find a supplier through word of mouth, but the web presents a fantastic showcase for designers too (try sites like Elance). However, if you’re growing and need to refresh or even re-brand your business, an investment in the broader experience of an agency may well make sense, because your existing brand values need to be protected as well as extended. How can you be sure you choose the right company or freelance? A combination of recommendations, a realistic price point and track record should answer most of your concerns, but there are some good signs you can glean from your first meeting with a prospective agency. Do you feel in control? Are your brand issues front and center in the meeting? If you’re not subjected to endless case studies and a litany of proprietary formulas on “how we tackle branding,” but instead are engaged in a thoughtful discussion about you then you’re probably on the right track.
McKeown chose to work on the new Poppy with a European design agency with offices in New York. A meeting with them left her impressed. “They were very respectful towards my intuitive understanding of what Poppy is all about, and helped me to find words for it — they didn’t put them in my mouth.” The agency were careful to ascertain whether there were likely to be any unusual applications of the new brand identity, and sure enough, McKeown told them about an idea for little stickers to hold wrapping tissue in place.
The agency took over from there, and within a few days had narrowed their thinking down to two routes, each of which they felt expressed an aspect of the Poppy brand. Most agencies produce a number of designs, but in the end will present only the two or three that they feel most closely fit the requirement. You should expect to see several treatments of the identity, in various colors and at various sizes, as well as in a variety of applications — business cards, compliments slips, etc. Additionally, a good designer will propose and supply you with a typeface for your brand, contributing further to distinctiveness in every aspect of its public appearance.
On the day of the presentation the agency kept an open mind, giving equal emphasis to the two design concepts they brought with them to show McKeown. Explaining how both approaches connected with the Poppy brand, they gave McKeown plenty of room to reflect on the implications that each might have for her business.
A Decision is Made
Having given careful consideration to both design directions, McKeown chose route one, “When I first laid eyes on the presentation it was like looking in the mirror. It was an amazing feeling to have someone nail my aesthetic so completely, and even take it further than even I had considered. It very much reaches in the direction I want to take Poppy — organic roots, but relentlessly modern in outlook — I can ‘grow’ with this look for a long time."
McKeown now has a tool kit to take her business to new heights. Clothes tags, stationery, and even a neat sticker seal and rubber stamp combination for the shopping bags have all been included in the comprehensive design package. This is the sense you should get from a brand identity exercise, combining a mini-consultancy with the delivery of a tangible product you can use to take your business forward.
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