The start of a branding agency
Design/branding agencies are founded in a number of ways, either a few like-minded people in an agency get together, perhaps deserting their agency on mass, and form a new company. Or like me, work away in the evenings on freelance work until you have enough clients to go it alone and be a freelancer. Over the years gaining more clients, staff and brand experience.
It doesn’t seem to matter how you start, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, brand gurus like Otl Aicher, Paul Rand and Wolly Olins.
How big is a branding agency?
Who’s to say an agency of two people cannot deliver a brand solution superior to a multi-national award winning mega fee agency? Well, no-one. Some of the great movers and shakers work alone or at most with a small team.
Setting client budget aside, why do clients pick certain agencies over others and what do those agencies need to know and deliver as expert brand consultants?
Requirements of a branding agency, London
Below are some of the things a good branding agency needs in their skills set to compete with the London agencies. I say London, as opposed to the UK, only because that is where Navig8 is based and whilst we serve not just the UK, but global companies, the big boys that we compete against tend to operate out of the smoke.
Market, audience, positioning
A true and deep understanding of a clients market and audience is the most important aspect of any branding project. Don’t ever assume you already know who buys what and their reason for doing so. You might think you know, you can probably make a good guess, but you need to see evidence. And so does your client and that in itself can throw up some issues. Clients often think they know who their ‘customers’ are and why they buy from them. In my experience they rarely understand the true picture.
For example a charity might target a certain donor who has had experience (themselves or a family member) that directly relates to their cause, Cancer being an obvious one. The client will tell you about their market demographic etc based on the fact that 80% of donors have recovered from cancer or lost a loved one. What they fail (often but not always) is to address the potential ‘new’ or marginalised audiences a repositioning might achieve.
Perform in depth market analysis, segregate audiences and define new opportunities. Build an in-depth picture of each interaction and conversation the organisation has with its customers, either through services or products – whatever.
Then look at positioning. Using cancer as an example, Macmillan is a widely recognised cancer charity in the forefront of people’s minds. Another example is Cancer Research UK. But a quick Google search on ‘cancer support charity’ brings up a host of unexpected results. Melanoma UK, Shine Cancer UK and Cancer Care are on page one, who knew?
How do these organisations position themselves against those two big charities? What defines their offer and service? How do they communicate to their potential donors abouthow they make a difference?*
Go through a thorough positioning exercise (most charities that I have worked for did not do this properly) and see where they are now and more importantly where the want to be.
We did this for the League Against Cruel Sports, who were seen as hunt saboteurs and an ‘aggressive’ organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A PowerPoint slide with a cross and some dots on it will not cut the mustard if you hope to deliver a strong brand that will alter an organisation’s future.
Dedicated not followers of fashion
Branding agencies that deliver solutions based on current trends leave themselves exposed. Back in the day a font called Rotis was released, designed by one of our aforementioned gurus, Otl. Henceforth we saw endless logos using Rotis, and I mean endless. The brands that have the high ground and draw on longevity or hope to instill longevity never follow fashion. They don’t even define it – they ignore it.
I see agencies playing to the zeitgeist, be it hipster, tech or god forbid the latest Photoshop filter. And clients fall for it, they see it as modern, or forward thinking. Well, they won’t in three years time, because generally that is all it takes for flat graphics, drop shadows or graduations etc to be out of fashion.
You will always get the agencies that will think they can set the trend. The 2012 Olympics logo springs to mind. Admittedly the designers did not follow the zeitgeist, they did not even capture the moment and we were told to wait and see. And so we waited, but the result still looks as disjointed as it did the day they raised the curtain.
Longevity is the true measure of a great identity and brand.
Understand evolution and revolution
Marmite, Coca-cola and The Times will tell you this, look after your provenance, move with the times, but do it slowly. Too many organisations see an issue with their brand and try to dump everything that underpinned it in the first place. Before you start, consider evolution, rather than revolution.
Let’s take Federal Express as an example, often seen as a revolutionary re-brand. I don’t think so. Federal Express, had a purple and orange logo, it had movement. Along come the branding agency… what they heard from their customer analysis results were people tended not to say ‘Federal Express’, they said ‘FedEx’. This is nothing to do with the logo, this is how the customers ‘used’ and referred to the brand. Someone bold went ‘OK, we’ll call ourselves FedEx, everybody else does’. And here comes the gold. The branding agency told the client, ‘look this is what your customers call you, deal with it’, and then evolved the mark to take on the new name, with the same colour palette. But how did they make it move? Look it up - ‘FedEx logo secret meaning’.
Application and flexibility
Possibly the most important part of a branding exercise is the application of the identity. I’m not jut talking about the consistent positioning of a logo, although that is important, I’m talking about understanding that the brand elements (scheme) need to be applied in a flexible way. A brand scheme can include anything, think of Burberry, almost nobody can visualise their logo, but can you see the famous check pattern? It’s the same for Easy Jet, it’s as much about the heavy use of orange as it is the use of cooper black.
All too often the diverse applications that a brand will need to deal with are not considered and tested enough. For instance, if your brand will be used online as a small logo on a websites footer, it will need to render well using only a few pixels without breaking up. The old British Council logo had this problem, the new one fixed it. It evolved.
Consistency, consistency, consistency
The balance between flexibility and consistency is paramount. A good branding agency will create solutions with longevity that will allow the identity to naturally develop and lend itself to new applications. Those flexible and diverse situations should be underpinned by consistency. Consistent logo position, consistent use of the colour palette and font should always be defined and policed. To use Easy Jet as an example, it didn’t take a huge branding exercise to brand all of its sub-brands, Easy Bus for instance.
You may think that the Easy Jet identity and brand looks cheap and very basic – and it is – and that is a perfect piece of communication, because that is what they want you to perceive their products are.
Buy-in, that’s what you are looking for. Re-brands are often considered to be an expensive and unnecessary exercise by the bean counters. Explaining to all of the stakeholder the need, benefits and process of a re-brand is vital to its success. Start before you start, consult with all the stakeholders before you begin the process of design. Get their opinion on what they feel is wrong. Correlate responses and present it back as a brief and get sign off. If they feel their opinion is what defines the results they are more likely to get behind the process, understand it and actively promote its use.
It shouldn’t stop there, consult and report through the process. Be sure to stamp your authority as a professional and an expert in branding. I was once told that a particular green I had used as part of the identity scheme needed to change because it reminded the Director of some curtains his wife had bought (I’m not making this up). What kind of decision making is that!
Lastly, when the job is done and the work signed off, go through a process of explaining to the entire workforce why it is important to understand why the organisation went through the re-brand, how it affects them and if you can, give them something to be excited about.
Don’t just walk away when the invoice has been paid and the letterheads have been delivered, even if there are no fees attached. As time goes on there will be instances went the client will need you to advise on a certain application or anticipated need.
When working on an identity that will be delivered by an in-house team or external suppliers, it is a good idea to offer your services as `Logo Cop’. This usually entails reviewing first and last proofs of designs and ensuring the guidelines have been understood and applied correctly. The less you have to do, the better job you have done.
Of course there is much more to being a great branding agency and providing an excellent service, no matter your size or location, be it London or Little Harrowden, but if you want to compete, understanding the wider implications of branding is vital.
*In the 15 years I have been working on branding exercises for the voluntary sector I cannot count the number of times the marketing manager has suggested (like it was their idea) using the headline, or worse tag line, ‘Making a difference’. Once you start noticing how prosaic this is it will drive you nuts. Warning, when you explain this to them they will probably offer up ‘changing lives’ which is almost as bad. The catering and hospitality industry are as bad. How often do you see plastered across the front signage ‘eat, drink, sleep’ or ‘live, love life’. Can we stop this now please.