Crafting and Communicating an Authentic Brand Story

The best brands are built on great stories.“

—Ian Rowden, Chief Marketing Officer, Virgin Group

More than at any other time in human history, today’s consumers possess increasingly short attention spans and are bombarded daily with numerous media and messaging channels. Everywhere you look there is constant marketing and advertising going on in some way, shape or form, with the goal of informing, promoting and prompting commercial activity from you and me, the consumer. New products and services are constantly being developed and rolled out and updates and upgrades are being released on a daily basis.

It is in this climate that brand creators and curators find themselves with an urgent need to become great storytellers. For small businesses, the sole owner and operator is often the individual in charge of this story. Brand is regarded as a business’ most valuable asset. It follows then, that the most important (and valuable) story a brand steward can tell is their own.

This is the one story brand creators and curators must know thoroughly and become masters at telling, in any setting and to any audience. The audience can be stakeholders, potential investors or especially, new and existing customers. In the same way that no one, not even your closest competition, does exactly what you do in the same way that you do it; No one understands you, what you sell or why you do it, better than you.

What do we mean by brand story? Your brand story is the unique narrative that weaves together your business origin (look back) and orientation (looking ahead) and speaks to present issues, concerns or needs in the market. What need was your business created to meet? What problem was your business created to solve? This story speaks from you to your audience with a message and tone that permeates through all your business communication. Your brand story can emulate other organizations but should never imitate directly. It must be yours – looking, sounding and feeling like the rest of your brand.

Exceptional brand stories do a few key things well:

  • They provide answers because they begin with questions. Arguably the most critical question to answer is the “Why” of your business. In helping consumers understand how you got to where you are today, take them back to that initial problem that your product or service was created to address.
  • They incorporate visuals that tie in the key aspects of your story and associate well with its tone and key elements. Give careful thought to the visual assets that you use to tell your brand story, especially in digital media settings. We live in an increasingly visual world where the competition for attention spans is quite fierce.
  • They are grounded in real life. Realize that problems are not an end but a beginning. Problems provide opportunities for creativity, not obstacles.
  • They begin with why your organization is different, but they continue with why that even matters.

Recently I heard a very compelling brand story from Greg Vetter, CEO of Tessemae’s, a rapidly growing all-natural producer of sauces, dressings and other condiments. That story is summarized here. Once you become familiar with the story, it’s readily apparent how the origin of the company influences the orientation of the company, and along the way, how this authenticity in look, feel, delivery and message continue to shine through everything about the company, from its production to packaging.

Remember, there are lots of brands telling lots of stories through lots of media. Authenticity creates appeal. This is something Tessemae’s understands and all small businesses would do well to imitate. Know your brand story and tell it as only you can!

Create Brand Experiences Using the 3 M’s

The Coca-Cola logo is an example of a widely-r...Brands are everywhere! Products and services are constantly advertised to consumers through social media, mobile devices, digital signage among many other new and traditional avenues. There is more competition than ever for brand recognition and loyalty among consumers.

As consumers increase in volume and technological savvy, businesses must adapt their approach to marketing and branding to them. Creating high-quality brand visuals and messages is a must, but to truly distinguish their brands, 21st century brand stewards must go a step further. Three principles, each beginning with the letter M, will help the men and women who create brands achieve greater success in today’s market.

Meaningful

Branding for today’s audiences should, first and foremost, be meaningful, answering the question, “What is the problem that is being solved through the product or service?” Brand messaging is rooted in seeking answers to real problems. Common emotions or situations, such as humor, happiness or fear can be used and even featured in brand messaging or imagery, but ultimately if there is no need that is clear, the brand positioning ought to be re-considered.

This principle is the one of the three discussed here that is most essentially connected to both producer and consumer. To solve problems is why companies get into business, and why customers seek out businesses or organizations in the first place. This aim of branding will answer this question: “How will it meet a need in your life? How does it do it better or differently than anything else?”

Brand experiences developed for products and services give meaning by speaking to real and perceived needs and wants on the most basic human levels. Brand crafters should be able to restate their solutions as answers to problems and questions. This is important because clients and customers are more likely to return to brands that they feel excel at meeting real needs that they have.

Memorable

Secondly, brand experiences should be memorable. Children and adults love stories. We love to hear them and we love to make them up. We are always telling stories and responding to memories from childhood and other periods in life both the pleasant and painful times. This aim of branding answers this question: “How does this product or service make you feel?”

The human mind is always making connections. Brand crafters should use this to create visual and verbal links that tap into the power of stories and memories and heighten the awareness of brands to consumers. This can be done by developing visual and verbal elements (“symbols and saying”) that are either easy to remember or call to mind memories resonant with the target audience.

This principle is most important to the consumer (customer) side. Brands must seek creative ways to tell a story that is uniquely theirs in a way that is authentic and compelling. Discerning audiences can tell if the narrative being presented is not genuine. Fantasy, Future, Tradition, History, Values and Dreams are six of the most popular and common themes used repeatedly in compelling and successful branding.

Don’t underestimate how the power of stories and memories matter to consumers making sometimes difficult brand choices. Brand strategists and designers who tap into the right stories or and create the right memories can make connections with consumers that move them and motivate them to purchase a product or service. Consider the last great movie scene you witnessed and how easy it was to tell your friend about it. Consumers are far more likely to buy and share what they find memorable.

Measurable

Lastly, modern brand experiences should be measurable. Branding is a business tool, created with tangible business goals in mind, such as increased consumer awareness, expanded market share or successful entry into new markets.
After successfully appealing to the head and the heart, brand caretakers must then seek an answer to the questions, “How does it impact lives? How will we know if our initiative, rebranding, campaign is successful?” Branding strategists and designers have at their disposal many methods and tools to gather the answers, including analytics, focus groups, surveys, response cards, inbound marketing, search engine optimization and social influence among many others.

This principle is most important to the producer (the business or entity) than any of the others. Brand strategists and designers, operating as part of business teams, must use and create branding systems that produce some type of data that can be analyzed. They need to measure in a quantifiable ways the net gain in influence and value and profit for their brands and parent companies. They need to know it worked, or if it didn’t work, why was it unsuccessful. Stakeholders of all levels in an organization need to be able to determine if an expensive and expansive strategic campaign was successful in meeting its goals or not?

This principle is vital because lots of time and money is invested in branding. Failing to learn from past mistakes and misjudgments in this area can cost cash, credibility and even careers. In addition, branding is about reputation and perception and reputations and perceptions are two things that can change very quickly. In a world of constant change, data provides bankable evidence that helps brand crafters make better strategic decisions, which ultimately creates stronger businesses and brands.

Once you establish meaning and context for your branding in the everyday needs and wants of your audience, then craft a narrative that is authentic and strikes the right emotional chords, the last step is to deploy your visuals/messaging and keep track of what influence it is having on your intended audience through perception and behavior change.

As you think about the evolution of your brand, remember the 3 Ms: Meaningful, Memorable and Measurable. These are the indispensable characteristics and considerations you should use to guide successful branding strategy and create powerful and effective brand experiences.

The Benefits of Emphasizing Design for Small Business

Design for Small Business

In the excellent book, The Strategic Designer, author David Holston makes the following astute observation about a reality of doing business in today’s world:

“Businesses, like designers, need to be in a constant state of ideation. Design gives firms a competitive advantage in overcrowded markets by identifying unique value and connecting audiences, as well as reacting quickly to social trends.”

Holston goes on to talk about process, which is essential to design and no less important to businesses. Businesses that are succeeding in standing out and attracting clients are effectively incorporating design and design thinking/process in their own business culture and customer engagement strategies.

Design cannot change an organization’s core principles or philosophy, nor does it alone constitute a business strategy. A company still must provide quality, affordable goods or products and responsive, friendly customer service. Design can, however, amplify these efforts and reinforce these and other positive aspects of an organization’s brand. Employees with a design-oriented background are increasingly in demand by businesses for strategic business-focused roles because designers are inherently question askers and problem solvers.

In admiration of some of the most successful firms and brands in the world that have used design as a key component of their business growth strategy, the business world is, in large part undergoing a shift in the way design is considered as a formal part of business strategy. An emphasis on design or design thinking is not appropriate approach for every industry, but even if your firm or organization cannot emphasize design, you should seriously consider embracing it. Based on my own research and observation, here are three ways that a shift to embracing design and design thinking can positively impact an organization:

Dialogue: A Culture of Creative Problem-Solving

Design can be leveraged to establish or reinforce a culture of creative problem solving. Using techniques central to the design process, such as agile team construction and methods, the narrow, team or individual-based system can give way to a more collaborative, open-source way of tackling issues. This can in turn, benefit communication and solidify ideas or perhaps push them even further. Ideas can be conceived and explored quickly. User-focused experience is included in development. Embracing an open-source problem-solving method can bring more quality ideas to the table and yield interesting results and opportunities. This, in turn, can improve and reshape the creative culture or an organization as waves of new thought and ideas flood the business process.

Diversion: Create Delight and Escape

Design can be used to help stimulate creativity in employees. It can shake things up within your organization in a good way by positing problems that require creative solutions. It can also actually stimulate innovation and ideation that spills over into other aspects of the operation. Lastly, design can just help to break up the monotony of office life. It can create wonder, joy, and offer a place to escape to. Sometimes we just need to take a break and enjoy beauty, man-made and natural. Design creates and facilitates these opportunities.

Distinction: Rallying Cry

Design can also provide a rallying cry, a “standard”, as in a flag used in battle. This is often in the form of a strong visual identity, underpinned by real values. Along these lines, design can be used to unify, in a modern work environment where roles, salaries, organizational structure and specialization and outsourcing may divide and marginalize. Also, in helping to create a strong, recognizable visual brand and consumer touch points, design helps to distinguish one organization from another. People respond positively to the brands they see and know. Design can aid in this effort.

Embracing design and design thinking is a good for business! In ways great and small, it lifts spirits, unites, challenges and creates opportunities for small businesses to stand out and grow.

Reggie Holmes is a child of the early 1980′s, a native of Richmond, VA who expressed an interest in design before he even knew what it was. A graduate of the University of Miami with a BFA in Graphic Design, he returned to Virginia after school and worked in several different creative (and non-creative) positions before forming Enthuse Creative in 2013. His goal is to develop a strong solo design practice that contributes locally and influences globally through branding and design while inspiring others to joy and creativity.

Source: The Strategic Designer, 2011, How Books/F+W Media
Image Source: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_thinking

Design Thinking: Understanding Creative Process for Small Business

According to Ellen Lupton, author/editor of Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming, “The concept design thinking commonly refers to the processes of ideation, research, prototyping and user interaction (p. 5).”

Design thinking is what really fuels what we might call the “creative process”. I am personally a proponent of the phrase “design thinking” because it rightly places the emphasis on “thinking.” Consider the term “brainstorming.” Often, the focus is on the “storming” and not on the “brain,” especially when it comes to creative professionals. Designers have not helped their own cause by sometimes lording over the design process as if it were a sacred ancient ritual.

Often the creative process is something that is, in my opinion, unnecessarily shrouded in mystery to clients and consumers of design services. I have found, in my short time as a professional creative serving small businesses and organizations, that transparency into the design process is good for me and for my clients. Upon entering the field as the owner of a creative services operation, this was something I was encouraged to do through books and other professionals. I was, however, reluctant to change at first. Many potential clients I now speak to are surprised to learn how much creativity is systematic rather than just spontaneous. Successful designers recognize the need for both.

A creative process is beneficial to both parties. Process allows the designer’s creativity to become reproducible and marketable and it provides a measure of trust and confidence for the client. It is reminiscent of some of those complicated, higher-level math problems from high school calculus. Of course, we want to deliver a successful design solution at the end of the process, but we also need to be able to show our work. Often, how a problem solver arrived as his solution is as valuable as the solution itself.

Unfortunately, an attitude that I sometimes encounter goes a bit like this: “Can’t you just sit down at the computer and make something eye-popping happen on the screen in a flash!” Yes, it should be expected that professional designers work efficiently and effectively, but value in design for business is created and sustained by communicating a message consistent with an established brand strategy. A solution may, upon viewing, elicit oohs and ahhs, but fail to function well as a form of business communication. This is what sets graphic design, as communication-centric art, apart from fine arts, which champions individual expression. The deliverable can’t just look good, it must communicate well.

Creative problem solving has value for all types of businesses. That being said, all aspects of the creative process are valuable. Designers and other business creatives must help clients understand the conceptual aspects of what they do and business leaders must respect and appreciate the vital conceptual components of the creative process. Innovation has always been powered by designers who think and thinkers who design.

Most small business owners and employees have heard and likely used the expression “back to the drawing board” when an idea or strategy has proven unsuccessful. For creative problem solvers who are trusted by businesses and organizations to create valuable communication tools, the “thinking” is as important as the “drawing.”

Sources: Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming. Ellen Lupton, editor. Princeton Architectural Press, New York. 2011