12 Lessons from 12 Years in Branding

September 18, 2013 | Branding, Startups

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12 Lessons in BrandingRecently, Visible Logic celebrated our 12th anniversary. It was September 10, 2001 that I started Visible Logic. It’s amazing how much has changed in twelve years, yet what is at the core of exceptional design remains the same.

  1. The word “branding” is quite new, but the concept is not. Back in 2001, and most definitely when I graduated from MassArt in 1997, no one was using the term branding. In design school, we learned to design “identity systems.” This is where you created a visual identity for a product, company or service and made it more than just a logo. We had to consider other elements such as photos or illustrations, paper and ink, color palette, etc. that worked together to create a distinct style for the company, product or service.
  2. Good designers have always done branding. One of the ideas of “branding” is that it places emphasis on the research that goes on before and alongside design. For example, the research that design firms do to pinpoint what makes a new product unique, or research on how to make a new company look different than their competitors has always been a part of the process for thorough and thoughtful designers. This process is now more formalized in the idea of brand research. It used to just be vaguely called “the discovery phase.”
  3. Great design and great branding are not one in the same. For example, it is possible to have a gorgeous package design that does not attract your ideal client (imagine a Dean & Deluca package for kid’s mac n cheese). Or, you may develop a web site that excels at positioning a brand but the result is not too elegant (imagine a web site geared towards seniors where the font looks just a little too big). Here is another good example about the Tropicana packaging design and how design is different than branding.
  4. We used to call it appropriate design. I remember one design professor referring to the best design solution as the most “appropriate” for the challenge. It was the term used to explain that difference between design and branding (before branding was a word).
  5. A well-designed wordmark is often the best value for a startup. Over the years, I have watched as entrepreneurs come to me with a new and exciting venture that needs a logo. For nearly every business owner, having a logo is some sort of validation that they have a “real” business. They have to hold back their giddiness when we reveal new logo designs. But the truth is that creating a symbol-based logo is more time consuming and more expensive than developing a wordmark or logotype, and for many businesses a professionally-designed and distinct wordmark may be the best choice for a logo and as a foundation of a professional brand identity.
  6. Your web site is very likely the most important piece in your brand identity. There are exceptions: solopreneurs who market themselves primarily with networking and referrals; businesses who rely on advertising or direct mail. But for most companies, the web site is where a brand identity comes to life. It is where a distinct voice, vision and position for your brand emerges. Web sites have the opportunity to use visuals, well-picked words and story telling. Your web site quickly positions you in the pecking order of businesses from most to least professional. Twelve years ago, web sites were optional for businesses, now they are mandatory.
  7. Branding is a more important startup cost than ever before. Since the internet revolution, people have remarked about how easy it is to get into business these days. You don’t need an office with furnishings, fancy printed stationery or even a business suit. You can work from home using your existing cell phone and laptop. My advice to startups is to pour at least some of that money into developing their brand identity. While the bar has lowered considerably about your office setup, the bar is higher than ever with people’s expections about your web site including the design, content and messaging.
  8. If you want to grow your business through branding, you need a designer who understands business. As a business owner for twelve years, I often find myself talking owner-to-owner about the struggles and triumphs of being a small business owner. I know first hand the balancing act between serving clients and marketing my own firm. Like most design firm owners, I studied design not business. Yet running a successful company for twelve years, including surviving and thriving during this current economic downturn, has taught me a lot. I find I use this first-hand experience many times while helping my clients build their own businesses.
  9. Branding is hot and people are jumping in from all directions. Twelve years ago, no one used the word branding. Now the term is everywhere. And people are trying to jump in as experts from all different fields: graphic design, writers, PR, marketing firms, social media experts. There are many sides to branding and all of these experts can help you promote and focus your brand position in different ways. And of course, some of them have no clue!
  10. Branding will probably fall out of favor soon. We are a nation filled with impatient souls. So the term “branding” has likely already peaked and will be replaced with the next trend. But I would circle you back to point #2: good designers have always done branding. The buzz word will change, but the research that is attached to design work will always be necessary to create the most effective design.
  11. Words and visuals have a more complex relationship than ever before. Back in design school we spent a lot of time working on “words and images”. Using projects such as magazine layouts, we learned to work effectively with scale, placement, font choice, etc. to best marry the words with an image to convey and enhance meaning. Nowadays, the formats for broadcasting a message can seem endless: desktop, mobile, Facebook page, Facebook update, Twitter post, vine, printed poster, brochure… it goes on and on. To create a coherent voice and identity through all this takes skill, talent and experience. Designers who are comfortable with words (or writers who understand design) will be your best advisers.
  12. Great design still has the power to create a strong emotional connection. It’s great that companies and design firms are recognizing the importance of the research that should precede design work. It’s great when designers and writers partner together create cohesive messages. But you can’t research your way to an eye-catching and memorable logo or brand identity. At some point, the “branding” work needs to transition to “design” work and you’ll want the right team in place to do that.

These twelve years have been quite a ride. I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. As I look at this list I see Visible Logic poised for another twelve great years.

 

2 comments

  1. business logo services | September 24, 2013 at 5:25 am

    Your post is the conclusion of 12 years of branding, from all these shared points i think the most important one is that “A well-designed wordmark is often the best value for a startup”. Well designed word-marks are necessary when we talk about branding. Therefore every designer and owner should concentrate on it.

  2. Dan Knauf | October 29, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    This is a good list. I just started my professional career less than a year ago, so this was fascinating for me to see how much branding and even design has changed over the last 12 years. I think number 6 is interesting. For some people that were working in branding and/or design before the internet explosion, the addition of that extreme necessity must have been a challenge. I’m sure there were some people that didn’t adjust in time and ended up going out of business as a result. At the same time, going along with 7 through 9, I’m sure today that thousands of people take for granted how difficult and competitive branding is and because of this they fail to see their business take off regardless of how great an idea it may be.

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