The power of fast-track branding for entrepreneurs and brand managers

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As many founders will know, designing a brand for your own company can become something of an obsession. It is as if the brand is an extension of your own persona, a representation of who you are. This personal attachment to brand design often leads many founders to put a significant amount of time and effort into brand design when building a company.

For brand managers and agency designers outside of the startup space, there is still great importance attributed to brand design. The resource intensive process that is traditionally applied to brand design contributes to the belief that brand design is critical to business success. Given that very little has changed in the branding industry for decades, no one could be blamed for seeing things this way.

The romance of brand design runs deep for founders, brand managers and employees alike. For this reason, a change of mindset can be very hard to achieve.

In reality, the conventional brand design process contributes very little to the ultimate success of a business. When we analyse the relationship between ‘design effort expended’ and the ‘ultimate success of a business’, there is little evidence that suggests any positive correlation. We also find that following a conventional approach to brand design does not create better results when compared to quicker, more cost-effective alternatives.

Throwing out the branding rulebook is one of the hardest things to do, yet in order to execute quickly and build effective brand designs, the conventional way of doing things needs to change.

 

The conventional approach to brand design:

For decades not much has really changed. Whilst some may take a more agile approach to branding design, the common approach still looks something like this:

  1. Spend time analysing the company personality, market demographics, and vision
  2. Create keywords that describe the brand and use these to inform detailed mood boards
  3. Develop logos, straplines, and brand identity packs over several weeks
  4. Go through numerous iterations to refine straplines, typography, and colour palettes
  5. After months of work, arrive at a final concept that everyone is happy with

 

The negative impacts of taking a conventional approach:

We are bombarded with brand designs every minute of the day. Every second, more than three startups are launched globally. In the time it takes to read this article, over 400 new startups will be launched. For consumers, there is a sense that they have ‘seen it all before’.  From straplines to business cards, following the same approach is leading to a commoditisation of brand design that consumers just don’t engage with. It is a sobering reality is that the conventional approach has not be shown to deliver better results. It can even dilute and reduce the chances of coming up with a fresh, inspired and effective brand identity.

It is also an expensive and time-consuming activity. For all companies, any activity that is expensive, time-consuming and distracts from executing your business has its dangers. Founders can spend weeks, even months, coming up with a company name and strapline. Going back and forth until the process of naming a company becomes an obsession. Even for those companies fortunate enough to have a larger buffer of time and money, spending investor dollars on brand identity can take up valuable resources and extend the time taken to launch products or re-brand.

In all cases, the resources spent on conventional brand design result in less time and budget for other activities that are proven to have a greater impact on business success. The greatest impact on success will come not from your brand identity, but from the value of your product, how you drive engagement, how you execute your business and through the partnerships that you build. These factors, not the name or logo, will ultimately make people love your brand.

It is not that brand identity should be ignored. It is that a change in approach will help balance other priorities and ultimately deliver a better brand identity.

 

Apply a new set of principles: Introducing fast-track branding

The principles of fast-tracking branding come from our experience working with corporates, start-ups, and agencies across the globe. As with any change in convention, the hardest part is not in the execution but in the mindset change that is required. Once the barrier to change is overcome, thinking about the branding process in a different way can reduce cost, save time or produced better outcomes.

Give less importance to the name of your company.
If someone had said they are starting an airline called ‘Virgin’, we would probably think that was a little strange. Today, it can seem like the name ‘Virgin’ is important to the success of the company, but there is no evidence to support this. All evidence points to customer experience, the execution of their services and in part, some creative marketing, that resulted in the creation of a great brand. The same would be true for Apple and the UK mobile operator, Orange. The company name has little impact on their success.

This does not mean we should simply choose any name. Having a short, catchy and disruptive name will help. The principle is that you don’t need to spend weeks or months coming up with it. It can be done in a matter of days. What is surprising to many is that the outcome of spending less time on naming often results in a less contrived and more memorable brand name. Standing out is good. Being adventurous and bold is much better than being ’right’. You can have fun and just let the names flow. Don’t be afraid of being random.

Remove or simplify conventional brand elements.
It has been standard practice to design a logo, create a strapline, and produce fancy business cards. Fast-track branding questions this convention and looks to remove them. At the very least, fast-track branding suggests we simplify and reduce costs.

Consider corporate slogans or straplines. They rarely add value and there is no evidence that they make a difference to success. For the most part, we have them because everyone else does. If we think about some of the more recent companies that command our attention, such as Snapchat or Instagram, can anyone remember their strapline? Don’t be ashamed if you don’t know them. Most people don’t even know they exist. For historic companies such as Nike, we all know the Just Do It tagline. What most people don’t know is that it was created in a single meeting and not after continous iteration. In the case of Nike, it did help create some creative marketing but there is still no evidence that this really helped sell more shoes. It is often said their focus on athletes such a Micheal Jordan and their passion for innovative products, such as the infamous air bubble, helped them change the game.

Logos also fall into the conventional bucket of brand design. Whilst they are more useful than straplines, they should not take weeks of ideation and expense. Try to keep a logo simple and know that doing something different is better than following the crowd. Given that there is little evidence to say a logo impacts the growth of a business, fast-track branding goes one step further to simplify the process. A typographic name can be used without a separate logo, ensuring you still have an identity but without the cost and convention of a logo.

Business cards stand on an almost untouchable level. You would think that is for good reason, but there is again no evidence to suggest business cards increase sales or impact business success. Most cards are rarely used once the first email has been sent, and it is increasingly common to manage contacts directly through LinkedIn. In cultures where business cards are still firmly embedded, you may not want to stop using them altogether but you should look to simplify the process and reduce costs. Consider a plain business card with your company name on the front and space on the back for the receiver to write ‘who I met’, ‘what’s their role’, ‘what’s their email’ and ‘why should I contact them’. The interactive experience will create a more memorable and emotional interaction, yet it does not need to be complex or costly. Certainly, it does not need the golf-leaf treatment.

As with the company name, spending weeks on ideation, feedback and design will often create contrived and unsurprising results. In many ways, the brand elements themselves are not even needed. Save your time, money and energy for things that make a difference to your business. Challenge convention and be brave.

Use your gut-instinct.
Spending a large amount of time and effort on brand identity is a common construct of the branding industry. Constructs that helped to drive up fees and keep people busy. This approach to branding design is not needed. Whilst this does not remove the need for competent creatives and innovative thinking, anyone involved in creating a brand identity should have faith in their gut instinct. As Malcome Gladwell highlighted in his book Blink, many decisions are best made from your gut.

It is often the case that being spontaneous, and in turn more random, gives a uniqueness and energy to your design. You should still jot down your general audience and intended positioning in the market, but don’t let analysis stifle creativity. A good approach is to take a look at a design you love and use this a simple reference. Think less about what your company does and more about who you serve. If you start a high-end property rental company, don’t use a house as your logo. You would be better looking more like Chanel than a property site, as this will create the right feeling with your audience. Afterall, no one uses the logo to understand what you do (otherwise I would have tried to buy my fruit from Apple a long time ago)

If you are designing a brand yourself, use your gut to cut down the time and energy expended.  If you are working for a client, then communicate the new process of fast-track branding so that less emphasis is placed on analysis, and more importance is given to value and creativity. In all cases, you will increase the value of your work yet do it in less time, with less cost and with fewer PowerPoint slides.

Steps to deliver fast-track branding:

Know that you are your own worst enemy
It is very easy to procrastinate over naming, business cards, colours and straplines. It is hard to break the emotional connection to branding. It is hard to make it less personal. It is hard to break from what we may have been accustom too. When pride is applied purely to design aesthetics, and not to the true value that is created, we become our own worst enemy to improvement. Taking a different approach will not reduce the quality of design nor the pride you should feel. It will result in producing more effective designs yet with less time.

For those starting companies without big budgets and time, this step is probably the most critical. Changing mindset will free up time and energy. Design preferences are very subjective but effective design is fairly universal. Remove subjectivity and focus on making something beautiful. Remove the temptation to over analyse and go with your gut. If we do this, the results will be much more effective.

For those in the branding industry, It can be even harder to move away from the status quo. It certainly takes bravery to replace existing beliefs. But we will all benefit from considering a new approach that delivers real results in a shorter time.

Choose an agency carefully
If you decide to go with an agency, choose one that approaches branding in an unconventional way. It doesn’t remove the need for highly creative and experienced minds, it removes the wasted time and money from following ineffective process. Greyspace call it ‘fast-track branding’ but this is just the name we give it. It will be the principles and mindset of fast-tracking branding that matter. This will result in something that is different, bold and far less resource intensive. Whoever you choose, make sure they are not suggesting several weeks of analysis or charging eye-watering amounts for naming your company.

Consider crowdsourced design and content
If you already have some background in creating a design brief, you can consider using Crowdsourc-design sites such a 99Designs. For founders and brand managers, this can help create logos and other design elements without distracting you from more important tasks. It can help get you up and running quickly. This still requires a change in mindset away from the high-fee, drawn-out branding process of the past.

Crowdsourcing design not only applies to elements such as logos or those with small budgets. It is increasingly expanding to other design areas such a photography and into the realm of corporates and big business. Platforms like Photomoolah are a new breed of company that are changing how corporates procure branding content. They offer a more agile and cost-effective way to build brand identity.

 

Stephen Barling. MD and Chief Creative @ Greyspace

Stephen is an acclaimed digital product designer and growth consultant who brings over 16 years of innovation, creative design and venture experience to Greyspace. His career spans corporate and startup ecosystems within the TMT, banking and education sectors. He has worked around the globe in America, Africa, Europe and Asia. As a strategy consultant, he helped some of the brightest companies and has built two successful global tech start-ups in Europe and South East Asia.
Stephen Barling. MD and Chief Creative @ Greyspace

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