A Brand Micro-Agency


Wait! Protips Before You Start Your Re-Brand


For a lot of smaller companies, a branding exercise can move from “nice to have” to “incredibly urgent” overnight. It might be because there’s a new starter, a round of investment, or a realisation that another project is contingent on the branding being right (e.g. an ad campaign, an event or a website). Either way it’s a surprisingly common story. But if you’re in this position, resist the temptation to engage a graphic designer for a week, and take a moment to think things through, so you can get exactly the brand you want and need.

Graphic designers are lovely and wonderful, but they’re all different. Some like to concentrate on their craft, and perfect designs “as briefed”, and others are more conceptual and consultative. Often a creative director or agency structure comes in useful to help bridge the gap between a marketer/CEO and a pure creative person - and if you can see the value in that feel free to get in touch - but either way here are some tips to make the process as painless and positive as possible.

Know Thyself

You may be a seasoned marketer and you may be new to the whole branding process. Either way you need to know yourself - and know how you like to work. Some people like to have a designer or agency go away, come back with and idea and sell it to them and their board with a fancy presentation. Some people are happy to have a couple of options emailed to them for them to pick from - no messing about. But many more prefer a more iterative and collaborative approach - and if you’re one of these people, make sure you explain that to your designer/agency, and don’t make assumptions about their process.

Back when I was a client, I loved having dozens and dozens of rough versions to pick from, to feel like I was contributing to the creative process and to avoid being unhappy with the final output. (Surprise surprise, I went agency-side and became a creative director.) So my combination of traits was that I was confident about my instincts but also wanted to see lots of experimentation that took me places I hadn’t been before. For some people, though, this is overwhelming, but they also don’t like just to be shown a fait accompli. If you’re like that, I’d suggest asking for a moodboard/inspiration phase in between the kick-off and the first round of designs. With found visuals, you can get a sense of the designer’s ideas and the direction things will go. Either you’ll agree on an aesthetic or save costly and frustrating reworking later on.

There’s also nothing wrong with showing a designer something specific that you like and asking for something directionally similar (not copying of course). Better to be specific than regret not saying something later.

Gosh, it’s a bit like a relationship isn’t it?

What’s the Big Idea?

Resist the temptation to launch into logos. A brand isn’t a logo - it’s an idea, a feeling, an attitude, that’s expressed by a logo (and a whole bunch of other things like typography, imagery and so on).

Before a designer shows you anything visual, for a really thought-through brand you should see a written, carefully-articulated concept. Language isn’t always a designer’s forte, so either you need to know this in advance or you need someone who can help. Some designers will dispute the idea that a brand necessarily needs something written, as they’re expressing the concept through visuals, which I understand, but I’ve seen things go wrong a lot of times without this “bridge” between the client’s strategy and the designer’s visuals.

In my opinion, there are no rules for what this should look like. Some people favour a “tag line” style, some people write out paragraphs or pages. You don’t need to call it a “brand poem” or a “DNA translation” or anything, you just need to have something codified which expresses the key emotional sentiment of the brand. No brand guidelines document should start with “here’s our logo” - it should start with a brand articulation, so everything that follows makes sense, and anything new in the future will too.

Who needs to be involved?

Branding is not just the purview of the marketing team. Yes, the marketers in an organisation will run the process and act as brand guardians, but one of the easiest ways to waste time (or entirely ruin a brand process) is to exclude other key people.

First off, remember that in fact your entire organisation should understand and exude your brand proposition. Coming up with a clever turn of phrase to express yourselves and a shiny logo is pointless if the customer service people are rude on the phone. Emblazoning “be nice to people” on your wall is nihilistically cynical if you then don’t treat your staff right. And saying you believe in synergy and dynamism might seem less clever when no-one else can explain what it means.

So, involve a broad set of front-line staff in the initial stages - workshopping for example - and they’ll be more likely to get you to the right answer and push back less when you roll everything out. I’ve seen brands (not ones we’ve created!) flat out rejected by a company’s staff after the fact.

Secondly, the more senior you go at the start, the easier it will be to get everything signed off. You may be worried about wasting your CEO’s time but trust me, it will pay off. Senior directors don’t have much time, which means they have to make quick, instinctive decisions on a range of non-specialist subjects. So, rather than leaving it to the last minute and have them say “yes” or “no” on the basis of what they feel, take them on a journey so they trust your process, your agency’s thinking, and your designer’s vision.

Get Your Ducks In A Row

Your agency will definitely appreciate it if things are lined up for them to digest before they start. Lots of companies don’t have a “live” and agreed marketing strategy, validated target markets, and so on. Of course, you can pay someone to do this, and your agency might be happy to sniff an upsell, but to move fast you need to get your house in order.

Even a basic marketing strategy that outlines where you’re going, your audiences and your key messages will be helpful. Additionally, if you don’t have a content plan or calendar, it will be useful for your agency to understand a rough lay down of what goes out where. Apart from gaining a general knowledge of the functioning of your marketing machine, it will help your agency to have a picture of what kind of applications the brand will eventually end up in.

The more structured documentation you can provide, the easier it will be for your agency to understand the difference between where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re doing. And the difference between these things is crucial to arrive at a brand that you actually want for the future.

Surprisingly, over the course of my agency-side career the vast majority of branding projects have been initiated without a client-generated brief. This is fair enough as many clients prefer the agency to write the brief, but it does leave a lot open to assumption and interpretation. Again the more that is structured and signed-off at a senior level internally, the smoother the branding process will be for you.

Do You Have Enough Time?

Seems like a facile point but it’s common for branding projects to start without enough time at the end to, for example, create mockups, test colours on different screens/papers, get samples made, gain customer feedback, gain non-customer feedback, and so on.

You can, for sure, consider the brand guidelines a permanent-beta, living document which evolves and adapts as new situations surface. Obviously this is harder if you’re opening a chain of 100 shops in one week, but if you’re a mainly-digital business where things will adapt and flow over the course of, let’s say a year, it’s actually probably a better idea. You can get the website live without having figured out what the packaging will look like. You can (and should) in fact change the website according to user feedback. You can tweak font weights and sizes if unexpected formats arise. The world isn’t going to end.

But even better to think through carefully what happens after a “theoretical” brand is signed off - in other words, create an initial production plan to fold in all of the real-world testing you want to do. This may well add weeks or months to the project, which might be alright, and in an ideal world would be what you’d do. But at the very least, it will pay to convince the CEO that rebranding isn’t as simple and quick as smashing out a new logo and printing it on everything!

If you’re thinking about re-branding, refreshing your brand guidelines or just re-articulating what your brand is all about, we’d love to help. Drop us a line to talk it through.