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Designer’s Guide to Brand Strategy

Damien Newman, of mdn studio (and Speak Up author,) has embarked on a very lofty project: explaining what brand strategy is, how it works and, most importantly, how to efficiently implement it.

The Designer’s Guide to Brand Strategy, a 74 page document in only its first edition, is destined to be a must read for any designer wanting to understand, and make better use, of what we have so loosely come to know as “Branding.” Even better is that it can be a great educational tool for designers’ clients as it is written in easy to understand language, void of marketing and branding mumbo jumbo.

Spiced with some clever illustrations along the way this guide is very well documented and supported by commentary from people like Clement Mok and Chris Ford. Along with examples from noted design firms like VSA Partners and Templin Brink Design, this guide is a great example and how-to guide of what we can do four our clients. I can’t recommend it enough.

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ARCHIVE ID 1396 FILED UNDER Branding and Identity
PUBLISHED ON Mar.18.2003 BY Armin
Darrel’s comment is:

That templinbrinkdesign.com splash page is cryptic.

On Mar.18.2003 at 09:20 AM
TOM’s comment is:


If you have lived within the design for business community for the last 10 - 15 years, then you know this is dead on. A valuable, valuable tool.

If you haven't had the opportunity to work for a firm or corporation that takes brand strategy very seriously, then I suggest you read this thoroughly!

Damien, this is great! I've only read through the intro and skimmed over the rest, but I can't wait to really get into it.

Thank you for taking the time this must have absorbed.

On Mar.18.2003 at 10:19 AM
felix’s comment is:

>>That templinbrinkdesign.com splash page is cryptic.

...and the work is hypocryptic. joel and gaby have been misrepresenting honest folks like myself and paul howalt (amoung many others) for years (notice over half of their identities were designed by paul and I).

If they wrote something intelligent, its most likely plagerized.

On Mar.18.2003 at 02:53 PM
armin’s comment is:

>joel and gaby

Joel looks just like Vinny Del Negro from the San Antonio Spurs

I know, I put a lot of effort into this, but I thought felix would get a kick out of it. Back to work now.

On Mar.18.2003 at 03:47 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

hehe. I KNEW that I saw some of those logos somewhere else ;o)

DesignGuys are a lot like that too, they hire a lot of good freelance designers and then show said work in their company's portfolio.

That said, I'm not sure if that is necessarily hypocritical/unethical. Yea, it'd be nice if they credited the actual designers on the project, but the reality is that it *is* a TB project.

When I worked for design firms, the work was never shown as mine...it was shown as the design firm's...which makes perfect sense.

So, I guess I see both sides to that.

Granted, coming from Stout, I have to side with him a *bit* don't I? ;o)

On Mar.18.2003 at 03:54 PM
felix’s comment is:

misrepresenting is when they win best of show and leave you off of the credit (NCAYV)... or, ask you to work on something and change it without notifying you (Avaya).

i shouldve sued for the first offence but i won out of court on the latter for a handsome 30k.

i also sued another firm in SF last month. Its terrible! Pretty soon I'll be able to put myself thru lawschool and sue all the dirty scoundrels like joel who deserve a good public shaming.

Joel, if you end up reading this, I'm still waiting for a written apology- and I'll take a few more of those NCAYV posters if you still have any.

On Mar.18.2003 at 11:21 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

Intersting story, Felix! I'm glad you prevailed in court.

On Mar.19.2003 at 08:43 AM
Damien’s comment is:


Thanks for your kind comment on the guide - I hope that some designers will find it useful. Or if not, they'll let me know how it can be improved.

Felix - I'm sorry to hear about TBD. I actually wanted to use Clement Mok's process artwork instead, but I never received it in time - so I took artwork from their site instead. Perhaps I'll get Mok's artwork soon and will be able to replace it.

On Mar.19.2003 at 10:11 AM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

I downloaded the PDF but have yet to read it. It does look very interesting and I'm sure it took quite a while to compile.

It looks like Nikon has changed it's logo, which according to Nikon's press release "add's a graphic element of sequential rays, to represent the future, and express Nikon's mission, will and future possibilities".

I didn't mind the straight up typographic solution they had.

On Mar.19.2003 at 10:34 AM
armin’s comment is:

I just finished reading the guide today, and it is excellent. Congratulations Damien, you did a great job in putting into words what we do.

I'm still skeptical about your "show one concept only" approach, not because I don't believe in it, but because I feel like a client would never be satisfied with just one solution to choose (or not to) from.

That was the only point where I raised my eyebrow. And it is one bushy eyebrow. I really enjoyed the part about naming your product or service.

Actually, I loved all of it.

On Mar.19.2003 at 01:13 PM
TOM’s comment is:

> I'm still skeptical about your "show one concept only" approach

I haven't read that section yet, but that approach has worked for me, and I remember that Duffy only showed Coke one concept for the MelloYello design several years ago and they bought it.

On Mar.19.2003 at 03:39 PM
damien’s comment is:

Thanks a lot Armin - I appreciate the feedback.

I can't remember who said it, but in response to discussing doing pitch work for clients, he said that he wasn't in the business of showing 'wallpaper'.

Showing one concept direction does seem to be an issue that people are reluctant to adopt or agree on. And I agree with most arguments to show more than one. Its all mainly on how you handle your clients.

There are two main points to consider when thinking about how many concepts to show.

Never turn up to a client presentation and only show one concept if they were expecting more or many concepts. I've never done this. I've always explained the reasons behind showing only one concept direction (which means you can show 30 visuals based on one single direction) before embarking on putting pixels to canvas or pencil to paper. And I came to my position on the 'one concept' rule because too many firms I worked for or with produced dozens of concepts for designs they simply didn't understand or had put any work into. Too often people try to indicate that 'hard work' is to produce many designs, when it would make more sense to put the hard work into producing fewer and more 'on-target' designs.

If a client wants a hundred logos to chose from, for their new company or product. Then that client probably doesn't see the value in design for its business. This is a perception that a more inclusive design process where you draw the client into collaborating in the research phase, might help change.

Another point is that the producing one concept rule has to really be supported by your adopted process of design. So if you are normally producing concepts for clients based on little or no creative direction - then the first time you get to collaborate with a client is when you get to share your creative concepts.

I don't think it is wrong to collaborate with a client at this phase, but that it is so often substitued for doing anything collaborative before this. If you have a more than two concepts, the client invariably choses bits from one, elements from another to create a new concept direction. This is where I think it is incorrect to work like this - in allowing the client to 'mix and match' bits from the top three concepts.

I feel that if you encourage collaboration before showing concepts, where you work the client to both understand the value of the design your to produce for them, how they should manage it and build on it then you have a much better chance to produce less for them.

In collaborating with a client, the designer and client both are experts in their respective fields and it is the combination of efforts that will produce the best design. A designer producing something without the active and creative participation from the client will invariably deliver something that is the designer's subjective opinion.

If you think you can get the best results in doing this primarily in the concept phase - that is great and many have succeeded at this. Often with a great body of work and previous experience to rely on. For the rest of us, I think that we need to approach the design process as a collaborative and informative one where we 'learn' about the client's business as we progress along the process of designing for them.

I know that in large firms, often teams produce hundreds of concepts in order to arrive at the best one. This is sort of like manufacturing as many as possible to come to a result through a process of elimination.

I like that Pentagram has addressed that successful design makes the designer happy - and I think it is important to help clients understand that design can improve their business simply in helping to build perception and expectations. If a client adopts that the way a business behaves is integral to the way it performs, then you're in good company to show how design is an important part of this.

If Microsoft knocks on your door for a logo - then you're up shit creek because they want 70 to chose from and will demand that they own them all and can ammend them and alter them as much as they like - and they want them all by Monday. So I guess you'll invariably take the money and put Microsoft on your 'client list' like I do.

I guess its an ideal position and one that we can perhaps work towards.

On Mar.19.2003 at 04:14 PM
damien’s comment is:

Okay - I take a firmer stance on the position now that Tom has told us that Coke were happy with the one concept 'concept'.

I just need to add two things to my post -

When I say 'the rest of us' I am not suggesting 'us' as readers of Speak Up - but more people in my specific position that still need to build up a body of design work.

And where I suggest 'doing less' I should have said doing less in the concept phase.

I just don't want to start arguments where there isn't one.

On Mar.19.2003 at 04:21 PM
armin’s comment is:

Concepts vs Visuals

I think I might have gotten confused and started all this because of semantics.

Let's say you are working on a logo for Microsoft, the one concept would be "Greedy Corporation." Just that one concept. Then you create various visuals around that concept? 3 - 4 different logos with the same concept but different execution, right? Or do you just show up to the meeting with one single black board (with your logo perfectly mounted) and some really big balls and tell Microsoft: "Hey dudes, this is your logo"?

On Mar.19.2003 at 04:27 PM
damien’s comment is:

Yes you're completely right Armin.

Setting a 'Greedy corporation' concept and producing visuals around that.

However - many firms don't even do that. They simply design lots of logos and show them all to clients.

A good example is to show the two Windows XP logos on frog design's site:

And the one it evolved into:

The project was to simply redesign the Microsoft mark for their launch of XP. Understanding the broad strategy of Windows, the product roadmap of the operating system and the currenty equity and assessment of Microsoft's brand was all necessary, but didn't escape the fact that there are still a million possible ways to draw a flag of four squares.

At this point - you have to basically produce something your client can chose from as its probable that they'll know best and you'll kill yourself trying to produce every variation possible.

So its not something that works in all cases.

Perhaps we can remove my previous insane diatribe

On Mar.19.2003 at 05:08 PM
JD’s comment is:

Nice work, Damien. Thanks for making it available.

And your long post is not an insane diatribe; it is insightful and illuminating.

Interestingly, you list companies like Accenture and Monday (nee PwC) and Sapient and McKinsey in your Who's Who list at the back of the book. Armin has mentioned here that he used to work for marchFirst. I work for a technology and strategy consulting company in the US. I'd like to raise the issue of branding in the context of consultancies in particular and the services sector in general.

There was a thought-provoking (at least to me) article on marketingprofs.com last fall by a guy named Michael Fischler titled "Cooling the Branding Iron." In it he starts with the following definition of branding:

"Branding is a way of helping non-knowledgeable customers make a low-risk buying decision for a commodity product with little inherent differentiation."

Then he makes the following argument:

"No matter how agencies and consultants like us try to redefine branding — a redefinition whose motive is invariably to convince companies to sign up for branding programs — if your company is selling differentiated product to a knowledgeable marketplace where the buyers are taking serious risks, every nickel you spend on branding is a nickel better spent on positioning, product specification, customer service, strategic targeting and segmentation, and a lot of other truly useful marketing strategies and tactics."

There just seems to be a lot of sense in this argument. Does the research process you discuss in your book make this argument less relevant? I know there is someone who posts here who used to work for Landor, too. It would be interesting to hear his thoughts.

On Mar.19.2003 at 06:37 PM
Damien’s comment is:

JD — Thanks for your comments and your question. This is a lengthy reply.

Michael Fischler is someone, much like Al Ries who creates a great distortion in the meaning of brand, brand strategy and branding.

I read his article, for which I provide the link below, and I think his article was misinformed, contradictory and extremely poorly written. Especially from someone with the experience he has had. But you’re right — thought provoking. Though my thoughts might have been different from yours.

However, outside of that, what you highlighted is good. And he is essentially right in what he says. But let us be clear on two points.

One that branding is quite simply the marking of products and came about from stonemason’s marks applied to pottery and handcrafted goods — centuries ago. The reason I say this, is that whilst we’re more sophisticated in applying these marks and how we design a system around a mark — branding is just that, the design and application of these marks (logos, logotype etc).

Point number two. In business today, building a brand requires several functions of a company to happen together in order to build a strong and coherent brand. These involve, business strategy, brand strategy, marketing, product development, actual selling of the product or service and so on. It is not possible to separate these in order to conduct brand-building activities, but it is necessary to consider an order of priority in beginning to build a brand.

This is where marketing falls outside of brand and business strategy. In an order of priority in building a business, you would naturally begin with a business plan and work on business strategy. Based on that you would also (in an ideal world) fully define a brand strategy for your products, organization and services. Then based on those fundamentals, you would consider marketing to provide operational activities and functions from which you can make sales or shift product. Marketing is the research and analysis of selling your product or service to your targeted customer. The outcome of strategic marketing activities is the marketing plan of how you consider targeting and acquiring your customers. Some of the specific deliverables will be actual branding concepts, being messaging, direct mailing, and maybe even advertising concepts. Though we have to consider that marketing is specifically concerned with the activity between the product and the customer — whereas brand strategy has a much broader concern, including the organization, the way the product is manufactured, return policies, call-center management, employee discounts etc..

If you largely agree with those two points then it is possible to consider the purpose of branding as both an outcome of marketing activities as well as based upon strategic brand imperatives. So successful branding can only be done if you’ve already completed you work on clear positioning, a distinct product differentiation and specification, a real and valid value proposition and so on. Then professional services companies will find it much easier to actually work on branding concepts.

I think Flischler is trying to say that a company should do its homework before embarking on branding. Which I think is a great point. However, the rest of his article does much to cloud this point and in fact, I think, makes a complete muddle of things.

Branding without the prior work done at both the strategic level and practical level of marketing analysis is pretty much the sock puppet for pets.com. It was a great icon for the company but it had little value in terms of helping to articulate the value proposition of the service being provided.

What often happens in large consulting firms, noting that of the five mentioned in your post, a few do different things, is that branding becomes brand which then in turn becomes the holistic term for all the activities in building a product’s brand.

As a designer inside one of those organizations, you typically will have the chance to �do branding’ in designing a mark, logotype or so on (if you’re not specifically an interactive designer blah blah).

So to your point about Fischler’s argument — in the second quote — yes but only if branding was going to be done in place of any strategic work.

But to his first quote that you gave us:

"Branding is a way of helping non-knowledgeable customers make a low-risk buying decision for a commodity product with little inherent differentiation."

This is taking branding completely out of context of the whole process of brand strategy or even marketing. On its own — branding serves to market and message the product by differentiating it, working as part of an overall brand strategy and delivering on the expectations a consumer or customer might have of that brand — regardless whether they were going to buy a product or not. I think it’s an irrelevant statement and could have been said, “A logo or packaging is a way to help non-knowledgeable customers make a low-risk buying decision for a commodity product with little inherent differentiation”. And you might have understood the context of what he was saying.

A good example of the power of branding is when you move country. I moved to the States five years ago, from living in the UK for about eighteen years. When I walked through the grocery stores for the first time, I had absolutely no idea what food to buy. Firstly there were far more choices than I were used to, and secondly I had no transferable brands to trust and buy.

So I had to form my hierarchy of positioning based on television, what other people bought and eventually trial and error. I had to get knowledgable to make good purchasing decisions. Though without any awareness, the branding all helped towards building a hierarchy of brands even if I never chose any of them. What branding does all by itself is build a profile of quality and hierarchy, in that certain ways that bread might be packaged can establish a sense of quality over others. Surely this is worth the effort of making this image.

If it turns out you are in the business of selling a high-commodity product, where you are sitting on a grocery shelf with thirty other similar products, then the chances are you only have two options for success. One is a competitive strategy of Price Leadership — where you simply try to undercut all other products at a profit, in order to gain market share. The other is from differentiation, which is largely only possible to position through branding or product augmentation — Vanilla Coke. (which I have to say is alarmingly similar in branding to Diet Coke). So if you’re in the commodity business — you’re probably in the business of spending a lot of money on branding and marketing campaigns.

Anyone who truly is in the business of �branding’ will know that branding a car requires the same process as branding bottled water. The research, analysis and strategic thinking may be different, but the more informed you are, the better and clearer the positioning will be. After which, you will use a marketing department to work out how to sell the product to a customer.

Fischler is in the business of marketing, he relies on focus group testing, SWOT analysis and situational assessments to guide his thinking and then ask designers to translate that into messaging and branding. He lavishes the words of brand, branding and positioning loosely and freely without close regard to context or meaning. But that is my opinion.

Finally — if Fischler had stuck to reinforcing the purpose of branding that would have been excellent, but his point was that people were wasting their time in putting “any effort into significant effort and resources into developing a coherent brand”. The reason why people (organizations) waste any money building or establishing a brand in the marketplace is because they don’t understand the crap marketing people feed them and misdirect funds based on their recommendation.

I may not have written enough about branding inside the companies you mention - but I definitely wrote enough.

The article

On Mar.19.2003 at 10:58 PM
JD’s comment is:

Well, Fischler's article certainly did provoke some thought. There were a couple reasons that I chose only those two quotes of his to list in my post and did not link to the whole article. The first reason is something you discussed: the rest of the article just isn't incredibly clear. So I tried to use his own words to distill what I thought was the core of his argument. The second reason is that marketingprofs.com seems to require registration in order to view entire articles and I was both too lazy to post the link and indicate that they require registration and also was concerned that people have had enough of sites requiring them to register to view content (especially when the content on marketingprofs.com isn't quite paradigm-shattering stuff).

I do largely agree with you about branding being both an outcome of marketing work and strategic imperatives. It seems that an implicit point in what you say is that if there really needs to be a C-level person in an organization whose job it is to oversee this kind of stuff, especially the strategic imperatives.

You're also right, though, about not really responding directly to my other question: Why do strategy and technology consultancies spend so much on brand stragegy and brand campaigns? Do they really stand to gain significant bang for their buck? There also seems to be a fair amount of risk involved. For example, the Accenture and, to a greater extent, the PwC/Monday "rebrandings" were criticized pretty openly in the marketing/advertising press.

I would essentially agree with your point about people spending money building brands "because they don’t understand the crap marketing people feed them and misdirect funds based on their recommendation." I might expand on it, in that, in my experience, management often spends money on branding and then fails to implement it because they (rightly or wrongly) think they know more about branding (and marketing in general) than the people they hired to do their brand strategy.

One book I didn't see on your recommended reading list is "Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design" by Wally Olins. I saw it on eleganthack.com awhile ago. This is what Christine had to say about it: "I asked the best brand strategist I've ever met which book to read and she pointed me to this one. Lots of amazing illustrations, lots of great insights on brand beyond business. Definitely a great introductory text." Have you read it, and would you offer the same level of recommendation?

On Mar.20.2003 at 06:35 PM
Damien’s comment is:

JD - I had written a lenghty and detailed response to yours - but the browser crashed and lost it. So my delay in replying is because I don't want to repeat that experience.

Why do strategy and technology consultancies spend so much on brand stragegy and brand campaigns?

A simple answer to this is because there is so much activity in the sector. With companies merging, collapsing, renaming and so on it becomes necessary to stake your position, if you want one.

However - most of the firms are all slightly different. And this is because of the change in the marketplace with Andersen's collapse and the auditing world looking like a dark and criminal one. What happened was that technology solution companies saw this as an opportunity to reposition themselves as technology consultancy companies, and move on up next to the traditional management consultancy firms. Both essentially offered the same type of solution - in that it invariably resulted in the deployment of a large-scale, organization-changing technical solution. But the two different types approached their work from different sides of the problem.

Accenture did well to rename and give up on trying to get permission to use the old Andersen name. Whereas MarchFirst and Sapient rebranded because of their mergers and forming of new entities.

As for people that criticised Monday's and Accenture's rebranding - it possibly was because of the fact that it seemed like an unecessary activity. Monday's made more so by ditching it shortly after launching it. But remember, they'd been trying to pimp themselves to HP ealier and were dramatically suffering from their market downturn. So rebranding was a last ditch effort to reposition their services to a new and fresh audience.

Basically - selling consultative services is difficult. Because of the nature of the service. Essentially, as a consultant you are in a diagnotstic position where you possibly do a bunch of work to suggest what is wrong and how it can be fixed. The other side of the equation is now what the consultant can offer as a solution to the defined problem.

So - either you focus on the specific problems you've identified and how you fixed them or you feature your strength in being able to smell problems, make up innovative ideas for fixing them and all inside a professional and expensive looking suit. The problem with the former option is that you can quickly commoditise your services by only attracting people who want the similar solution and most probably for a cheaper price. You then fall into the trap that most technology solution firms fall into (like CA etc) where you resell already made solutions because the cost of reinventing them is too expensive.

In the case of the other option - positioning yourself as a consultancy requires you to be authoratative, expert, experienced, and so on and you have to try and convey this with a certain amount of personality that will differentiate you from others saying the same thing. Hence the odd, flakey commercials.

Its the combination of services of consultative and development where the conflict happens. One can be sold by sales persons based on easily defined skills, features and benefits. The other requires a certain amount of intangible benefits to be marketed - and often suffers at the hands of sales persons.

Okay - I'm clicking post before I lose this...

On Mar.24.2003 at 01:18 PM
Dan’s comment is:

Marty Neumeier of Neutron has put out a book called The Branding Gap that I haven't read, but you can download a PDF of the general ideas in a 160 page presentation that is really excellent.

On Mar.25.2003 at 01:54 PM
Damien’s comment is:

yes - and they're giving away the book at an all day workshop in San Francisco next month.

On Mar.25.2003 at 03:20 PM