Starting-up a start-up from the eyes of a starter-upper.
Stop and pause for a minute. Look around you. In an age of ubiquitous branding, we are surrounded by noise and the catcalls of ‘pick me’ first. It’s in an airport, subway station, or sh*t – even on your mobile phone. Each offering pleads with you to choose its authenticity as the written word and financial choice of today. This noise is now our life. We engage with branding, willingly or not, from the moment we wake up – to the moment our phone leaves our hands before we sleep. It defines what we wear, eat and think. All our decisions, whether we like it or not, are driven by branding.
On the strategy side, it is pretty easy to normalize branding as manufacturers of ideas, products or services, and more of a mass business-to-consumer market. On the creative side, you would assume that it comes down to the art direction and cool logos that say ‘take my money.’ There are truths in both generalizations. However, you can also apply theory and practice of branding to any corporation, charity or even a country.
Branding can wield immense power when properly used. In the right hands, and done well, branding can align core purposes and raise millions in donated funds or investment capital. In the wrong hands, branding is more than capable of using, misusing and even abusing trust. It works at psychological levels that can be downright scary.
Branding has it naysayers and detractors, but the one thing you can’t deny is its existence. If you are one of the naysayers who rejects or denies branding as an end goal, and not so much a tool, then don’t read any further. Alternatively, you can read on and learn how the initial stages of discovery and investigation can be best used to your advantage. It can make the difference as a genuine game-changer, but that difference comes with a price – and that price is discipline.
It’s tough to boil down most brands to what it really says. We like to start with finding out where the brand stands, or more importantly – doesn’t stand. We will never understand the issues a brand is facing without investigation and immersion disguised as proper research. Instead, we will end up with fabulous solutions for the wrong problems. In the beginning, it is appealing to think we have the exact answers to the problem and how to fix it. It is even possible to have a hunch, based on several factors discussed in a 20-minute conversation. Unfortunately, that hunch is also based on, at most, a few well-informed guesses and a substantial amount of luck.
We don’t rely on hunches or luck because it doesn’t consistently put food on the table. And we like to eat.
You can spend an eternity on perfecting an idea, product or service – and you might also discover that you forget who it is actually for anymore. Sure, it is one thing to want to sell a million widgets, but do you have support behind those sales? Do you have a million followers or brand advocates? Most likely not. So, before you go anywhere, you need to work out where you are first, where you could be, and if your strategy can guide you in the right direction. Truly understanding the market for an idea, product or service, and how it is perceived, is the first step to creating a brand that stands out.
As story brand experts, we can either accept that, deep down in our gut, every bottle of water, airline or personal trainer is essentially the same. And that our job as creative thinkers is to create some form of magical distinction. We don’t accept that notion. We prefer to create purposeful work for clients who have a purpose. It’s not about uncovering uniqueness from ubiquity – it’s about discovering what makes them uniquely different and genuine in what they say. This is where the role of research and audit becomes crucial for defining brand positioning in the market.
An audit is the work that goes into the work before it becomes the work. Audits inform strategic planning and potentially inform creative solutions, but specifically serve to demonstrate the depth of key issues a brand is facing. There is no hard-and-fast rule for research. It starts with an in-depth and thorough investigation into the brand facts, obstacles and opportunities that can open up. Only by mapping and understanding the issues are we able to start unpacking a strategic problem, see the gaps and plan the next steps. An audit is a sponge – it soaks up varying types of input and all manners of influence. If your brand wants to be more successful and distinct, then it helps to see what makes other brands successful and different and even more so – to learn from their mistakes.
There are many types of audits, and since not all audits are an audit, well… we start somewhere with examples of an audit. Here is a quick snapshot and starter list of some of the kinds of audits that can help.
Mainly for brands already in existence, this audit helps all parties to ‘see’ where they are - and to appreciate and highlight issues.
The words and phrases a brand uses can either act as a stepping stone to improve shared language or trigger complete change.
Investigates how a brand speaks, talks and interacts directly with end buyer personas - including its unconscious and conscious messages and signals.
Defining a brand is tricky and even trickier in an age of brand ubiquity. Standardization is everywhere. Most brands are central, common and communicate the same thing. Rather than standing out and demonstrating distinction, most follow a sheep-herder mentality. From mass transportation to higher education and over to tourism, from their symbolic identities, to their straplines – the approach is pre-programmed. It’s not even about rising above the crowds – the question begs if they even want to rise above the crowds.
That’s what makes branding so interesting to us. It’s a process, and we see the process as a guide – not a rule. It’s a series of well-planned steps that informs good decisions and allows buffer room for the creation of great work. We don’t want you to pretend to be something you’re not. That’s why we ask why. We dig deeper to locate hidden details and reveal truths that are unique – and have something genuinely different to say.
The first crucial step in any branding exercise is getting the ball rolling, starting somewhere, and moving forward. You have to look hard at what’s out there to truly see the commonalities, but if you take the time to do so – you will recognize a culture of sameness. Brand identity is more than just a logo in the corner. It is a tone of voice, valid points of difference, and a core purpose. And uncovering these brand truths starts first and foremost with asking the right questions and digging deeper for framing the decisions that come next.
So, on that note, in terms of starting-up a start-up from the eyes of a starter-upper, we know that asking the right questions and listening for feedback and input helps check off the boxes and keeps things headed in the right direction.
Hopefully, I have not borrowed your attention for too long, and in return for that time, you will leave with something more valuable. And since we see discipline as the most significant factor between wishing for something and wanting something, well… next on the docket will be how our simple exercises create big outcomes. We will discuss why asking the right questions is crucial for getting to the heart of uncovering brand truths.
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