According to the government’s statistics for the UK in 2022, SMEs accounted for 99.9% of the entire business population. They refer to SMEs as the backbone of the economy. Small is beautiful.

But SMEs still find it hard to compete for larger contracts and find they are shut out of many opportunities simply based on their size.

However, agile and responsive working practices, and the ever-increasing speed of delivery, have given SMEs new vigour. The value of the SME work model seems much more attractive in recent years and there has been legislative pressure to see more SMEs represented at the table for consideration, at least, for bigger contracts.

The government are supposed to be opening up their own, and local government procurement processes to make it easier for SMEs to win contracts, and in doing so, for collaborative pitches to be viewed more favourably than they would have been in the past.

Any SME that has ever tried to jump through the hoops needed to make it onto an approved supplier list will be well aware of that mountain of paperwork, a minefield of compliances needed and the hours and hours that need to be invested into such applications.

Invariably to be in a position to tackle bigger contacts many SMEs have to form strategic partnerships as they can rarely meet all the requirements alone. Strategic partnerships and collaborations have become the name of the game.

Many companies, my own included, have chosen to develop several such collaborations with particular specialists, who add additional expertise in complimentary arenas. These collaborations offer more value to the end client and present a far more viable option to the procurement officer.

So what are the core aspects of a mutually beneficial collaborative partnership:

1. Complementary skill sets

2. Aligned working behaviours and culture

3. Complementary experience

4. Comparable size (to some degree) – as a distinct mismatch in size usually results in the larger party taking more responsibility.

Some benefits of effective collaborations are obvious:

The sum is greater than the parts.

There is shared responsibility

And a larger resource pool to draw from.

We all know just how much it helps to bounce ideas off another person occasionally. Collaborative teams can add to that in multiples – all driving to the same goal with the same impetus and motivation but each bringing complementary perspectives, knowledge, experience and skills.

It’s also a clear advantage when each collaborative partner works to their own bespoke strengths – the firm best suited to each task taking that aspect of the project. A collaboration of experts formed to deliver a specific outcome with each knowing their specific role within the overall process – and how their work feeds into the overall goal, is a win-win scenario for all.

We all know the adage that ‘many hands make light work’ – but many brains generally make better work. Shared responsibility also shares the risk. And mitigating risk is a key concern for SMEs when taking on larger contracts – as a bad result could be catastrophic to a small firm.

There are always risks

Collaboration can have dangers. Bad outcomes can occur, so let’s not shy away from those hard truths.

My firm, S2 Design, brought another design agency in to help deliver on a major project with a tight deadline. The agency we chose had a solid history delivering on similar projects and we knew one partner well – having had some work interaction previously. However, we had no relationship with the second partner.

In hind sight, we should have done more due diligence and not trusted that our knowledge of the known partner would necessarily translate to how the firm operated – and how the other partner would behave specifically.

In short, the unknown partner was a danger. He was apparently unhappy in that partnership and was looking to leave, was in the process of joining another company and was intent on taking clients with him to sweeten his transition. It transpired, taking our now joint project and client was part of that plan.

Thankfully, he did not calculate for the longevity of the S2 relationship with the client in question – and the trust that had been built up over the many years of that relationship.

As soon as he approached our client, they called us! And he effectively blocked himself from ever talking to that client again. They didn’t trust him even though he was suggesting he could offer them a better deal.

Just from the world of branding and communication design, I have heard many similar stories of collaborations gone wrong:

  • Suppliers who didn’t deliver on time and so risked an entire trade show worth of sales for the clients (as well as the client relationship) – or delivered poor quality work which the client could not use.
  • Deadlines being missed – sometimes repeatedly, jeopardizing the delivery of other aspects of the project and meaning fulfilling the project requirements was at risk.
  • Exports being stuck on the docs at the receiving country and so when they do (eventually) arrive being too late to be used.
  • Social media marketers who talked a good game, but in reality, dropped the ball and thus damaged the client relationship.

I’m sure every industry has its own scare stories and you will know a few you could add to this list.

Collaborations are inherently more difficult to manage than dealing with everything within your own team – especially when there is not a good match-up of working practices and company values.

Some people try to manage the collaborative relationship by insisting that any partners work ‘as white label suppliers’ ensuring the primary point of contact and decision-making remains in their own control. But managing any process and delivery outside of your area of expertise can be fraught with difficulties.

However, with the right collaborative teams SMEs can take advantage of the changing dynamics of the business world. Fluid collaborative teams that form and then disperse again, as each project dictates, are becoming commonplace.

You have to get in the boat

The image I placed at the head of this article shows a rowing boat with lots of people manning the oars. Each set of oars-people could be viewed as a separate SME, each working to a common goal. But you have to be in the boat to get anywhere.

There is a ‘cox’ at the bow and someone acting as a rudder at the back. They seem logical additions to any multifaceted task. One person to keep things on track and one deligating and overseeing to ensure everyone is pulling together well.

In my experience that can sometimes be one person but generally an individual with the ability to look to the horizon and keep things on track is not often the best placed to deal with the ongoing management tasks.

As in the boat, one is looking forward and outward whilst the other is focused inwardly and the actions occurring in the boat. If everyone plays their part the destination will be reached and the outcome will be beneficial to everyone.

To use another analogy: At the end of the day, a good collaborative partnership is a bit like a good marriage. It has to be built of mutual trust, respect, and at its best, each partner actively works to support the other and truly desires the best for them.

If every collaboration worked in that way – with every collaborator desiring and pursuing the best possible outcomes for all, then everyone wins.

If everyone wins and no-one has to lose either, then that’s a great game to play.

We relate to different people in different ways.

How I relate to my best friend is different to how I relate to an old school friend, which is different again to how I relate to someone I only met a few weeks ago.

Why am I stating this universal truth. Because it’s the same for brands – and the people who try to tell you otherwise are hugely oversimplifying.

All of the above could be classed as friends – but there will inevitably be a hierarchy. Which is largely defined by shared experiences – about knowing who they are – and how they behave, shared connections, affection and trust.

Our best friends generally become best friends because we have similar values, similar interests and because of what we have been through together – shared experiences.

There is a verse in the Arctic Monkeys song A Certain Romance that states that basic premise:

“But over there, there’s friends of mine

What can I say? I’ve known ’em for a long long time

And they might overstep the line

But you just cannot get angry in the same way

No, not in the same way”

Forgiveness

This type of forgiveness and goodwill is seen in most established relationships – and it translates to our brand relationships too.

If a company that has been a personal favourite for a while oversteps the line, then we just don’t get angry, or judge them, in the same way.

If a politician behaves badly our eire is tempered more if they belong to the party we support – but if our political foes make the same error we become enraged. Double standards: definitely. But also typical human behaviour.

We characteristically seek to understand and to forgive more, when we are committed to a relationship. (And usually, the longevity of that relationship is a key factor).

In branding terms this has been summed up in the much used: Know, Like & Trust.

If someone enters our extended friendship group, but whom we don’t particularly like personally, then it’s unlikely we will ever become more than casual acquaintances, even over many years of moving in the same circles. If we do like them but they repeatedly prove they can’t be trusted then eventually we’ll draw back and keep them at a distance.

Don’t push me coz I’m close to the edge

Once or twice we might forgive them. If the indiscretion is something we perceive as ‘pretty minor’ we’ll tolerate them for a while. But eventually, consistent breaking of trust, even for minor things, will mean we simply stop wanting to be around them or associated with them.

That one friend who always drinks too much, shoots their mouth off, gets you into trouble and dodgy situations … if they are a lifelong buddy then we have more patience and will tolerate more – but there is a limit to that patience.

We also tend to cut people more slack when we know what other pressures are going on in their life. The friend whose parent or partner is terminally ill will not generally receive the same level of judgement from us that they might expect otherwise. We recognise that circumstances may alter their normal behaviour. But if we are also experiencing unusual pressures, then two stressed parties interacting do tend to create a very tense environment and in time something will snap.

Again, this translates directly to brand relations. If there are external pressures affecting the relationship a previously forgivable misstep can suddenly create a huge chasm and disconnection.

So what advice can I give to help brands in this regard? (I’m not going to presume to offer any relationship advice – there are relationship counsellors out there if you need them, who are far more qualified to offer thought on that subject!)

In brand management terms:

1. Stay true to who you are.

Trying to be something other than yourself is a mask that will very swiftly slip when times are tough. Difficult times have a habit of showing us who we really are and exposing the truth.

There is an urban myth about a female deep-cover spy in the Second World War being uncovered when in childbirth she swore in her mother tongue. It’s a nice story but I’ve found no evidence to support it.

However, it is based on the insight that it’s incredibly difficult to live behind a facade continuously – it’s far better to “keep it real”.

As author Anne Morrow Lindbergh is often quoted as saying:

“The most exhausting thing you can do is the be inauthentic”

2. Be consistent

This is a key factor in brand building.

If your friend was so erratic that you had no idea what they would do or say next it might be amusing for a short time but it does not lay the foundations for a mutually beneficial friendship. You will always be on edge.

A brand that shows up in the same way and stands for the same stuff, saying the same things – is a brand that people can align with in confidence.

Angela Ahrendts of Apple Inc (who knew a few things about brand building) stated it thus:

“You have to create a consistent brand experience however and wherever a customer touches your brand, online or offline”.

3. Be honest

Honesty really is the best policy. If a brand does make a misstep then owning up, speaking up and fronting up quickly is the best possible plan of action.

When things go bad, history has proven that the best thing for a brand is to acknowledge the problem and then clearly state what they are doing to rectify the situation. There’s even evidence that in doing and following through on their promises, a company can even strengthen brand loyalty.

I’m going to quote three people this time:

“In crisis management, be quick with the facts and slow with the blame.”

 Leonard Saffir, Public relations executive

“In a crisis, don’t hide behind anything or anybody. They’re going to find you anyway.”

Bear Bryant, former Alabama football coach

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.

John F. Kennedy, 35th U.S. president.

Summing up

Relationships are massively important to all of us. In many ways, they help define us and nurture us. There is immense power in relationships – we all recognise that fact and seek out different people to fulfil different roles in our lives.

Our brand relationships are the same. Different brands fulfil different roles for us. For a brand to become a much-loved lifelong companion it has to understand what role it fulfils for its band of loyal followers – and then be the very best version of that it can be. If you represent a brand, be it a business or personal brand, then you consider what type of friend you are, what role you fulfil, how your connections relate to your brand, and why is worth revisiting regularly.

I believe that what looks like chaos to some is often creativity at work.

Creatives often embrace change. Sometimes they challenge the status quo because they sense their might be a different way. Possibly a better way, but they will rarely know what that is or how it ‘looks’.

It’s a tension I’ve regularly observed when a creative individual is inside an established system or framework. If the creative asks to do something new it is normal for others to want to know why and where they are heading. What is the target? What will the outcome look like? 

These are rarely questions the creative can answer when initiating the idea of exploring ‘the new’. They can’t see the endpoint yet. And the process can be uncomfortable. It often involves tearing down or dismantling what exists to see how something new might be constructed. 

Even when only asked to do this dismantling intellectually many will resist with all their might.

For the creative, it’s an intriguing process, even fun or liberating. But for others, it can be a very difficult and immensely challenging experience.

Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun!”

 

Creativity is intelligence having fun!

Fun, or play, is often chaotic to the outside observer. But it is the very randomness or chaos that leads to creativity. New connections, new ways of seeing, new ways of doing.

In my career, I’ve helped many organisations to ’embrace the chaos’. I’ve led many business leaders and management teams through the uncertainty and soul-searching of establishing their brands. Exploring values, company culture, corporate personality, and your core ‘why’ can be difficult. It can even be quite painful for some personality types – at least whilst in the midst of the process. For people who like certainty, like a clear ‘road map’ and a defined destination, brand exploration can feel like every foundation they have relied upon is suddenly in flux. 

However, I’ve generally found that even the most resistant or uncomfortable, when they do commit to the process by the end share a sense of liberation and excitement. I’ve often been told that people feel released. This is not surprising to me, after all the aviator and writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh said it with her oft-quoted line “The most exhausting thing you can be is inauthentic”. 

 

It’s a truth that hits home to me regularly when working with clients. 

Individuals hiding core aspects of themselves to fit the corporate world or the organisational culture they work in. Or entire organisations and companies who seem to ‘follow the herd’ of corporate thinking when their core essence sits at odds with the norm.

 

We need permission to play

Embracing and leveraging uniqueness is a fundamental pillar of building an effective brand. There are countless case studies that illuminate this fact so I won’t go into those stories here. They are so well known that I regularly hear company leaders talk about leveraging brand values and uniqueness all the time. However, I see it manifested far less often. People have learnt the words but not how to do it.

In my experience, the corporate world, the business world, the grown-up world even, does not really embrace ‘play’. And positively shuns anything that remotely resembles chaos.

Trying to get business owners and board members to move beyond their neatly ordered world into a state of creativity – where no signposted path through to a recognisable end-point is immediately evident – is challenging, to say the least.

If those leaders want to establish companies that rise above the competition and connect with their audience in a more authentic, emotional and engaging fashion – then diving into the chaos is often what’s needed.

 

You will most likely find it challenging (it generally needs to be).

I suspect you’ll find it somewhat frustrating too.

I would hope you’ll find it fun as well.

 

Play follow the leader

But if you are working with someone who is experienced in taking that walk through the creative chaos, who knows what to look for and which tracks to follow, then I’m confident you will emerge with a new understanding of who you are and why you do, what you do. And you’ll have a fresh way of expressing those insights that should feel more natural and authentic.

 

I was recently asked how I define what I do.

I have a few answers that I’ve used over the years, depending on the person I’m talking to and why they are asking.

 

To some, I’m simply a Graphic Designer.

To others, I’m a director of a brand strategy and design firm.

If it’s a deeper conversation I used to say that I ask difficult questions to help companies understand who they are to improve their audience connection.

On this occasion, given the background of the question and the questioner, I answered:

“I’m a peacemaker – but not in the anti-conflict way. I actually embrace change and conflict, if it is creative and driving towards a resolution. But I mean peacemaker in the way of leaving people’ ‘at peace’ with their own uniqueness and in expressing that in an authentic and genuine way.”

His response was that he “F***ing love that”. So I picked the right expression for my audience on that occasion!

All of the answers I use are true. Some just hold more value and resonance for the questioner than others.

Perhaps now I’ll add a new answer to this list:

“I help people and companies embrace and navigate creative chaos to discover and express their own uniqueness.”

I think creativity and chaos do go hand in hand. Within the chaos, we can find new connections, new meaning, fresh expression and revitalised vigour.

Chaos can be good. Let’s embrace the chaos. Let’s play a little – even when we don’t know the rules of the game or what the outcome will be. Let’s get creative.

Let’s make peace with play and start really finding creative connections.


Here’s a article from Psychology Today about creativity and chaos.  It’s worth a read if you are interested.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/is-it-beautiful/201910/creativity-and-chaos

The Wizard of Oz

We all know The Wizard of Oz movie, even if we’ve not actually watched it, it holds such a huge place in our collective cultural history, that we all feel like we have.

But what has The Wizard of Oz got to do with business branding? Bear with me and I hope it all becomes clear.

The movie starts with a tornado ripping through the world Dorothy knows. I don’t think it’s hard for anyone in business to draw a parallel with the last few years of Covid, Brexit and the ‘Truss/Kwarteng min-budget’ as the perfect storm … a tornado, destroying much of what we knew of the business and economic landscape.

After the tornado, Dorothy found herself in a strange world where being true to herself and consistently forging towards her end goal are ultimately the route to her salvation.

Like Dorothy, following her path (her yellow brick road) businesses need to be consistent in the pursuit of their goal and in their direction of travel. For each of us, that means being true to our brand and staying firmly to the path set by those brand values.

A good brand strategy defines that direction of travel, uncovers your values and illuminates your ultimate goals. It’s the mapped-out plan from where you are to where you want to be. Your yellow brick road.

Being true to your brand values and guiding principles when the going gets difficult can feel like we are battling Wicked Witches and strange flying monkeys hell-bent on diverting us from our true path. But if we can stay on the path – and stay true to ourselves, then we attract the right travelling companions along the way.

And like Dorothy’s companions on the road to Oz – a company’s brand journey needs a considerable amount of courage, a great deal of heart and a substantial amount of brain power to make it all work.

How we behave in business matters.

How we treat and engage with the people we encounter (be they suppliers, collaborators or clients) all speaks to who we are – our core brand!

How we act, how we engage, how we do things, how we look, what we say – these are the messages we send out into the world that reflect who we are. They define your brand.

What signals are you sending out in how you portray your business and how you actually do business?

Every time you post to your socials? How you choose to dress? The way you treat your waiter at a business linch? Everything we do or say, every action we take (or choose not to take) reveals something about us, the things that matter to us, and the values we hold.

Collectively these signals tell people around us who we really are and give them an insight into what they can expect of us.

Your logo, your website, the language you use, how swiftly (or not) you respond to emails and even how your receptionist answers the phone are all signposts your business puts out into the world – all combine to create a ‘perception’ in people’s minds.

The same thread of brand expression should run through every interaction people have with your company. Like the words in a stick of Brighton Rock – wherever you bite into the rock you get the same experience. Brighton Rock is consistent, each mouthful delivers the same… It always says Brighton and every bite delivers a week’s worth of sugar whilst nearly breaking your teeth!

People like to know what they are going to get. People like consistency. It’s how Coke and McDonald’s have built their huge empires. The world over, if you buy a Coke or a Big Mac you know exactly what you are going to get. That familiarity and consistency is the key. We can rely on it.

Every contact and interaction with your company feeds additional information into the mind of your customers about you and about the product or service you offer. Every interaction feeds another detail to the perception people hold of you and therefore each interaction needs to be both considered and consistent.

If you want to take control of public perceptions and mould how your clients view you, then you need to be actively engaged in brand management. Your brand is the sum total of the various signpost your customers encounter – and what those signpost point towards. It frames what people think about your company and what you do.

This should be a true reflection of who you really are. Otherwise, it is a false sign – like a mask. And once the mask slips, like Dorothy seeing behind the curtain – people swiftly realise that the Wizard of Oz is not so really wizardly after all. And once you lose their trust it’s practically impossible to win back.

We’re all fully aware that the movies are full of illusions. After all, Judy Garland was 16 playing a 12 year old in a land inhabited by munchkins, witches, flying monkeys, living scarecrows, tin-men and talking lions. But effective branding can not be built on illusion or fantasy.

Drop the illusions

Brands need to be real. Your branding activity should aim to build awareness, affinity and belief. Or as it’s more commonly stated in business circles to illicit: know, like and trust.

All brand activity is ultimately aiming to deliver greater trust. Breaking that trust is like throwing cold water on a fire.

And here my Wizard of Oz analogy breaks down a little. Dorothy’s cold water, thrown to extinguish the burning scarecrow (that the Wicked Witch had just set alight) splashes onto the witch and melts her. I’ve no idea why, if water was so fatal to witches, she would allow a bucket of water to be anywhere near her person – but hey, it’s a fantasy land.

Dorothy ultimately triumphs by staying true to who she is. ‘There’s no place like home’ in a business sense is much like Dorothy’s journey. We have to take the journey, we grow in the process but actually, the things that make us who we are – our authentic selves and core values are constant. We usually need others on the journey to help uncover those values and to keep us true to them. Anyone who knows anything about classic storytelling knows that through the ‘hero’s journey’ they will discover their true selves. What makes them who they are will be honed and amplified in the process.

If you don’t have a clear brand strategy. If you are not clear about what you stand for and how you wish to present that to the world, then you are likely sending out mixed messages. and confusing – or even repelling – your target audience.

We need a brain, a heart and courage on the journey. In Oz they symbolise what makes us human – intellect, emotion and action. Spend some time thinking about your end goals. Muster some courage because most of our business journeys will encounter some trials and tribulations along the way. Take heart and allow humanity and empathy to inform your decisions. We are not robots (or tinmen).

Building your brand strategy we help you travel to your destination with integrity and authenticity and you’ll most likely defeat your foes along the way without having to do anything more than a little fire-fighting.

Building black with words associated with brand building on them in a vertical stack

People talk a lot about branding.

Personal branding, brand values, brand mission.

Do you ever wonder what these terms really mean? What are brand assets? What is the difference between a brand, a brand identity or just a logo?

I meet a lot of people when I’m networking who use the words but evidently have very little understanding of what they mean or the depth of impact they can have on a business.

(And most importantly from my perspective the damage they are doing to the profession when they misunderstand and misrepresent my profession).

To try and help clarify the terminology I’ve collated this glossary of terms and will try to offer a few snippets of insight as I go through them.

Hopefully the next time you are in a business meeting with your marketing or branding team, or even just networking, and people start bandying these words around, you can be confident that you know what is being talked about. And more importantly, you can be sure that the person trying to get you to part with your hard earnt money actually knows what they are talking about too.

So let’s start with where a lot of the confusion lies – what a brand is?

Brand

There are various definitions of the term brand and the word is often misused in many business contexts so regularly that it has grown in its common usage and in our understanding. Most people use brand interchangeable to mean the logo or sometimes with the company / person. (i.e. My brand is …)

Historically there are three commonly understood foundations of a “brand”

  1. As with the wild-west ranchers fire-branding their cattle – a brand can be a mark of ownership.
  2. When letters were sent in days of yore the wax seal bore the symbol, or brand mark, of the sender. This acted as both security to prove the letter had not been tampered with and as proof of authenticity.
  3. Whiskey barrels, wooden crates etc. would carry the motif, or emblem, of the provider to establish their origin and signify to the quality of the product.

In the modern world, brands still serve these same core functions.

Today, ownership equates to belonging. Aligning with a brand is very much akin to joining a tribe of like-minded people.

Quality is now translated mainly as creating trust. Building trust is possibly the single most important aspect of a brand that any brand manager is trying to improve.

Authenticity has become a catchphrase in the business world but that is because ‘being real’ has proven to stand any company in good stead in the long term.

In common usage, the term “brand” will often be used as a synonym for “company”.

I often find it helpful to ask clients to think of their brand as the reputation of their company. A brand is the culmination of the expectations, experiences, memories and stories associated with the company – and crucially these live or die on a company’s ability to deliver.

So, a brand exists first and foremost in the comprehension of the public. Brands are built primarily in the mind of your audience.

As Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit said:

A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is — it is what consumers tell each other it is.

Or as Jeff Bezos said it:

Branding is what people say about you when you are not in the room.

Logo

A logo (or logotype to use the correct name) is just the face of the brand. It acts as a badge or an emblem that is used as a short-hand identifier. Used correctly this should actually only refer to the lettering element but has been expanded in general use to be understood to include the brand icon (expanded later).

At networking events, I’m often asked “what do you think of my brand?” as they hand over a business card. Obviously, what they are asking is “What do you think of my logo or my visual identity?”. But a brand encompasses a lot more than can be understood or deduced from a business card.

If you think of a brand as an iceberg. The logo is the very pinnacle, underneath it sits the visual identity and under that the brand experience.

Everything above the waterline are the public-facing elements of the brand. But we all know that most of an iceberg sits below the waterline and that is where most of the hard work of building a brand exists.  The elements that underpin the visual identity and physical expressions of any brand tend to be a lot less tangible. Some appear in the list below and the image at the end of this article illustrates the brand iceberg idea.

Brand Icon

The visual identifier of the brand – which most people now refer to as the logo. Nikes swoosh-mark and the bitten apple of tech giant Apple are icons that stand alone from their names.

Brand Identity

The public-facing expression of a brand. This includes the name, logo, trademark and visual appearance of all communication items.

Brandmark

A wordmark (typographic design of the name) icon, avatar or any other symbol or trademark that is used to identify the brand.

Brand Name

The verbal or written element of the brand icon or logo. This can also refer to the names of specific products or services that have been ascribed a sufficiently unique presence.

Brand Positioning

This where the brand sits within the overall marketplace. It is the process of defining the company, product or service against the market competition and is inter-related with Brand Strategy.

Brand Strategy

Brand strategy is very similar to business strategy. It is the plan devised for the systematic development of the brand to meet business objectives.

Brand Values

The core beliefs and ideals that define the way the company will behave. The foundational beliefs that a company stands for. They refer to the principles guiding the brand’s actions, e.g. environmental protection, diversity, solidarity, and transparency.

I usually ask clients to try and express these as verb not nouns. The Brand Values need to impact into tangible actions to truly have credibility with the public.

Brand Purpose

The reason the company exists beyond simply making a profit. Patagonia giving its profit to eco-protection is a great example of brand purpose.

Brand Story

The narrative of why the brand exists and drives the brand forward. A brand story is a cohesive narrative that encompasses the facts and feelings that are created by the company. Unlike traditional advertising, which is about showing and telling the brand story looks to inspire an emotional connection/reaction.

Brand Archetypes

These are concerned with the persona of the company expressed via human personality traits. Most brand professionals adopt a model that uses 12 personality traits. e.g. Harley Davidson would be defined as ‘the rebel’ archetype.

Brand Personality

Brand Personality is concerned with how the brand expresses its character. Is it playful, serious, authoritative, refined, irreverent? The personality will affect how a company communicates but also how it does business. A disrupter in an industry can not also establish itself as traditional.

Brand Asset

Brand assets are established elements that act as cues to trigger a specific brand in our minds. A brand asset could be the brand logo itself, or simply a colour, shape, specific typography, tagline, jingle, or even a smell.

Just consider the intel jingle, the specific red or bottle shape that we all understand as Coca-Cola. When brand assets can invoke the brand without explicit reference a whole world of creative possibilities opens up for marketing opportunities.

Brand Collateral

Usually brand collateral refers to marketing materials. Anything created to promote a company and its products or services, and therefore is of value to the company, can count as brand collateral. The term embraces anything from a brochure to a website landing page and everything in-between

Brand Architecture

Brand architecture is the name used when several brands exist within a corporation and the architecture concentrates on the organisation of, and the relationship between them. There are two main types of brand architecture (with numerous hybrid models too).

A Branded House: Everything carries the parent brand mark and is marketed under that same parent brand and identity. e.g. Apple or FedEx

A House of brands: Each sub-brand has an individual name and identity uniquely its own. Proctor and Gamble and Unilever are classic examples of this approach.

Brand Awareness

Brand awareness is simply the consumer’s ability to identify a particular brand. If a brand exists in the mind of the customer then establishing the brand in that mental real estate is about building brand awareness. Increasing brand awareness, generally means getting your customer to notice the brand more – and so generally involves the company needing to strengthen its brand assets and visibility. i.e. do more marketing and be seen.

Brand Colours

Brand colours are the system that specifies which colours are used by a company and how. The goal is to convey a consistent and recognisable image. Colours have all sort of emotional and cultural meaning so the choice of colour(s) can be very impactive on a companies ability to build a distinctive brand.

Brand Culture

Brand culture is often referred to as the DNA of a brand. It is a combination of values, beliefs and attitudes that shape how employees and other stakeholders interact with each other and their customers. Ultimately, the entire behaviour of a brand is an expression of its brand culture.

Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com went as far as to say: Your culture is your brand

Brand Equity

Brand equity is the measurable value of the brand. It’s the premium people are prepared to pay — or not pay — for a branded product compared to the generic alternative.

Brand voice

How you speak to the customers across all the interaction points, the language you used and the feeling that conveys.

Innocent smoothies are a good example. Just read the text on one of their smoothy bottles and you’ll get a sense of how the company has defined a fun tone of voice – on the base of some bottles you might even see a small line of text that says “Stop looking at my bottom”.

Brand touchpoints

This is simply every, single possible contact point your customer has with the brand. From meeting the CEO at a business lunch, to how the customer service desk or receptionist answer the phone – the language they use and the attitude they exude. How easy the website is to navigate, the marketing materials, the van livery, the social media content, the shops’ cleanliness, the quality of the products, etc etc.

Every single interaction either with a customer or with a supplier can affect how they feel about the company – the brand.

A good experience will likely stay with them and make them feel favourable. A bad experience will likely find its way onto Twitter and could circumnavigate the globe several times before some brand even notices.

Brand Promise

The explicit or implied pledge of the company, product or service that creates customer expectations.

If your take-away food takes 4 hours to arrive the implied contract is broken – and you are probably rather hangry! And you are unlikely to trust that supplier again.

Branding

Is simply the action taken to build the brand. Done well it includes all of the above – and a few other things that I won’t bore you with here too.

Conclusion

I’ll sum up with possibly the best definition I know of how a brand operates – stated by author Maia Angelou (who was not talking about branding at all)

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

If people feel like you get them. If they feel connected. If they feel positively about you. If they like what you do – and how you do it. Then the likelihood is that you will have their custom. If you then deliver a good service then that is likely to be repeat custom – and that, in a nutshell, is what good branding is all about.

I hope you have found these definitions helpful. It’s not an exhaustive list by any stretch – and others brand professionals might want to expand on some of these but I hope they help the average business person get a handle of the terms and the complexity involved in effective brand creation and management – and might just help you seem a little more informed when you are next in a conversation about your brand and marketing.

Stark Black and white Image of a tipped over wire waste paper bin spilling scrunched up paper onto the floor

Every business wants the marketing and communications items they produce to deliver results. But we all know that most of the items we receive may get a few seconds of our attention, at best, before they are cast aside.

Marketers and designers get blamed when returns are not at the expected and projected levels. But I’d suggest it’s a tad more complex a scenario than it first appears.

Generating communication items that create a good ROI is never simple. It’s all about those first seconds – capturing attention, raising interest and instilling a feeling that is strong enough to stop your audience from instantly discarding your email, newsletter, brochure etc. into the trash. Making it past the instant edit of their ‘opening the mail’ routine is key.

Creating items that people keep to hand is a challenge for every marketeer or designer

Let me share a couple of real life examples.

I had a business contact comment on my business card last week: “It’s always on the top of the pile on my desk… it’s still the best business card I’ve seen in ages.”

This week we met for a 1-2-1 and I asked if I could quote him – just so you could know you can be sure this is genuine and not a fabrication (which I would never do anyway), the above quote comes from Scott Willis of CFO Hub. Thanks for the encouragement and for allowing me to quote you Scott.

Now, I have no illusions about the fact that at least 80% of the communication pieces I create, for myself or for my clients, are destined to end up in the trash pretty swiftly. Either physically thrown into the waste paper/recycling bin or moved into the electronic bin icon on a computer screen.

The big challenge for any business (and particularly the design and marketing teams) is to ensure that the items they send achieve their aims before they hit the trash.

Or, better still, that they are kept around for as long as possible to give a greater chance of the right people seeing, and engaging before they are cast aside.

How can you achieve that elusive ask?

There are 3 recognised ways.

1. Make the item useful

2. Make it aesthetically pleasing

3. Make it relevant to the customers’ needs

… and ideally, it should be all three.

Please note, I didn’t say to make it beautiful. We all know beauty is in the eye of the beholder – but intrigue or unusual design can be more engaging and deliver better results than following the established conventions and traditions that are commonly regarded as ‘beautiful’.  Different and interesting will trump beautiful but boring most of the time.

Be different

Scott evidently finds my business card unusual or intriguing enough to keep it around. That’s partly because I designed it specifically to achieve that end. It was purposefully designed to be different – to stand out from the crowd. To grab attention and to be remembered.  I’m often told that people remember my card.

For a start it’s square – not the usual oblong business card shape and size. Therefore it doesn’t fit the various filling systems people use to store the cards they collect.

But Scott is only in his early 30s and firmly fits into the digital native generation. Like most of us he probably just adds his connections directly into a CRM system or connects with them directly via LinkedIn. (I have another electronic card that makes that process super streamlined but I won’t get into that here).

But I’d like to think there is more to Scott keeping my card than it simply not fitting his chosen storage system. That there is ‘that indefinable something’ that means he hasn’t simply cast my card into the bin. Maybe, it is because he wanted to book that 1-2-1 meeting and the card acted and he kept it to hand as a visual reminder? The actual reason it is still on top of the pile of cards on his desk is not as important as the fact that it is still there!

Whatever the reason (for him) the intent behind the design worked. Maybe it was the design itself – or maybe it was the spot varnish on the face of the card highlighting the stylised S2 text that forms our logo. Maybe he just liked the colour.

The fact is that the totality of the card design meant he kept it to hand. When sat at his desk he has a constant reminder of S2 design and of me personally. So the desired action was achieved.

Good brand design is all about getting noticed. Being recognised, respected and remembered.

I tried to embody that thinking within the approach and design of my cards. Modelling tangibly the strategies I promote to my clients. Strategy and an understanding of human psychology are two of the most vastly underrated aspects of any good branding exercise.

Unfortunately, lots of companies concentrate their efforts on the aesthetics of their marketing output and not its actual impact. Useful and relevant are arguably more important to your target audience than how good it looks.

Now that might seem a strange thing to say as a designer, but it’s true.

It’s not an excuse not to make things look good and user-friendly – but I’m sure we all have things in our houses and in our offices that we keep around simply because they are useful. They serve a purpose and that purpose is more valuable to use than how they look.

After all, my office filing cabinet is not particularly good looking – but it’s useful and the service it offers me is relevant to my daily needs. The same goes for my stapler or the case for my glasses.

However, design can be a huge aspect of why transient items of communications and marketing do make it beyond our initial ‘edit’.

So, what other items can I tell you about that I know have held some ‘keepsake’ appeal?

When I was looking for my first full-time job after completing my degree, I created a CV that I know won me more than one interview opportunity simply because of its design and construction.

I graduated in the early 90s when we still trawled our large portfolios around to physically visit the creative directors of agencies in their offices. We also still used the Royal Mail to send out the letters and CVs that we used to secure those interview opportunities.

My CV wascreated to be get itself noticed from the piles of other CVs arriving at those agencies – and was specifically designed to immediately capture attention as soon as the envelope was opened.

When removed from its envelope my CV would quite violently ‘pop-up’ into a self-constructing pyramid. The mechanism was triggered by an internal rubber band which was held in its ‘primed’ state by the tension of the envelope. The envelope itself was an unusual corrugated card design, which suggested psychologically that what was inside was unusual, that it was valued and that I had invested in this opportunity to present the contents to the agency.

Once ‘popped’ the resulting pyramid was about 17cm tall, and the different faces of the pyramid held the usual details found on any CV.

I know that some recipients kept it simply because of its novelty factor. Some kept it, they later told me, to figure out how I’d made it.

One recipient specifically called me to tell me it ‘nearly took his eye-out’ – bouncing off his glasses. But he called to talk to me even though he was not hiring at the time.

I also know that CV lived on the desk of my boss (at the first job that I did land) for a few months. I also know it was retrieved from his bin on at least one occasion because he couldn’t figure out how to collapse it and ‘it took up too much room in the bin’! Not the reason I expected it to be retained but I wonder if the same thing happened at other places I’d sent it? I do know that I got call-backs well after I’d secured that first job and well beyond the period you’d expect a normal CV to generate calls.

A few years, and two jobs later, I was working at a small agency in West London.

I was commissioned to create a ‘coffee table item’ to promote all the arts and cultural events throughout the coming year scheduled to take place in the borough of Kensington & Chelsea. From the Royal Opera to Notting Hill Carnival and a myriad of about 60 other events from poetry readings to ballet.

The final items created were an A4 booklet accompanied by a website and an online calendar of events. The graphic styling was very adventurous for a local council and the paper stock used was unusual, the layout was both modern and bold – but also allowed for the individual events to retain a sense of individualism. Our client loved it and it still remains one of my own personal favourite pieces of work.

But more than that, it did what it needed to do. It was useful to the intended audience and it was striking enough to hold its place on the coffee tables of the Kensington and Chelsea residents throughout the year of events it covered. And beyond!

I know this for a fact because I happened to show it as a sample to a potential client of a few years later and they instantly responded with “Wow, you did that. We had that in our house for ages. Always wondered you’d designed it. I think we only threw it out recently when our toddler spilt his juice on it and ruined it.” (I’m paraphrasing as I don’t recall their exact words)

I’m not telling you these stories simply to take a walk down memory lane – nor to brag. One example pulled from every decade I’ve been working is hardly an extensive or impressive list.

But with these stories, I do want to challenge everyone involved in devising communications, be it marketing or purely an information piece, to think a lot more about what they are doing – and to consider how they present their items a little more strategically.

How will that next piece of communication get noticed? How will it stand out from the plethora of items we each get bombarded with daily? Apparently, the average person in the Western world sees between 4,000 and 10,000 advertising messages every day! Getting noticed, commanding your audience’s attention, capturing their interest beyond the instant toss into the trash and earning the right to engage them a little further… this is precisely what all our communications efforts are aiming for.

After all, if you don’t have their attention, you won’t have their business.  

Good communications items, and good marketing, are created through a union of great copywriting married to great design – these are the foundation stones needed to get yourself noticed.

Once noticed you have a chance to communicate a little more. If the design and copywriting do their job you start to engage your audience enough to grant you a few seconds of their time – and in that time and ‘attention transaction’, you get an opportunity to plant your flag in the mind of your audience.

If you can claim that ‘mental real-estate’ in their minds as the go-to company for your service then you have achieved what 95% of businesses fail to do. And once you have claimed that mental real estate it’s far easier to defend it than it was to claim in the first place.

Getting noticed in our busy world is arguably getting harder. I’ve not even talked about the specifics of social media in this post – but the core principles are the same.

Make an impact – get noticed, be seen. No one wants to be invisible.

Novely & Familiarity venn diagram

As human beings, we are a mass of contradictions. We often seek the new. A new experience, new trend, or even the next new fashion. But we also find immense comfort in the familiar. The comfort of the known.

This dichotomy goes back to our earliest hurter gatherer brains. We are naturally going to gravitate to the familiar as, if it didn’t cause us harm before then we can be pretty sure it will be safe. So we ate plants that we had eaten or seen others eat before. We hunted animals that we had managed to overpower before – and avoided others that we had seen best others. To our brains, familiar equates to ‘good’.

One of the best known psychological theories is the Mere Exposure effect. Sometimes called the Familiarity phenomenon, which states that the mere exposure to any stimulus, over time, will create a bias towards that stimulus.

In other words, we will develop and feel a preference for people or things simply because they are familiar. There are lots of research and papers around this subject but in very simple terms – any new stimulus will tend to be avoided.  But if that stimulus is introduced enough then more acceptance occurs, and over time avoidance dissipates. This is even true for the very simplest of organisms.

Just think how many phobias are treated by the gradual and repeated exposure of the sufferer to the object of their phobia. It’s the very basis of the well worn advise to ‘face your fears’.

So, given our conditioning to gravitate to the familiar why do we also find ourselves noticing and attracted to the new?  

This is most likely an adaption of our primal brain processing too. To our ancestors, anything new – be it animal, plant, or environment, would automatically catch our attention simply because it is unknown, and therefore, could present a potential danger.

Caution and intrigue would likely act together until the danger had been evaluated. Then the potential of what the new offered would be assessed and a risk and reward equation would quickly follow. Based on past experience, knowing that the hunters had managed to overcome a water buffalo or a yak previously would give them more confidence to try hunting a bison if they encountered one.

But how does this mental hardwiring, embedded deep in our brains, affect how modern humans think today?

Fundamentally, we are still hyper-aware of the new and the unusual. We are ever on the lookout for the new and different. As the potential danger levels have disappeared in everyday life – some of us even seek out the thrill of a new experience – albeit usually still rather sanitised and safe.  Dangerous or adrenaline sports are ‘a calculated risk’ – and are often made as safe as possible. The danger of the new is now probably better expressed as the excitement and draw of novelty.

Humans have learnt to seek and like the ‘new’. In the advertising world novelty is king. The most common word used in advertising is ‘new’ but it’s often quickly followed by ‘improved’. So conveying that it’s new and it’s better – but it’s also something that you can trust. You’ve seen this, or something very-much-like-it before, so new and improved appeals to both our needs for novelty and familiarity.

We have all heard the phrase ‘ahead of it’s time’. If we look at the history of product launches there are a good number that failed because the populous was not quite ready for them yet. Although separating that fact from the usually high-cost of new innovations is difficult to quantify.

It is true that in many fields it is often not the first-to-market who ultimately proves to be the market leader. Strange as that fact sounds.

There were several existing mp3 players before the iPod became dominant. Sony was first to develop the home video tape – which became Betamax (and which many claim was the superior product) to the eventual dominance of the market winner, VHS.

History has proven that being first does not translate to market dominance. Especially in the case of new technology.  There is a pattern to how new items are adopted. Early adopters are recognised risk-takers. They are prepared to invest more money (as new technology is always expensive) as the benefits of mass production and economies of scale have not yet applied.

Once enough ‘early adopters’ have tested and proven the product then the ‘early majority’ will take up the product (usually as cost start to fall also). Followed by the late majority and then finally, the laggards.

But even in our need for novelty, familiarity still plays a part. The biggest grossing films of the last decade have predominantly been sequals, revisions and franchises. We know that the story we will be served will be new, but is set in a familiar world and comes from a familiar and trusted source. The players, partners and formulars used are familar to us.

As anyone who has even a passing knowledge of storytelling is aware, the hero’s journey is the foundation of most books and films. It’s a construct we know and understand. The specific details of the story may alter but there is a formula that we feel comfortable with. These films present the best possible combination of novelty and familiarity.

In music we tend to lean towards certain genres and arguably chord sequences and sounds that we have previous exposure to. When Spotify launched its Discover Weekly app it originally had a bug. Discover Weekly is designer to present the users with 30 completely new songs and artists every Monday. But a glitch in the programming meant that some familiar artists and tracks sometimes slipped through to the weekly song choice.

Spotify’s coders quickly created a fix for the glitch.  But they then soon noticed that audience engagement with the app had plummeted once the fix was applied. Having some familiarity within the novelty was clearly better for engagement – and therefore served their ultimate aim of introducing new music to their users.

What we can learn from these examples is that to promote the new we need to build on the familiar.

In the industrial design world there is a formula known as the Maya principal.

MAYA = Most Advanced. Yet Acceptable.

MAYA was coined by Raymond Loewy (1893-1986). Often referred to as the father of Industrial Design, Loewy has an impressive resume covering planes, trains, automobiles, motorbikes and NASA, homewares, cookware and many others.

Although most recognised as an industrial designers his designs for The Air Force One logo, the Coca-Cola bottle, the Shell Oil logo, the Exxon logo, the US Postal Service logo, the Greyhound logo are just some of his creations which are still in use today.

The MAYA principal has been alternatively expressed as: Design for the future, balanced with your users’ present. In other words, build towards something new from a place people understand and feel relatively comfortable.

For brand and communication professionals the lessons to be drawn are logical. Taking the audience on a journey, educating and leading them will be far more effective than confronting them with huge leaps into unfamiliar territory. Novelty and creativity will be welcomed by your audience – but will be most effective when counter-balanced and rooted in the known and familiar.

Progress is generally defined and measured in small, incremental steps. It’s as true a statement in the world of design and communications as it is in life generally

… pronounced dead but still kicking!

 

We’ve all heard the pronoucements.

Cinema theatres are dead. And Terrestrial TV is dead – or in intensive care at the very least. As streaming becomes the norm they say no one will bother going to the cinema or watching scheduled terrestrial TV anymore.

Print is dead. Why bother with bulky books and magazines when we can carry an entire library of reading matter around in our digital devices?

Advertising is dead. Social media has changed the game and advertising is no longer relevant.

Vinyl is dead and live music is dying – as music streaming services and playlists of thousands of songs, can be carried around on any smartphone and concerts can be accessed in the same way … and usually with a better view than being there in person.

Design and illustration services are dead – as AI can deliver in seconds what used to take days or weeks to create.

We’ve all heard these prophecies time and time again. What will be the next industry to be killed off by the fortune tellers?

The real truth is that those ‘proclaimed dead’ are all still alive and kicking.

Are these zombies’ businesses? Are they death-row industries, condemned but not yet executed in a ‘dead man walking’ style?

Things change continually, and the pace of change only ever gets faster as technological advancements impact every walk of life, but humans have an incredible ability to adapt. As each new thing arrives, some will only hear the death knell ringing, while others see huge new potential – new collaborative and adaptive opportunities.

So let’s look again at our zombies

Advertising

Advertising is not dead in the slightest – but it has fundamentally changed. It’s more targeted. More interactive. More personalised. But e still see billboards on the streets, bus shelter adverts, ads on tube trains and on the escalators we take to those trains. If there is a captive audience (especially if they might be bored) then there is likely to be an advertising media space close at hand.

These ad spaces may slowly be transforming into digital billboards and posters but the core skill of the advertising agency is still needed. Namely, to create the concept, ad design and messaging that will capture peoples’ attention. Arresting the viewers’ gaze long enough, to capture their interest, well enough, to implant a message into their psyche.

Likewise, TV and Radio ads still deliver. They are not yet the ‘dead donkeys’ that many suggested they would become. How can we be sure of that fact?

TV and Radio

Just watch your favourite shows and see what advertisers and brand names crop up – both within the ad breaks and in the programme itself.

Brand and product placement advertising within the actual programme content has become a normal practice – but it’s not advertising as many traditionalist would understood it. It’s changed. The ad execs have reimagined the possible and devised a new way of achieving their ends. It may not be overt, but seeing your hero use a particular phone, laptop, or car – or drink a particular soda even,  are brand reinforcement advertising techniques that are changing the face of what we think of as advertising practice.

The objective of any brand is to occupy a specific area of real estate in their audience’s brain. Give that end objective, then you can be sure these are well-considered tactics. They use the same psychological formulas to engage our minds and our emotions, to feel and think about brands and products, in exactly the way the advertisers want.

In the TV ad breaks themselves, you may not find the hard-sell approach, of a few decades past, used quite so often. But there are ads still present. And you can be sure, given the high costs and production values needed for a good TV ad campaign, that the big-name brands who are booking these slots are definitely seeing (and carefully monitoring) the return on their investment.

Like the ads that appear on it, TV is also not dead.

Many of us just consume it differently now.  We are not as bound by the scheduler’s dark arts of playing one popular programme off against another. But there are still prime slots. Programmes are still set against (or avoid) a known favourite of another channel. Why? Because many people do still consume TV in a traditional way. They watch communally with family – just log into twitter whilst some of our most popular programmes are on and watch the chatter. We even have TV programmes about people watching TV programmes together!

Instead of killing off TV, the digital revolution has opened up new ways for people to engage with one another and with the programme-makers. Competitions are devised specifically within the programme format, vote-ins and other audience participation and interactions have become popular but you have to be watching live to participate.

Sometimes those interactions are within another space entirely. We may be watching TV but we’re also engaged in a conversation on Twitter about what’s happening on the TV.

Branding and advertising spend are often undertaken to illicit the same outcome. Namely, owning that little bit of the real estate in their audience’s brain that associates a particular product or company instantly with a particular need. Having their brand or product lodged and living rent free in your head. Instantly popping-up in your thoughts whenever the right trigger suggestion is placed. Be that the concept of a luxury car, or a box of chocolates that every lady loves. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they get the desired response whenever they ring the right bell because they have nurtured that association.

The ads we see on TV are often also shown when we visit the cinema, which is a neat segway to look at the idea that cinema might be dead!

Film and cinema

Film and cinema is not my area of expertise and what I’ve said about TV can be transplanted to film without needing any real fine-tuning.  But as this is not my core expertise let me turn to and quote the UK Cinema Association figures about how the industry is doing.

“From a historic high immediately post-war of 1.64 billion in 1946, UK cinema admissions gradually declined to an all-time low of just 54 million in 1984. Since that time, the advent of the multiplex, and record levels of investment in improving the theatrical experience (still ongoing), have seen admissions recover such that since 2000, they have remained above 150 million. The 2019 pre-pandemic figures showed over 176 million people visited a cinema in the UK”.

Even with the multitude of TV channels and streaming services people are going back to the big screen in large numbers. Why? Because the experience is different. How it makes us feel is different. For most of us a cinema visit is a social occasion shared with a friend or loved ones. And some things just have to be seen in an immersive environment. Even if you do have a home cinema set-up – nothing can match the real thing.

The Covid-19 pandemic obviously hit those figures. But when the isolation lock-d0wns were lifted people flocked back cinemas. The novelty of being out may well have been a factor but the British public appear to have a love of an evening at the big-screen with their pop-corn in hand.

Print

How many years now is it that people keep trotting out the prediction that print is dead … it’s been going on for at least half my 30-year career in graphic design!

“Print is dead, dealt a fatal blow by digital media and online communications”.

New media has indeed changed the game – but the often claimed line that no one wants to read books or magazines anymore as they can access everything through their screens is patently untrue.  However, the digital revolution did positively alter how the print world worked. Digital printing is now the norm and with it came a great deal of flexibility bringing the ability to personalise printed communications, creating bespoke items at the individual item level.

I do admit that many areas of print have declined significantly. There are definitely fewer print firms around, which tells us something about the general market. But there are also now some very large players who dominate curtain sectors of the print market. Dominant companies always end up squashing some of the little guys out of existence.  Many print runs are also noticeably smaller. But that does not mean that the print world is dying. Different is not necessarily dying.

People have switched to reading more content on screens, that’s a fact. But research shows that is generally shorter form content. Some will read longer form content on a screen but some people have switched back to books too. They found that screen life was not for them. They suffered from eye strain and headaches, and for some, their sleep suffered too. For longer form content and novels many have found they just like the sensation of a physical book or magazine in their hand. At least if you then fall asleep reading in the bath you only need to dry out your book not replace your iPad!

I read some articles online – as you probably do too. But I also know I prefer to do any extended or educational reading via a traditional, physical format, Why? Partly it’s because I like to underline bits, and mark sections I find insightful, or might wish to return to. I want to identify some sections so I can locate them swiftly later and I make notes in the margins as I go too. I’ll sometimes add stickie notes and, I’ll admit, I sometimes fold down the odd page corner or two. (Which I know some book lovers think is sacrilege!)

I know I can do most of that in some ways on an ebook – but it’s not the same.  And I’ve found I rarely go back to the notes in an ebook as often as I consult my library of real books. Perhaps that’s primarily because I’m a visual person. The electronic reading experience does not afford me the same visual reminders or the same experience. I’ll admit this might be more pronounced in my case, as a visual learner and a dyslexic, the visual cues from a physical item might be a larger part of my aid memoir. The book cover, the colour of stickie notes – these may be factors in my ability to recall what I’m looking for.

Other than the convenience – I simply find I prefer to read off a page than on a screen.

But, there are environmental reasons why some are actively calling for the end of print, or at least a vast reduction. The constant need for paper pulp to feed the print industry is a genuine concern. Trees have been felled at an alarming rate to meet that demand. But times move on and new ways of addressing the need are now becoming industry practice.

Recycling is one answer – but recycling uses a vast amount of water, which is another resource in short supply. Fast-growing grasses and old clothing fibres have both reduced reliance on timber to make paper pulp in recent years. I’ve written before and, I’m sure, will do again on the subjects of ecology, recycling and green design … It’s too big a subject to address adequately here as it’s not the focus of this piece. Except to say, dealing with these big issues is never as straightforward, nor as binary, as they at first appear.

One aspect of the move to a greener world is the move away from plastics in packaging. Products will still need to be packaged. For transport, security, shop display etc. so card and paper packaging still need to be designed and printed to be effective. As I said print is not dead but it is evolving. The print world is adapting and learning new tricks.  Print is a long way from dead – it’s just updated itself and looks a little different.

Design & Illustration

The impact of AI on the design and illustration fields is very much still in an pretty embryonic phase. But almost every week something new enters the markets and shakes things up a little more.

Recently, I’ve seen some very impressive illustration content created entirely by AI. However,  there are huge questions about copyright ownership of such items that have yet to be even considered properly. I think even the most ardent supporter of AI would say that there are still many areas that need more work before it can be used properly commercially.

I suspect these tools will become part of the armoury of most creatives eventually. But AI, by its nature, takes the collective information available and works from within that set of known parameters. Which does give rise to lots of variations, very quickly – and is far more time efficient than any designer or illustrator could be (at least to produce those initial ideas) but the parameters are set and so the question of were truly original ideas will enter the process does arise.

Highly impressive variations on a theme, rendered at speed, will certainly be very usefully in lots of creative scenarios. But to create truly original work, new concepts and ideas, which are unique and mould-breaking, is going to be almost impossible working within the algorithm of an AI engine. The engine needs to be fed references, source material, style sheets and cues to do its thing, at present at least. There may well be stylistic and superficial uniqueness but there still needs to be a creative brain driving the process and directing the outcomes.

Just in the last few weeks I saw a completely AI-generated short film. It was a talking-head piece with just one locked-off camera shot of an individual talking. The image, the person, the make-up, the lighting, the voice … nothing existed in real life. (But I did note that the voice sounded a little synthetized even before I knew it was AI, a bit like the autotune used on some music tracks). The only thing that had any human intelligence in its creation was the script that the ‘non-actor’ delivered.

Big questions exist around the ethical use of this type of technology when essentially ‘anyone’ could be made to say anything with just a few hours and a powerful enough computer. How can we trust anything we see on the news if deep fakes can be produced with such relative ease?

When impactive and game-changing creative work comes into the market it is the quality of the concept, the strength of thinking and problem solving, coupled with the quality of execution, that makes them special. AI may well be able to deliver some aspects of that creative process but just take a few minutes to google AI-generated poetry and you’ll soon realise that some things are far better with a human touch.

One area I think does need a human brain is brand design.

Brand design

I’ve seen AI-generated logos – with varying degrees of success in my opinion – but few have ever felt like convincing, confident, cohesive full brand solutions.

When one of the key considerations of the creation of a brand logo is differentiation from the competition – it would seem a little counterintuitive, to me, to use an AI platform that by its essence will draw its references from similar businesses. Accessing industry trends and styles and then expect it to create an effective, considered and most importantly, differentiated brand.

However, the initial research phase could be a great place to use AI. The data sets and wide reference points would seem ideal for AI involvement. But I believe it will remain a tool used to shorten delivery times and bring added efficiencies in the early stages of a brand delivery project. At least for some years to come anyway.

AI won’t kill off brand and logo design. People who trade on the speed of delivery and price may well need to reconsider their business models as AI design would seem to possibly look to inhabit the same business arena as the likes of Canva, and Fiverr.

There will be a marketplace for such work – the client base who are more concerned with speed and cost than in quality or a long-term strategic approach will appreciate the benefits of fast, cheap design. But the holistic, considered and long-term work required to devise a thoughtful brand strategy and overarching brand design project would, as yet, seem to be beyond the capability of an AI robot.

Given that one of the core aspects of any good brand design is to create an emotional connection with the target audience I suspect a human mind directing things will be needed for some time.

Like in the FA cup, sometimes the small clubs will get a big win. Or even a decent run of wins … but if you need consistency across the season (or more aptly) across several seasons, then you’d be better-off picking someone with a proven track record who has proven that their wins are consistent and can be reproduced over and over again.

So what does the future look like?

Should I really try to be a crystal ball gazer and predict anything? Or am I as likely to be as wrong as those who have prophesied the death of all the businesses I’ve been writing about?

Personally, I remain hopeful. One of the most fascinating, and truly inspiring aspects, of the human condition, is our collective ability to adapt. The fact that we strive to move forward and explore new ideas, new horizons. Humanity is continually evolving and exploring – always seeking to know, understand and to create.

So our expressions of society are also evolving and developing. Adapting to new ideas, new input and new challenges. Obviously, communication needs and models are embedded within the cultural frameworks that we develop within those societies and in our communities – so they are also remain in an ever present state of flux and adaptation.

The next time you hear someone announce that anything is dead due to new technology or changing society, take a second. Take a breath or two. It may not be as black and white nor as stark as the prediction seems to suggest at first.

It’s a famous John Wanamaker quote. He was an American merchant, civic and political figure, considered to be one of the first serious proponents of advertising and a “pioneer in marketing”.

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He opened one of the first department stores in the United States, with his empire growing to 16 stores which eventually became the famous Macy’s.

Everyone who studies business marketing has probably heard or read his famous statement a hundred times.

But in today’s world, there is no excuse for not knowing how your advertising and marketing money is spent, and more importantly, what it’s delivering. What the ROI is on your investment is a key question.

The digital revolution has revolutionised marketing and with it made all marketing measurable and quantifiable. We no longer need to rely on conclusions drawn from vague correlations: “we advertised and saw sales increase so it must have worked”. We can now track and trace, monitoring our entire sales funnel.

Have you ever heard someone state something like: “our objective was for awareness and clearly many more people are now aware of us so it was a success?” But how are they quantifying that?

For me, marketing and branding work hand in glove. I believe the same rigorous, data-driven approach should be applied to ROI on all customer-facing communications – be that your branding, marketing, advertising … whatever activity in whatever space, face-to-face, email, social media – everything should be measured and appraised.

Do you know if your branding is effective? Have you got data?

Are you aware how your target audience feels about your company or the marketing messages you project?

Are there things you do that frustrate your customers – or conversely things they love?

Do they believe your marketing messages?

Does your delivery match up to your promises?

Do they feel any emotional connection to your brand?

Would they recommend you to their friends?

Investing a little time and money to truly understand how your potential customers relate to your firm, your offer & how they compare you to your competition, is the very least any firm should be doing. It’s the base data you should know.

If you don’t, then perhaps you should do a full review of your brand, position and marketing strategy to ensure you are not spending money without seeing traceable results.

Make John proud and ensure you do understand what you marketing spend is delivering… and why.

In 2014, Forbes carried an article about the large corporations giving designers a seat at the board room table. At that time big names like Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and Philip Electronics NV had all recently appointed Chief Design Officers. In the ensuing years many other organisations have followed.  Tiffany’s, Vanguards, Ericsson and many others have appointed Chief Brand Executives to their C-suite.

So why have branding and design become C-suite activities?

This comment from John Mathers, Chief Executive of the Design Council, from the introduction to their ‘Design Buyers Guide’, sheds some light on the matter:

“Used effectively, design can help you anticipate what customers need, develop the right offering, get it to market fast and improve your bottom line. There’s evidence to prove it. A recent survey showed that for every £100 design-led businesses spend on design, their turnover goes up by £225.  But getting full return on your design investment can mean having to find new ways of thinking and working”.

The key is in the practice of design thinking and the advancement it can bring. At it’s core Design thinking embraces the idea of change. There are different versions espoused by different people, varying from 4 – 10 or more steps, but the essence is always constant – focusing on learning new insights and adapting accordingly.

This is the core structure no matter how many steps each exponent likes to add in.

1.     Research

Conduct research to understand the problem. Gain empathy with the customer/users experience. Define the issues identified.

2.     Explore

Generate numerous creative solutions to address the defined issue.

3.     Prototype

Whether creating a website, a logo, a user-interface or a new car everything should be prototyped.  By this we simply mean creating a minimum viable option to be able to move to the next phase and test the solutions proposed.

4.     Test

The whole point of the prototype is so you can test the solution that has been created. So at this point we circle back to No 1 to again get real understanding of how our proposed solution is received by our target audience.

5.     Iterate

The test and iterate phase of the process is a continuum. Once you settle on a solution that is viable you have to ‘push the button’ and launch it.

6.     Implement

If it appears to work then place it into the world – and watch!

7.     Monitor

Is it working as intended/expected? Are some elements not working? Are there further tweaks that can improve it?

Designers are usually by nature people who embrace change. Which is heightened by their training.

They are generally looking to see how things can be improved, looking to identify problems and created credible solutions. They embrace the process and know that taking action will give additional insight.

Sometimes the design process leads to great strides forward. More often, like the Olympic Cycling Teams theory of ‘marginal gains’ –  progress and success is based in lots of small improvements and striving for ‘better’.

Not every organisation is large enough to need a CDO or CBO. But any business that does not implement design thinking at a management level is destined to be left behind.