For me to use the term “branding industry” often feels odd, even though I work within it. The entry point for agencies and designers is low, and the speed at which consultants and authors have dominated the content space is enormous. But unlike its younger sibling social media, branding has lacked the polish of evidence-based metrics and science to back it up. Until now…
Every day in my work helping grow digital agencies and Fortune 500 brands, I hear countless companies struggle with how to discuss, interact with, and grow their client’s brand, leaving dollars on the table and creating problems along the way. The agency owner offers their perspective, shares why branding is important, but usually lacks the conversational skills to navigate the need. And as a result, it’s not just the client that suffers. Sure, their brand doesn’t grow, but the agency doesn’t either.
The Typical Logo Scenario
One of the top problems I hear from agency owners is how to address branding in their scope of services or even how to bring it up. Usually, clients are coming to them with little to no investment in their branding, and the branding discussion usually doesn’t happen until after the project is signed. They don’t have the words to justify what they’re saying to the client or even to point out the “why” behind the “what.”
It’s a touchy subject no matter how you slice it
Usually the client goes to hand over what few branding assets they have at the start of the project. Then the agency is stuck. Do they simply “clean it up” and miss the opportunity to strategically help their client? How do you tell a new client that their brand assets are sub-par? How do you approach a client about a redesign when they didn’t approach you for that as part of the job? It’s a touchy subject no matter how you slice it.
This, of course, throws the project off-course, generates scope creep, and adds unnecessary anxiety. You may not have the time or resources to address it, and your client wants everything to be successful while expecting something “extra” thrown in. You’re not getting paid for it, but you feel like you have to address the ugly branding since your name is on the site credits.
So, What Do You Do?
Typically, you’ll pitch them a modest dollar amount of time, they agree, and you both move forward by picking a more modern color scheme, a cleaner typeface, and possibly a logo refresh. You try to get inside the client’s head and find something that resonates with them. It turns an adventure into the subjective minutiae of selection, with the client nit-picking about how they hate circles or don’t like the color blue. In the end, the client says they’re happy and everyone moves on.
But so much is wrong with this scenario. The real issue here isn’t about the client’s lack of branding initially, how you tacked on an attempt to modernize it, or that you don’t have the resources to do it. It’s not just when you addressed it, it’s also how you addressed it.
What Agencies Are Missing
If there’s one thing that’s missing from the arsenal of digital agency owners, it’s a solid understanding of branding – one that’s solid enough to convince the client of the investment on the front end, and one that during the process, solidifies the agency owner’s expertise as a strategist and partner.
A lot of digital agencies think that effective branding is a beautiful logo. While a logo is important, it’s simply one of several visual and verbal market-based assets that comprise the client’s Distinctive Brand Assets (more on that later). Most agencies are trying to tackle branding by cleaning up the logo alone, and in the process, are not helping their clients grow and succeed, and end up missing out on a larger amount of success, for both their agency and their client.
With branding only having developed as a commercial industry in the past century, it has undergone significant growth, debate, and superfluous opinion – with lots of “experts” out there. And with most agency owners and designers having gone out on their own, they’ve inherited a broken model, and not all the facts. In fact, what every digital agency needs before broaching the subject with a client is an updated understanding of how brands actually function, grow, and scale.
The Secret is Brand Science
The secret that top-performing web and digital agency owners know (that you might not) is that there is, in fact, evidence-based metrics to branding. They exist, and formally, it’s called “brand science,” and informally, it’s talking about the elements of branding in a new way, but with some boundaries. Those that are using brand science are able to help their clients grow their brand, increase their success, and ultimately increase their own.
Brand Science is simply the branding side of evidence-based marketing, making branding and design decisions based on metrics and well, science. There’s a bit of economics, psychology, and consumer behavior in there too, but the basics are easy to master, and the results are well worth it.
If you learn how successful brands actually grow, the logo conversation, the resource issues, and the client back and forth goes away. In fact, bad clients even start going away. Most web agencies didn’t get into business with the intent of working on branding and are uncomfortable with the subject, but it’s the truth: in order to succeed as a digital agency, no matter where or how you got your start, you have to upgrade your understanding of branding to brand science.
Distinctive Brand Assets
If you didn’t do too good, or even pay attention, in school during science class, don’t let the word “science” scare you off. Brand science is simply evidence-based marketing and research-based support for making branding and design decisions. That means, making design decisions based on research, and marketing decisions based on laws that are actually proven and making these a part of your agency’s service offerings as soon as possible.
If you’re a real go-getter, you can read more about these in Byron Sharp’s book, “How Brands Grow.” For the rest of us, keep reading.
Luckily for you and me, the marketing researchers at Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Southern Australia have done decades of research into how buyers buy and how brands compete and grow and discovered that the best way to grow a brand is through creating higher mental and physical availability through creating distinct visual and verbal market assets, called Distinctive Brand Assets (DBAs).
Let’s step out of the web world for just a moment. Coca-Cola has its own DBA’s. In fact, red is the dominant color in the soft drink category. Other competitors or even generic brand name knock-off colas may use red, but they don’t have the some of the other signature DBAs, such as the brandmark’s typeface, the signature bottle, or their advertising style. There’s even the jingle, “always Coca-Cola,” as well as their tagline, as well as the polar bears, the curvey swoosh overlayed on photos, and the color combinations of red, black, green, and white they use to canonize the family of products.
These DBAs are specific to the soft drink category and don’t have associations outside. CVS and Target are also red but don’t compete mentally with Coca-Cola, and as a result, each category has its own plethora of associations to discuss. Your job is to ensure that your client has a palette of DBAs formulated within the insights of their category that they can use on their website which can translate to every other part of their business.
There are some additional principles, laws, and metrics in there too, but as a primer for brand science, this is the biggest idea.
Brand Science, Explained
Think of it like this: scientifically, branding is like the movie Inception plus Total Recall – it’s the on-going strategic business approach of creating memories for people to recall. Brand science calls these “cognitive associations.” The brand with the most famous and unique associations and networks at the top of the consumers’ minds has the highest mental availability. They then purchase based on how physically available that product, good, or service is.
So when initially talking to the client, the goal is to create the most mental networks, associations, and memories possible so they can be recalled quickly, connectedly, and most importantly, first.
The Number One Way to Grow a Brand
The number one way to create these associations is by creating distinctive market assets with a palette of unique, memorable and famous sounds, colors, characters (celebrities, spokespeople, cartoons), words, word combinations, color, color combinations, stories, common stylistic elements, photography, and yes, even logos. Together, these DBAs are a palette to be used in a variety of ways to create, cue, and refresh these associations.
capturing the complete landscape of the category is imperative
The goal of these market assets is to be both distinct and memorable. This is where it’s important to research the whole category, not just a few competitors. Brands, as a whole, compete against all brands in the category and also other brands their size. So this means when attempting to get insights into designing a new brand identity or refresh, capturing the complete landscape of the category is imperative. The more assets your client has that are both famous and unique within their category, the more associations they can have, the higher the mental availability, which is the end goal.
If you discover that a category is predominantly blue and green, always uses sans serif typefaces, always tends to use objective, product-focused copy, and is overall focused on practicality, you can interpret the data, gather insights, and find out why some of these things are as such, and from there, innovate.
How Brands Grow
Now that we’ve discussed Distinctive Brand Assets. We need to know how to use them.
According to Sharp, we make our lives unnecessarily difficult by handicapping ourselves with unfounded theories, anecdotes, and metaphors. There are some pretty hard hitters here. For example, there’s no evidence to suggest that consumers want a relationship with brands, that brand commitment and loyalty are just wishful thinking, and that the whole exercise of creating brand personalities is even a productive endeavor.
7 Rules for Brand Growth
Let’s replace our complicated theories of marketing, and brand infographics, with seven scientifically derived rules for brand growth.
- Continuously reach all buyers of the category: Communicate to both light, infrequent, and frequent buyers. Avoid being silent in communication and distribution.
- Ensure the brand is easy to buy: The best brands have universal appeal, so communicate how the brand fits with the users’ lives, based on inspiration and needs corresponding to the product/brand, not demographic details.
- Get noticed: Grab their attention and focus on brand salience to prime the users’ minds. Remember, unseen is unsold, so stay seen, and make sure they’re attracted to it.
- Refresh and build memory structures: Respect existing associations that make the brand easy to notice and easy to buy.
- Create and use distinctive brand assets: Use sensory cues to get noticed and stay top of mind. This is where you use the DBA Palette.
- Be consistent: You should avoid unnecessary changes, whilst keeping the brands fresh and interesting.
- Stay competitive: You should keep the brand easy to buy and avoid giving excuses not to buy (i.e. by targeting a particular group)
How Can You Succeed?
If you want your client to succeed, you’re going to have to make sure that DBAs are part of the conversation from day one. This presents the opportunity for you to ensure your client is getting an expert to diagnose their business, not just another web agency.
So, when a client knocks on your door and barely has a logo to offer, it’s an opportunity to position yourself as an expert, using brand science to justify the importance of considering developing more brand assets to utilize on his/her website, and for any additional needs he/she may have as a set of assets to invest in.
Addressing branding as part of the strategy from the first interaction will have massive benefits for your agency and life. In the immediate term, you’ll start marking more money, which means more profit and success in your business.
Think about how freeing it would be to eliminate clients who think “their logo is just fine,” or expect you to ninja some magic for them without paying for it. Think about becoming positioned even more as the expert when presenting your solutions to the client. Think about how much better you’ll feel putting your name on the site credits or how much more confident you’ll feel having that client in your portfolio. The initial effects are significant.
It’s also not just the agency who benefits. The client does in immense ways. By ensuring they have a DBA palette of assets, the client is now able to use those market assets to grow their mental and physical availability. They’re able to focus their efforts on becoming a leader in their category, and are able to see the big picture, and how the website is part of it. And with client growth, comes more agency growth, and the ability to be part of it.
But there’s one benefit that is more important than all the others. By learning about the importance of DBAs, I see agency owners go from a place of insecurity to a place of confidence. Everything changes. Agency owners go from frustrated and flustered, to educated and empowered. They’re able to diagnose with confidence that the client’s brand is weak, and can make recommendations immediately to make brand design and strategy packages part of the website, leading to a more successful relationship in the long run.
Featured image via DepositPhotos.