The brand identity of your organization is at the heart of all communications with the outside world. It’s an identifier, a signature, a symbol loaded with meaning that flows from the brand itself, and most importantly, from people’s experiences with that brand. Crafting great brand identities is our main focus at Hexanine, and we believe it’s vastly important in business, culture, and the world around us.
However, in the arms race that is today’s business landscape, it can be tempting for those of us in branding and marketing to take shortcuts by looking to the latest in trends, “secret” strategies, or so-called silver bullets to make our brands stand out. It’s so easy to succumb to the latest brand bandwagons or popular approaches, but for good brands, this isn’t necessary. A simple storytelling approach will work powerfully. But what story to tell? How do you create these elusive brand narratives?
The irony is that great organizations are often sitting on gold mines without even realizing it. Fabulous, valuable riches are at your fingertips — unique drivers, compelling histories, and singular stories waiting to be told. Often, these critical assets are easy to miss because they’re far too familiar, or they’re the buried treasure locked away in some lost closet of organizational knowledge. To recognize the riches your brand already has sometimes only requires re-adjusting your viewpoint, or taking on an outsider’s perspective. We love to play the outsider role, and combine it with the insider knowledge and expertise of those inside organizations. But the groundwork can be so much fun, and deeply rewarding as well. For all of the strategy and identity work we do with client partners, the first steps involve an archaeological dig of sorts, to mine and uncover what brand stories are waiting to be found.
Once a project sets sail, there’s a lot to be done before we ever arrive at the conceptual or strategy-writing phases. Rather than wastefully starting from scratch, we’ll often begin instead by assessing what stories a company or organization already has that are of value — both in the minds of leadership, and in the audiences a brand touches. Our chief roles as strategic brand designers involve excavation, curation, and storytelling — digging deep to find these nuggets of stories, evaluating them for use, and then weaving them into powerful, relevant brand communications.
Good stories are at the heart of every great brand, whether these are explicit and product-centered, or aspirational and loosely connected. Some are association-based, tying themselves to positive experiences and memories. Coke has essentially been evolving this message for decades: “Drinking Coca-Cola is a refreshing, essential part of whatever fun you’re having!” Other brand stories seek to connect to an audience’s shared values and desires, creating a stronger connection to the brand by tapping into already-active beliefs: “TOMS Shoes improves my wardrobe and style, and also lets me help kids in need.” There are many other stories to tell and billions of ways to tell them, but the tales begin with digging through the existing treasures an organization has.
The best stories and materials that emerge from the excavation become part of the creative process, serving as the raw materials we can polish up, refine, and use strategically as part of the new brand identity, messaging platform, or initiative we’re creating.
Here are some of the high-level steps and questions we ask ourselves (and our clients) as we dive deeper during this process:
Figure out what elements exist.
This is all about mining your history, digging into archives, memories, and previous work. It’s helpful to do categorical and deep dives into campaigns, efforts, internal initiatives, brand books, ads, taglines, and anything else in your archives. This cataloging process is something that many brands avoid, but it’s helpful to take stock of everything that exists before deciding what’s of value. But it’s helpful to use some of these criteria: What do people remember? What campaigns, slogans, or historical images have potential value? What are the pros and cons of those things that people remember? Can they be utilized to stir or germinate something new?
What are the stories that your organization tells itself?
How do you communicate inside the organization about what’s important? What does the organization claim as important externally, and how do those stories and values differ from what the company says in internal communication? How does your organization view itself? What lenses does it use to evaluate history, progression, and the future? Do these lenses change over time, or with shifts in leadership?
What is the organization’s “reason for being” that isn’t about making money?
Being profitable is assumed for any successful organization, but what sets yours apart? Why do people in your organization care? Why did the founders do this instead of something else? What gets your leaders up and out of bed in the morning?
What stories are others telling about your brand?
Is your company known as a great place to work? Do you have a reputation (deserved or not) for something specific? What assets or liabilities are attached to your name? What data do you collect from places like customer service, Twitter mentions, or media overviews? What trends begin to emerge? What are brand interactions like for those not drinking your company’s Kool-Aid? In the name of brutal honesty, it’s easy for these research efforts to become sensitive, because shortcomings often itch for someone to blame. But it’s important to focus on the data-gathering, not problem-solving at this point. Of course, an organization still needs to own any negatives and constructively see each as part of a larger change process for the brand — of correcting issues and moving towards better solutions. Oftentimes, giving first aid to your brand’s reputation can become a brand story in itself. Domino’s is an amazing example.
What is your organization’s culture and personality?
It can be tempting to graft in a new corporate culture or way of working, but the most powerful organizational ethos grows organically. How can you step back and observe what’s happening under your own roof? Is there something unique about your processes, or how you think about those ways of working? What stories are to be found there?
After this process is completed, these stories and many other elements flow into a brand brief, which then becomes the fertile soil for all development, whether it’s strategic, visual, or otherwise. It can seem more sexy, fresh, or interesting to start with a blank sheet of paper, but the greatest brands don’t throw away stories of value. And the best brands and marketers know that unique and authentic stories are gold for the people who see their worth. Stories are the well we all draw from, and ensuring that your company has a strong grasp on its brand stories will help guarantee success long into your future.