- The brand is not connecting with the intended audience
- Its message is muddled and confusing
- Its message is outdated or no longer relevant
- Its message is reaching an unintended audience
- Its message is reaching an established audience but one in decline; to grow, the brand needs a newer or younger audience
What many call "visual identity" or "the brand," I call visual personality. It is easier to think of a product or company visually if you think of it as a person. We share memories with them, fond ones mostly, but sometimes the person you loved changes. He or she is no longer the person you knew. You hardly recognize them. Or, conversely, you've changed but they have not. You no longer find them useful or meaningful.
For brands, gaps between past and present perception can alienate existing customers and keep new customers from giving you a try. If people no longer understand you, you will not attract them as buyers, customers, partners, employees, vendors, or suppliers. The way you redesign your brand's visual personality can help you to close the gaps between perception and reality and, thus, preserve your brand's life.
New Menu Items
Consider some famous restaurant brands that once served only products such as super-sized meals loaded with polyunsaturated fat and salt. Few cared about such things in the 1960s and '70s, but studies and awareness caused a slow evolution of consumer thinking about health and nutrition. Today, any fast-food company that does not offer healthier choices would be pilloried by public opinion.
In fact, big restaurant corporations spend millions trying to stay ahead of the curve—and ahead of the perception that they are the principle cause of obesity among young people. They measure consumer tastes, develop and test products in order to satisfy those tastes. Once tested and proven, these food empires spend billions more on operational improvements in order to get fresher offerings onto serving trays or into compostable to-go containers. You have to give them full marks for trying. But are people always aware that these changes have been made?
Not really. If public opinion still perceives you as serving food that kills, the billions invested in real change is money wasted.
You can't just make changes. You must communicate them. You must tell people. You must get their attention and make certain that the changes are perceived. Otherwise, those lovely new broiled chicken wraps and meatless burritos will find no hungry customer. What is more, you get no credit for your sensitivity to the tastes of health-conscious moms and fat-free scolds.
Our Hero: You
Who can save Burger House from a hostile, more healthful world? You, the visual personality adjuster, the brand consultant, the identity expert, the designer at the international branding firm or you, there, working from your garage studio. No one is better qualified than you to identify the gaps between perception and reality, measure them, and then develop creative (and effective) solutions to close them.
Visual personality makeovers, or rebranding, should be performed only in the face of chasms between perception and reality. "I am a respectable green business. Consumers see me as a callous polluter of creeks beside daycare centers. How can I make them change their minds?" Here's how:
- Find the gaps through careful assessment.
- Close these gaps through creative solutions based upon that assessment.
- Let them know the value of your solutions.
Brain surgery or gardening?
You cannot solve a visual personality disorder unless you understand the roots of the problem. What caused a brand to get out of whack? Why are audiences not connecting with the brand? You've got to dig and find out. And the more time you're spending rooting out the causes of disconnect and wrong signals, the better informed you will be when you begin the time-consuming and deliciously painful process of developing your certain award-winning solution.
Different design concerns call it different things. Some call it brand discovery or brand assessment—some even have pretentiously branded the company due-diligence process with serious sounding names as though it were brain surgery. It isn't. It's more like gardening: The better you clear the patch, prepare the soil, and plant the seeds, the better the broccoli come summer.
Three Steps to Success
Assessment involves three basic tactical steps: the visual audit, the competitive audits, and interviews with stakeholder audiences. The process for assessment might be more in depth at a bigger branding agency working for a large corporate client, than the local clients of a small design office.
Sniffing Low and Sucking Up
Sure, there are differences between how the Big Chaps Agency and the Small Blokes Studio tackle a rebranding project. They are evidenced throughout this book. Generally speaking, the complexity of a case and the size of a client dictate the budget and the depth of research you conduct.
Big corporate makeovers involve big corporate turf wars and politics. You think the senior brand managers at Intuit's QuickBooks brand wanted any change to their brand identity? Well, not without some serious face time to get their input and buy in. To make change, you have to cultivate consensus among management, employees, and resellers and, through traditional or non-traditional focus groups, among consumers. In essence, to reach your goal of a new logo and identity system, you have to let a lot of stakeholder doggies sniff your leg and pee on your well-made shoes. You must encourage participation and make them part of the solution. And sometimes you can make them think that they came up with the solution!
Modest clients with rebranding needs may have less to invest in discovery, but discover they must. Remember, even if the depth of your client's pockets is limited, your thirst for knowledge is not. The more you know about the causes of the perception problem, the more on the mark your proposed solutions will be. Likewise, the more buy in you get from internal and external stakeholders, the less push back you get when you begin presenting plausible solutions that otherwise would have been considered crazy.
You can never learn too much. Therefore, take the time to assess the problem before you begin trying to solve it. The next step is to start applying that knowledge.
Visual assessment can be simple or complex. Generally speaking, the bigger the company, the more stuff it has to stick its logo on. So when trying to discover the causes of perception gaps, sometimes you have to spend a lot of time going through the company's attic and basement reviewing what has and has not worked well in the past.
Equity: Value is Relative
The equity of a brand is its value. A brand can have positive equity or negative equity and, in either case, it is accumulated over time. Equity is a historical fact with contemporary implications. Therefore, the goal of anyone charged with the task of moving a brand's visual personality forward is about proper assessment and assignment of brand equity.
What elements of that personality—the brand's story—should be carried forward? What elements should be dumped in the river? Be careful. For the most part, anything with positive connotation warrants keeping: The shape of the bottle, the color of that famous delivery truck, that swoosh on my shoe, or that script on my baby powder. These elements are tangible, not perceived, but they bring to mind intangible associations of past experiences. Some imply continuity and stability. Some suggest fun times or warm family moments, and so on.
But how do you invest your valuable brand equity? Do we lock it in the family vault? Or do we let it roam freely in bright green (sustainable) meadows, under the clear (smog-free) blue skies, free and happy? That depends upon whom you ask.
Puma, a manufacturer of apparel and footwear, retains most of its equity in its iconic sleek, leaping cat. But this company allows designers to be "promiscuous" with that cat, emblazoning it on shoes, apparel, and accessories in all manner and derivations with one recent ad featuring half man, half cat—an erotic Puma representation.
Don't count on Coke putting its contour curve on a naked woman anytime soon. Coke, on the other hand, is more circumspect. It boils its brand equity down to four basic elements:
- The contour (of the bottle)
- The wave, also known as the dynamic ribbon (graphic)
- The script (signature)
- The color red
To much extent, design providers have been given permission to be creative and playful in the vast universe beyond those elements. But no one—but God—can mess with those four elements. Now, think about that: an enormous brand with worldwide audiences boils its vast brand equity down to four simple elements. That is smart.
Be smart: One brand's positive is another brand's death sentence. "Continuity," for instance, is good if you are a bank, bad if you make snowboard gear. "Safe" is a great if you make baby formula but a drag if your company sells fresh ideas. "Positive" is relative. When assessing a brand's equity you have to determine not only who or what a brand was and is, but whom or what that brand hopes to be.
Honor the past. Face reality. Design for the future. But above all else, change.