4 questions for deciding if your branding needs an upgrade
Take Nike. Its famous swoosh logo was designed in 1971 by Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student at Portland State University. Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who happened to work part-time at PSU as an accounting professor, needed some charts and graphs done for his other job at Blue Ribbon Sports.
After hearing Davidson say she needed money for oil painting classes, he asked if she was interested in freelancing for him. When he was ready to strike out on his own, Davidson developed five logos for him to choose from. She received $35 for her work, and the Nike swoosh has stuck ever since (Davis was awarded shares in Nike’s stock in 1983).
However, not all branding remains the same over time. We often get clients at Pax who seek to update some aspect of their branding. Don’t know how to tell if yours is outdated? Here are some questions to consider.
1. Does your branding reflect company growth and change?
Stories like Nike’s tend to be the exception, rather than the rule. As companies grow, branding elements such as visuals, messaging and media channels may no longer be reflective of your current brand identity. That disconnect may leave your organization in a less-than-ideal position for attracting key consumers and achieving your business goals.
The International Institute of Nanotechnology at Northwestern is one example of how branding should evolve as companies grow. Its old logo was based on a technology known as atomic force microscopy. As the institute produced new discoveries, the logo became outdated, and the innovative nature of the IIN wasn’t fully captured in its branding.
Furthermore, while the old logo did reference Northwestern University, the connection between the school and the IIN wasn’t very clear. Given the advances the IIN had made in nanotechnology and its lack of alignment with Northwestern’s branding guidelines, updating its branding with an entirely new visual ecosystem made a lot of business sense.
Now that the organization’s branding better reflects its status as an innovator, the IIN is in a better position to attract funding for research into areas such as cancer therapeutics and environmental science.
However, the separation between an organization and its branding isn’t always clear from an internal perspective. If you’d like to investigate whether your branding accurately reflects your organization, you could start by seeking an outside opinion on your branding. For example, you could first define a specific branding question that you want to answer, such as “We want our branding to be professional and authoritative. Is that tone actually conveyed in our communication?”
Then you could share some of your company’s material–such as a blog post, a white paper a services page of your website, etc.–with some personal or professional acquaintances to react to. Ask them questions like, “How would you describe the tone of this message?” and “What elements of the messaging contribute to the tone?”
If their answers to the first question stray far from the intended tone, that may indicate that your branding needs to be further refined. Their answers to the second question can help you assess specifically how your messaging is succeeding or missing the mark. (This is obviously a very quick and simplistic approach. In the next section, we’ll talk about some additional methods for seeking external feedback that are more refined and complex.)
Above: the International Institute of Nanotechnology (IIN) evolved from a single organization with a focus on scientific research to a complex institute needing to be properly represented across channels and in a wider array of scientific and business markets. A proper design program and identity system allow the IIN to communicate in a consistent manner with both internal and external audiences.
Making sure your online marketing is on-brand can range from doing an audit of your site to double-check that all the information is correct (i.e. hours, location and contact info are all accurate, all links work as they should, etc.), to ensuring that it’s up-to-date with the latest web standards and UX practices.
For example, after The Field Museum updated its main website with an improved UX and UI, we identified a similar opportunity to update the UX/UI for its microsites, since users who navigated from one to the other would encounter vastly different interfaces. After we provided the web development team with an updated framework for the Field’s microsites, the transition from the main site to the microsites became more seamless. Now the Field’s identity as a respected cultural organization is reflected in its entire web presence, not just a specific portion of it.
You may have a similar opportunity to better showcase your brand through optimized UX. But how to begin? There are several online tools to choose from, depending on your UX goal. For an in-depth look at how users respond to your website, for example, one guerrilla user testing tool we’d recommend is Silverback, a usability app for Mac.
In addition to recording users’ screen activity, Silverback records users’ faces as they work through specific tasks. With the app, you can therefore see how easy or difficult it is for a user to navigate through your site when you give them a task to complete. If you require them to look up information about a specific service, how easily can they find that info? Are there parts of the navigation they find unclear or confusing? By capturing the answers to these questions, Silverback can help you any opportunities for refining your current website.
On the other hand, if you’re more interested in adding new content and you want to understand its user-friendliness before it goes live, consider using Helio. Helio is a design testing tool that allows you to gather feedback on your designs so that you know which one resonates best with your audience. (You can specify the demographics of Helio’s testers so that designs are shown to those who match your target customers’ demographics.)
For example, let’s say you specialize in online marketing services for small- and medium-sized businesses and you’d like to add a page for booking consultations. You have two different designs for the page. If you’re unsure of which one would work best, Helio allows you to create a preference test where users can indicate which they like better.
Or perhaps you have a mockup of a new page you plan to add to your site, and you’d like to understand if users are clicking in the correct places. Helio also offers a click test that will record the percentages of where users click on that page.
Using these tools, you can either identify any missed opportunities to improve your online brand, or identify what online experiences resonate with your customers the most. Either way, thinking about your site’s UX is an important tactic in ensuring that your branding is up-to-date and en pointe.
Above: The role of defining User Experience at Studio Pax consists into determining the right amount of actionable research through workshops, observation, testing and primary/secondary research. Resources such as Ideo’s Human Centered Design Field Guide offers a very sturdy framework backed by field research (left), which in turn allows us to generate our own artefacts and documentation of the Pax process (right). Our goal is to align your Branding Strategy (the Why) and Design Program (What and How we do it) with your overall business objectives.
While industries all share certain visual patterns and themes, your branding should communicate what makes you different from your competition to showcase your unique value proposition. For example, if you look at the logos for your mobile apps, you’ll probably notice that many of them are blue. In 2015, the CEO of app analysis company Appbot mapped out the dominant colors of different app icons and found that blue is one of the most common icon colors. If you were developing your own app, you may want to avoid blue in your branding so that a user who downloads it doesn’t confuse your app for another.
We wanted to similarly differentiate the mark for Birch Lake, a boutique merchant bank based in downtown Chicago. Founder Jack Butler had left a previous position at a real estate development company to launch Birch Lake. Given its startup-like origins, we designed Birch Lake’s visual branding with its unique history in mind.
Financial institutions often have a more serious, formal and traditional appearance. With Birch Lake’s mark, we took the opposite direction. We chose a modified version of Avenir Bold instead of a serif font, incorporated bold colors in the logo, and used playful visual elements in the mark to create a more contemporary look while also representing Birch Lake’s guiding principles of growth and adaptability.
All in all, while it’s useful to know what visual trends are common to your industry, they should be used as a reference point, rather than a strict guideline of how your own branding should look.
Above: For Birch Lake, we took a broad look at the investment banking and private equity category so that we can deduce a certain number of branding rules for the context of a brand creation. By including current and future competitors of a brand like Birch Lake, we can strategically position the brand in relationship to its business context.
4. Are you a house of brands, when you need to be a branded house?
Large organizations often suffer from disjointed branding if there are no guidelines to ensure consistency. As a result, branding across departments appears patchy and inconsistent, and the company may accidentally send the message that it’s a house of brands, rather than a branded house.
Take the arts scene at Northwestern, for instance. Before the development of Arts Circle, the university’s arts were comparable to a house of brands. Each venue had its own approach to marketing, so even though the Block Museum of Art and Pick-Staiger Concert Hall are just steps away from each other, you could visit one without knowing much about the other.
After a university provost requested a more centralized approach, however, the arts were united under the Arts Circle, an overarching brand representing all arts at Northwestern. While each venue does maintain its own marketing efforts, the “branded house” of Arts Circle allows art patrons to get a high-level view of what’s happening across campus at any given moment.
Even if your company doesn’t encompass separate institutions like Northwestern does, you may still encounter the “house of brands” problem if your branding lacks consistency across departments. Without a formal document to define your branding, there’s a chance that employees may issue off-brand visuals, whether they’re varying fonts, a slightly altered logo or a mark that’s been incorrectly placed.
If you lack a style guide to define your visual branding, Studio Pax can help you develop one. With such a guide in hand, you can ensure a cohesive and professional presentation across all your branding materials.
Your brand results from a complex mixture of your products and services, your value proposition and your stakeholders. But branding can change over time, because people change over time. Thinking about the questions we’ve asked above can help you decide whether your brand and business are aligned. If you’re not sure, please contact us! We would be happy to talk about your brand identity in more detail with you.
Writer / Content StrategistA storyteller by trade, Angela is passionate about storytelling and human-centered design. She recently received a Master’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) at Northwestern University.
Lauren Weiss is the newest member of the Studio Pax team. As Director of Client Services and Delivery–Lauren has extensive experience delivering complex digital ecosystem.