The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Like so much of the advice doled out by characters in Alice in Wonderland, the faint-hearted King’s command to the White Rabbit is both blindingly obvious and absurdly confounding.
As much as we all understand that it takes time and effort to do something correctly, we can’t resist looking for tricks and shortcuts to get ahead.
Despite skipping a few steps, we expect the same quality of results.
In any complicated process—whether that’s baking a cake, building a house, or designing a brand—we know how important it is to plan, set up our tools, and build a strong foundation to avoid later problems like delays, revisions, or (yikes!) total structural failure.
But planning and setup take time, and can feel less rewarding than those later stages of a project where progress is more obvious. I’m an enthusiastic baker, but there have been more times than I’d care to admit when I’ve started to bake a cake without reading the full recipe, only to get halfway through and realize I’ve made a mistake or forgotten a key ingredient.
At Studio Rainwater, if we’ve learned anything over the years (and particularly these last few) it’s that having a tried-and-true consistent strategy and process allows us to do our work right the first time without costly re-dos along the way.
Anytime the results of a project have fallen short of our lofty expectations, it’s always because we veered away from our process to rush through a key step.
The key is to stick to that process every. single. time. Even when that means taking longer to plan and strategize before the final outcomes begin to take shape.
Yup, the secret to getting things right is to begin at the beginning.
In our realm, that means making sure you have a strong brand strategy that underpins everything else you put out into the world. If everything you do is connected to a core brand identity that truly represents who you are, you’ll become more recognizable and understandable to the audiences that matter most.
Here’s what that means in practice:
There’s a straightforward order of operations that every organization—whether for-profit or nonprofit—should follow when it comes to branding, marketing, and other communications. This can happen on a macro level, encompassing the whole organization, or on a micro level for a particular division, initiative, or campaign.
Step 1: Finding Your Purpose
Who are you?
What are you trying to achieve?
Step 2: Brand Strategy and Design
What makes you unique?
What does that look like?
Step 3: Marketing
How does your brand expand across different media?
Each step in this process builds on the one before, so it’s critical to do them in order.
Often, we work with clients that already have a strong core brand and are looking for ways to extend it into campaigns or sub-brands. If that describes your organization, you’re on the right track and ready to move on to Step 3!
But if you skip ahead to creating a website before your brand strategy is in place, you will likely realize you’ve built it on a weak foundation. Your website might not be helping you meet your goals or engaging the right audiences. Your brand materials might look inconsistent so even your most loyal audiences have trouble recognizing you.
Here’s a brief summary of each step to help you recognize where your organization is in the branding process.
Finding your Purpose
This step is where you define (or redefine) your vision, mission, goals, values, process, and markets or areas of impact. Think of it as deciding what you do, what you believe, and who you serve.
This step is usually completed internally, because your team and core stakeholders understand the organization best. This process can be involved and lengthy if you’re a large organization and have been in business for a long time, but it will be worth it to have an accurate picture of where (and who) you are.
You may want to conduct focus groups or surveys to understand the different lenses through which people view the organization. It can be vital to hear these diverse viewpoints and also to involve team members in the process, so they know that their voice is heard.
But what if you’re a startup still defining your product or market? Or you are in the pilot phase of an initiative, and you haven’t yet developed a long-term organizational strategy?
That’s a normal phase of growth for a business, and I might actually discourage you from making a big investment in branding or marketing yet.
There are probably just as many pitfalls in jumping to branding before you’re ready as there are for not having a brand at all (but I’ll save that for another article). If you aren’t quite sure where you are in this process, contact us and we can help you decide what your next steps should be.
If you already know your purpose, then it’s time for the next step…
Brand Strategy and Design
The branding process consists of two phases of its own: strategy and design.
In the Brand Strategy phase, we will interview your team and key stakeholders to understand your goals, audiences challenges, opportunities, and the diversity of perspectives within your organization. We will also review your existing materials including your current brand (if you have one) to understand how effective it has been at supporting your purpose.
Then, we will present a strategic plan of recommendations, including: brand positioning (what makes you unique), brand themes (concepts that guide, define and differentiate you), and brand structure (how your brand is organized so audiences will understand you at every level).
Using insights gathered in the strategy phase as our guide, we then move on to Brand Design and present visual approaches for your brand system. This may consist of a logo, color palette, typography, graphic elements, and photo or illustration style.
Because your brand doesn’t exist in a vacuum, we include examples of how the brand design might look on different materials and platforms, so you can see how well it will work in the real world.
Finally, we develop Brand Guidelines, applying the brand to all your templates and materials, so you can start communicating with your audience. This may include stationery, signage, capabilities presentations or brochures, one-sheets, social media and email templates, promotional swag items, and sample marketing promotions.
The last step is to create a brand manual in a PDF or online format that provides detailed guidelines for using the brand elements, so that your team and other vendors can easily access and use them to grow your brand.
Now that you’ve spent time carefully setting up all your “ingredients”, you’re ready to send your brand out into the world. Everything your audience sees—presentations, websites, events, campaigns, promotions, publications, and more—should consistently connect to your core brand.
This way, they recognize you, understand who you are, and start to build a trusting relationship with your brand.
The End (almost)
This is where I depart ever so slightly from our dear friend, the King of Hearts. Because we may stop at the end of a project, but your brand is ever-evolving.
As long as your business or organization is growing and changing, brand-building is like a garden you tend through the seasons of beginnings and endings that push you further and allow you to thrive.