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Branding Actions

by Kelly Hobkirk

The branding process is many things to many people. To us, it’s about defining your visual identity, verbal tone, and action character. That last one, branding actions, is perhaps the most difficult to understand because it can be hard to see what we’re talking about until you see an example of it. That’s what this post is about—understanding how your actions define your brand, and how we can help you refine and change actions to provide greater connection.

Word to the wise: This is not easy work. It’s hard work, particularly because it requires a great deal of openness and objectivity. The benefits, however, are well worth the efforts.

I’m not going to mince words here. This work is so hard that it tends to offend one’s pride in their accomplishments. It challenges long-held beliefs, requires a degree of introspection, challenges the concept of what is possible, and asks you to do the one thing that is hardest for most human beings: change.

People and companies most often seek to rebrand themselves after they have either seen great success then watched it dwindle, or they tried branding themselves and watched it fail in an overall sense. In either case, business is suffering, and they need to turn it around before revenue falls any further.

Since this post is focusing on branding actions, we’ll consider that we have already redesigned the visual identity and rewritten the verbal messages and tone.

How do you brand actions? What do we even mean by that? I’ll illustrate a few simple examples below.

Example 1
Imagine that you have brought in thousands of customers and made many millions of dollars for your efforts. The normal human response to this is to take pride in your accomplishment, and to develop an increasing sense of pride in your offering, because it is obviously valuable to quite a lot of people. But there’s a problem with this, because your offering is essentially the same as when you started, only you may not be as hungry after achieving great success. Instead of appealing to people with a ‘can-do’ attitude, you shift to a ‘will-do’ attitude, which is inherently very different. ‘Can-do’ is humble, but ‘Will-do’ is not humble in the least (it’s boastful). Meanwhile your smaller, younger competitors have filled the ‘can-do’ attitude gap that your success left open, and they are nipping at your heels. This subtle shift in action undermines your brand’s success, and little by little it shows up in eroding sales.

Example 2
You hand out a business card or tell people your website address in one breath, while apologizing for the state of it in the next. “This is just a temporary,” or “This is old, but we’re working on a much better one,” or even “It’s not very good.” How many times have you heard (or even made) these types of statements? They are in essence apologies for who you are, the character you show with your actions.

Example 3
Cultivating just the right balance of knowledge and pride for your customer service team is a difficult, ongoing task. Once you achieve success or dominate your market, it’s easy to lose objectivity. Or say you hire someone new and don’t teach them how you got where you are, instead only imparting knowledge of where you are now. Their actions in representing what they know of your brand – the things they say and how they interact with customers in person and on the phone – can be severely undermined without you even knowing it. When your company’s actions have been slightly off the mark for a while, the trajectory can be far off of center by the time you discover it. The way back to excellent connection with customers is by changing your actions.

All of the above actions undermine connection. Changing them is as simple as starting the work of implementing something better, objective, and true.

Branding action is about recognizing beliefs and problems, defining new actions that align with your brand and client needs, documenting them in compelling ways that will actually be read and accepted, and reteaching yourself and your team. Most times, you can’t simply go back to where you began because the reality of now is different from when you started. Instead, you have to find the sweet spot in between that represents who you truly are. The key to that effort’s success is in trusting the people who are helping you change.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • December 17, 2013 • Tags: ,

Attention half-life

by Kelly Hobkirk

Any foods and drinks you consume have what is called a half-life, or the amount of time it takes the body to metabolize and purge half of the substance. Imagine if your attention span had a half-life, the amount of time it takes for your mind to accept and process what it is taking in. The truth of your brand and your advertising directly effect attention half-life, or the time it takes for your prospects to trust or reject your story.

Accepting your concept is a stretch for some and a natural for others. To tip the scale towards acceptance winning the moment, all you have to do is tell the truth in a compelling way. Which is easy for some people and their companies, and truly difficult for others.

If we can agree that everyone wants to tell the truth, we can also probably agree that many people are convinced that the truth is so boring that they won’t capture anyone’s attention. It’s why we have superheroes, Barbie, talking teddy bears and old men endearingly squeezing toilet paper.

Maybe we can agree that for every product there is a compelling, truthful story waiting to be told, but it’s buried under so many years of fictional advertising tales and waxed brand characteristics that even the powers that be have forgotten the plot.

The more you tell half-truths, the shorter the amount of time it takes for people to reject your marketing stories and move on to something they can believe in. On the other hand, people have a sixth sense about truthful tales. They accept and connect with you when you gain their attention by telling your truth.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • March 7, 2013 • Tags: ,,

The Branding Secret

by Kelly Hobkirk

Psst, lean your shoulder in. I’m going to tell you a big branding secret that graphic designers and branding firms (like ours) keep safely tucked away in their minds, away from clients, away from you. Are ready? Here it is: There’s no such thing as branding. We made it up. We talk about it, promote it, teach you all about it, and do the powerfully inspiring work of defining the core character of your company that is branding. But yeah, branding doesn’t exist.

How can that be? Well, I’ll tell you.

When graphic design was in its infant years, it was all hand-painted, hand-drawn, and personal. It was the craft of artists, and as with nearly any artists trying to carve out a living, it was by no stretch of the imagination a way to earn a good living. People got by, did okay, but they were never considered professionals in the way that a doctor or lawyer might be, and they put in long hours to barely eek out enough to eat and pay the rent (and sometimes they couldn’t). There were a handful of good designers back then, and many average ones (a lot like now).

So how do you make a struggling existence into a comfortable, highly profitable one? You create branding. You might think that just saying, “We specialize in branding,” wouldn’t be enough to allow a graphic design firm to succeed at branding. The truth is, merely saying it is enough, and here’s why: relatively few businesspeople (and few graphic designers) actually know what branding is.

How can that be? Think about this for a second: If I ask you, ‘What is scorting?‘ How would you answer? You can’t provide an intelligent answer because you don’t know what it is. But I made it up, so I can describe it however I like. If I describe the service well enough, really sell you on it, your business will have to do it because you will know that all of your competitors are doing it too. It’s just like branding, except that branding has been in business vernacular long enough that it now has taken on meaning.

Where did branding start? On cows, literally. Cattle ranchers branded their cattle with a mark (well, they burned a scar with a hot iron) to show which cows were theirs and protect ’em from rustlers. Then, along came business savvy (hungry) graphic designers who adopted the practice for businesses (except we used ink and now computers).

Branding has created a separate category for design firms, and those of us who took up the challenge to do it well made a better living. We helped businesses connect better and prosper. But if we never promoted branding as a service, people would not ask for it. What they ask for is design. They know design is art, and art is valuable. But branding? What is that?

If I say the word ‘branding’ now, savvy business people know that it is the process of developing their brand. But most people—business people and designers alike—still do not know what branding means. So we teach, inspire, and connect the thoughts.

To many people, branding is a logo. For others, it’s advertising. Some people know branding is about laying the groundwork for how people will receive your brand, your company, or products. Some people think branding is a one-time proposition, while others think of it as something they do every day. Some people refer to their brand as branding.

Here’s the kicker though. Even though the design industry made it up, branding works. If it did not work, you would never have heard of Apple or Starbucks or Nike. There would be no such thing as category leaders because there would be nothing to categorize. You would not know about Wal-mart or Best Buy or Crate & Barrel. Without branding, your laptop or smartphone would not greet you with an Apple or Windows or Android logo. You would never have heard of Google. Chiquita would just be a banana. And all the smaller brands that earn a place in your day wouldn’t be there either.

Even though branding as a practice was made up, it works when it’s true. As with nearly everything else in our lives, your brand has meaning because people attach significance to it. They do that when every ounce of your brand is true. And that’s the real secret.

Want to know more about branding? Read on:
The important difference between brands and branding
Branding in 5 minutes a day
How to have a standout brand

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • January 17, 2013 • Tags: ,,,

On waiting for inspiration

by Kelly Hobkirk

Graphic designers are often stereotyped as emotional artists, waiting for inspiration to strike to fuel brilliant ideas. For many, I suppose it’s accurate, otherwise the stereotype would not have come to be. Most times, however, I can’t afford to wait for inspiration. Instead we have strategy development and design processes that manifest inspiration seemingly at will.

People ask, ‘What inspires you?’ Many things inspire me. Fractals, photosynthesis, children, animal nature, reading, thoughts, dreams, people.

People ask me how I developed my strategic process? Mostly, I developed it by listening to people. Hillman Curtis wrote a great piece about strategy in his MTIV book some years back. I recall seeing how similar it was to my own process. He put a visual to it that made sense, so I added that.

Listening to people talk about their vision reveals patterns over time, from which I’ve devised strategy development processes. I try tweaking them slightly once every year or two, and always change them on the fly to meet the needs of each client. Strategy is my most inspiring tool.

Without the people, though, I would have no need for strategy. You can’t use one without the other. Fortunately, people often come equipped with a sense of purpose, and strategy is the first step on the way to fulfilling that purpose. Once we do a session, we can begin writing and designing something great that helps them reach their goals.

If I had to wait for inspiration to clobber me in order to proceed on any given project, I would have long ago croaked from the waiting. Instead, I employ strategy to manifest inspiration.

Graphic design is driven by inspiration, but inspiration driven by artistic sense has little value in business. Graphic design has the power to infuse marketing with a visually compelling sense of purpose. But business can’t wait for inspiration to strike. We have to manifest inspiration to keep pace with business needs.

Waiting for inspiration inspires, well, waiting. Strategy, on the other hand, inspires great work. What inspires you?

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • November 7, 2012 • Tags: ,

Do you understand Graphic Design?

by Kelly Hobkirk

Say you’ve just started a business, or you’re a marketing manager. You have a unique idea or approach, the inspiration to give your idea wings, and the motivation to make it happen. You know you need to promote, so you will need graphic design and web design. For many business owners, this is the point where things get either complicated, difficult or confusing. But you can keep it simple, armed with just a tiny bit of understanding about graphic design. In fact, knowing too much might make it more complicated than it needs to be.

4 Things to know about graphic design

The first thing you need to know is that business graphic design is never about making things look pretty. If that’s the focus, the design will fail. This might sound like an odd thing to say, but you would be amazed at how often people say that’s why they need a graphic designer– “to make it look pretty.” What you need is graphically rich, smartly-designed strategic communications, the kind a talented graphic designer can deliver.

To put this in a more positive frame, good graphic design is strategically sound. As a graphic designer, it’s my job to discover a complex set of variables and craft a unique, easy-to-understand design that embodies a brand, product or communication need.

The second thing you ought to know is that design is always purposeful. If your graphic design lacks purpose, the final design will appeal to people who lack purpose. That is, it will appeal to no one. Tell me, who do you know that lacks purpose when making a buying decision?

The third thing you need to know is that there are no shortcuts in graphic design. Software does not make you a graphic designer, and in most cases, it simply makes poor design, lacking the aforementioned strategy and purpose, much easier (which is kind of scary, considering the budgets required for graphic design). Skipping any of the preliminary steps in graphic design invariably results in boring or ugly or off-target design. Taking shortcuts will surely lead to failure. Processes exist because they work. A good graphic design process leads to success.

Probably the most important thing to know about graphic design is that good design strikes an almost magical balance between what you like and what appeals to your ideal customers. I’ve heard of graphic design that appeals solely to customers, but I believe that type of design leads people and companies to misery. You must like everything you send out the door because it represents you. If you don’t like it, what does it say about you? On the other hand, if you thoroughly like your brand and all of the graphic design solutions used to embody your brand in your marketing, you can be proud of everything you put out into the world. And that’s really what design does. Graphic design helps people communicate complex ideas in seemingly simple ways.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • October 19, 2012 • Tags:

Familiarity in design usually beats out the exceptional

by Kelly Hobkirk

People tell me there are only so many ways to design a website. They say familiarity in design is preferable. Of course, I flatly reject this idea. We can design sites in any of countless ways. The limitations are usually imposed by familiarity and risk factor. How open you are to presenting a primary marketing tool that dares offend the visual sensibilities and familiarity of your market places parameters on design possibilities.

If you tell us to go wild, we’ll design something that you may never have seen before. I’ll be honest, though, in saying that this happens once in a blue moon. (Of course, I LOVE IT when it happens.) Clients who say, “You’re the experts, design us something exceptional,” are among my very favorite people. The more common occurrence is the client who sticks to what is familiar (don’t worry, we like you too).

We present ideas in the vein of uncharted, familiar and a mix of the two, and most of the time it’s familiar or mix that gets the nod, while uncharted is left to dejectedly pout in a far corner of the room.

There is a reason uncharted design territory typically is discarded in the design approval process. That reason is familiarity. In our society, familiarity is rewarded, while standing out is often (but thankfully not always) discouraged.

Remember the odd, confusing story of the “ugly duckling”? I recall the first time I heard that story as a young impressionable child, thinking, ‘They’ve got it all backwards! That black duckling is the coolest one.’ But the story’s message is clear. Standing out is dangerous and will get you shunned. However, it also clearly tells us that we have to be who we are, and if we are good the world will eventually appreciate it.

Consumers — especially in a social media connected market — often operate like the white ducklings, shunning what is different in favor of fitting in with a group or tribe. Businesses have been attuned to this behavior for decades. It is why they take little risks instead of big ones when it comes to design.

Designing for familiarity is both safe and risky. The bigger the marketing initiative, the more risky it is to stay safe with conservative, familiar design because you risk looking old and outdated, or worse, being invisible. If the initiative is smaller with a commensurately small budget, taking risks can be more appealing. However, the same does not apply for smaller businesses, who must make nearly every marketing initiative count with at least a partial goal of immediate sales. This dictates that design stays safe and familiar.

The need for high response is also why some small businesses choose to design their own graphics. They figure they know their market better, and it’s a good way to save some money. What they often do not realize is that their own familiarity imposes lack of objectivity, resulting in designs so safe that no one notices them.

Familiar designs have the advantage of known appeal. For instance, many websites veer towards a big visual, with smaller visuals and text below, followed by an even smaller smattering of product or service elements. It’s an easy bet that such a layout will enjoy a certain level of success. Look at Apple, Amazon, or any other of thousands of sites out there following this formula. If you are selling a commodity item with a broad target market, it works. The formula is familiar to both our clients and their customers, so clients often pick familiarity.

When the niche is tighter, however, risk-taking becomes more important. That’s where clients start breaking out of formulaic designs and let us set new standards. Ironically, it is the less familiar designs which stand a much greater chance of success. (It’s ironic because businesses tend to veer away from the non-familiar or new.)

As competition tightens in nearly every market, fitting in often does more harm than good. Familiarity in design tends to make you less visible at precisely the moments when you need to stand out. Although familiar design is safer in terms of virtually guaranteeing a known response, exceptional design is more likely to differentiate your brand and make it stand out in ways people can connect with.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • October 9, 2012 • Tags: ,,

Everybody loves advertising

by Kelly Hobkirk

People like to complain about advertising. We engage it on Facebook, all over the internet, on YouTube, on the tele, on billboards, in magazines, in the mail, in email, and it annoys us. My knee-jerk reaction to any internet ad is a rapid-fire pushing of the mute button. People would prefer to have their entertainment cakes and just stare at them with syrupy eyes, never having to engage their minds in the inner “manipulative” advertisements.

Thing is, advertising is not manipulative in the least. In fact, people actually value advertising as part of their daily lives, more so now than ever before. Think of all the advertisements you embrace each day: ads on iTunes, Facebook — which is in and of itself a giant nonstop advertising medium, on any number of smartphone apps, in the newspaper or on a news site, in the package of your cereal or tea or coffee, on billboards, on the radio, on your company’s entry signage, in the movie theater, on every blog, and on every receipt at the grocery store — and not just on the back — that logo or name at the top, that’s an advertisement.

Think about that for a second. There can be no other reason for a logo appearing on a receipt than for the purpose of advertising. I’ve listened to people protest this point, saying it’s there so we know who we bought something from, but really we already know. The logo is there to forge a connection, which is precisely what advertising does. Speaking of connections, when you come across a link to another page on a site, that’s an advertisement. So if I point you to our advertising portfolio, I’m advertising to you.

All advertising mediums are completely optional. Without the adverts people love to complain about, few of the mediums would exist. Advertising pays for the entertainment we treasure and learn from. It brings people into the stores and onto the sites we love buying from. Advertising is a win-win for everyone. You get your entertainment, the advertiser gets a great response (when they do it right), and the medium – be it a tv program, magazine, website, retail, or whateva’ – continues. It’s win-win-win, in fact.

Do you watch movie previews? They’re adverts. Do you ever see a movie preview that entices you to go see another movie? That’s an advert that worked the moment you paid for the next ticket. If the movie previews annoy you, you are free to look away or enter the cinema just in time for the feature. I usually see a packed theater during the previews, and people hush up not before the movie, but before the previews.

The same choice to look away or simply not engage applies to every advertising medium that exists. Try thinking about advertising like this: Advertising pays for the entertainment you love. Which forms of entertainment do you love? What types of advertising are bringing that value to you?

The biggest advertising machine ever

Social media is just a giant advertising machine. Someone recommending a product is them advertising to you. “Liking” a website, Facebook page, product or service is advertising it. Tweeting? Yup, that’s advertising too. Providing a recommendation? Advertising.

I recall a presentation I gave to a class who had just read Naomi Klein’s No Logo some years back. Half the class loathed the concept of branding, while the other half appreciated how they could wield its power. That second half, they’re the ones who probably helped build Facebook. In fact, by the end of my talk, 99% of the kids were excited about branding, while one lone person remained skeptical and on the fence. He probably ignores Twitter.

What social media has literally accomplished is the creation of passionately opinionated, vocal, living, breathing, walking, talking human advertisers. It’s brought advertising to the family level, the community level, the up-to-the-minute daily interaction level. Instead of brands becoming insignificant, they’ve virtually exploded. If you’re not on Facebook, some see you as an outsider. That’s negative advertising rooted in peer pressure.

When I mention my blog to you with footer text on an email, I’m advertising to you. How many of those do you see each day? By the way, have you subscribed to our newsletter? (It’s an easy 1-step form at the bottom of the page). Oh my, I’ve just advertised.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • July 14, 2012 • Tags:

“I’m not an artist”

by Kelly Hobkirk

The client hands me chicken scratch on a napkin, and I’m fine with that. He apologizes for it with, “I’m no artist,” but it doesn’t matter. There is brilliance in the idea, just waiting to be discovered, polished and promoted. And I’m the lucky guy who gets to help him do it.

“I’m not an artist,” she says, before explaining her inspiring idea, “So I can’t draw it.” It’s okay, I am an artist, and it’s why she has me there. But she is an artist too, just not a visual artist.

People frequently apologize for their lack of drawing skill. It reminds me of my mom apologizing just before serving a home-cooked meal. “This isn’t very good,” she’ll say, but of course it’s delicious.

Clients would be amazed at how many designers can’t actually draw. (I’ll admit, I think good graphic designers make an effort to learn to draw.) I can draw and I thoroughly enjoy it, but drawing is not a requirement for being an artist.

We’re not here to be superior to our clients. We’re here to help them communicate who they are, what they do, about their amazing approach or offering, what they stand for and why anyone should care. And we love it.

Yes, we’re artists, but so is most of everyone else on the planet. From the guy who designs and manufactures sustainable furniture to the doctor (of any modality) who makes connections that solve medical mysteries to the woman who helps more people ride bicycles, they’re all artists in their own right. Can they draw? Maybe not on paper, but they can draw in their minds, formulate ideas that change our reality, improve lives and inspire greatness in others. That’s art, all of it.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • June 17, 2012 • Tags:

How do you approach brand launch strategy?

by Kelly Hobkirk

Strong brand launch strategy starts at the very beginning of brand development, and it continually evolves all the way up to launch. As the brand characteristics become clear, so too does the launch strategy. If you rigidly set a launch strategy, then fail to add flexibility to accommodate the changes along the way, your team will get off track.

Staying on track means strategy questions don’t get sidestepped. It’s impossible to set a rigid launch strategy for a brand that does not yet exist. You can have an idea of what you want to do, but as soon as you clamp down on strategy shifts, you clamp down on potential success and limit your team’s vision.

Imagine you’re launching a new brand, and you need an internal document to get your sales team excited about it. If you impose a rigid brand style guide on the launch and sidestep emerging strategy questions, how can you accommodate new characteristics or holes that have been filled during the branding process?

The answer is simple: you can’t.

If your brand launch strategy remains flexible before all of the brand’s launch announcements and materials are completed, opportunities to capture the full strength of the brand can be developed and used to their full potential.

The key to effective brand launch strategy is flexibility. Once you have completed the full breadth of the brand development, then you can tighten the reigns and plan the final roll out.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • June 8, 2012 • Tags: ,,

Social media will manage itself

by Kelly Hobkirk

Social media management is am interesting topic. Every day we hear the same things: How will we manage our social media? Or control it?

Answer: Don’t. Social media will manage itself. And you don’t need to control it either.

Then there’s my favorite: What should we say on social media?

It’s fascinating to watch business people be all but completely flummoxed by social media. If you dissect the word parts of the phrase, you get ‘social’ and ‘media’. Pretty simple, yes? You’re either social or you’re not. Simple. And if you advertise or even just have a website (both business basics), you have media. To be social with your media, you just take it live, albeit without the sales pitch.

Do you really have to be part of the conversation? Probably not. Or can you just go on communicating effectively with the people who make your business? Probably so. Will you get left behind by being a social media outsider? Not likely.

As the population rises, new generations will not supplant old. They just create new markets.

If you really want to take part in social media, find relevant conversations, but first, think about your motivation for wanting to contribute, then see if it aligns with your business goals.

When you have enough Facebook likers, you can leverage your numbers to connect with them on Facebook and connect with them through other sites (this is really just advertising, but shhh, don’t tell). Until then, just be social without imposing obvious advertisements, and you’ll be just fine. Same thing goes for your blog. Keep it to relevant editorial. Leave out the sales pitch text (such as ‘act now’ and so on) that your business instincts tell you to insert. Again, simple.

Train anyone on your team who will be adding to the conversation to understand your brand inside out. Teach them that a positive attitude online is like gold, and negativity is like kryptonite. These are basic customer service concepts. When your peeps communicate with an overall sunny presence, their communications will manage themselves.

Unless your company has a reputation for treating people like they are all evil ogre mother-in-laws, don’t worry so much about controlling the conversation about your business. Let it flow, and happily correct any gross misrepresentations.

The truth is most companies need to worry more about improving their customer service, and let social media manage itself.

(If you really want your social media handled and managed, we do that too.)

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • June 7, 2012 • Tags: ,