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10 Things Great Brands Are Not

by Kelly Hobkirk

When I tell new acquaintances I do branding, they often think it means I make up fictional stories to bamboozle unsuspecting minds into falling for fake value, because somehow that is the reputation this industry has managed to build. We have never worked that way. Train of Thought is all about crafting real, compelling, true stories with which people relate because there is real alignment and harmony. That’s been our focus since day one, yet this approach is not universal in graphic design or advertising.

Ever hear of spin in PR and advertising? That’s most likely where design gets the reputation of faking fabulousness in the service of sales. I’d like to set the record straight. Thus, here is a list of 10 things great brands are not:

1. Fiction
2. Image
3. One-sided projection
4. Empty
5. Innocuous
6. Unimportant
7. Outdated
8. Cliche
9. Predictable
10. Pointless

Bonus Not: Lacking integrity.

If your brand is any of the above, it may not be performing to potential. If that’s the case, try shoring it up, or try something new.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • October 9, 2016 • 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: ,,,

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: ,,

What is Brand Positioning?

by Kelly Hobkirk

Brand positioning is one of the single most important steps any business can take on the road to success. Yet, brand positioning is perhaps the most shunned part of branding that exists, especially for small businesses who understand the value of positioning only after the results of the effort are in. That means their motivation for the work itself is often low because they would rather be tending to the hundreds of other tasks calling for their attention.

I’ve found that clients often expect to see visuals at every stage of brand development, yet in positioning and strategy, there frequently are no visuals (or only those of your competitors), only text. Pointed text, valuable text, but still just text.

It’s easy to just say, ‘This is our position,’ or, ‘This is where we want to be, so we will be there,’ but the problem is if there is already someone there who is bigger, better, or far more financially endowed, you may need to shift positions. Brand positioning reveals that.

Positioning can be tough because it can reveal that your golden egg is perhaps a little more on the bronze side. More often, brand positioning is an empowering exercise in clearly defining your niche.

We all like to believe that our ideas are completely original, and often times they are. But – and this is a big but – sometimes original ideas are not so original, without you knowing it. In positioning, you gain valuable insight into who will be your true competition.

Brand positioning brings to light the viability of your product or service. It can also show alternate paths, and even reveal new opportunities.

Brand Positioning is a difficult task which can rarely be completed by one person alone. Good brand positioning is a question and answer proposition, requiring hours and days of intense research, along with a ton of true objectivity. I usually create a team of designer and client who work together.

Combined with brand strategy, positioning is a potent step in brand development. Brand positioning and strategy will provide you with a clear direction and a wide-angle view of the future for your marketing. It will also give your graphic designer exactly what they need to be able to design your corporate or brand identity with purpose and meaning.

Brand positioning clearly defines the following crucial things, before you invest time, money, hopes, and energy in realizing your vision:

Determine originality
Is your idea unique? You may think it is, but now is the time to do some intensive research to discover whether or not other companies are marketing the same product or service.

Establish your unique position in your chosen market
If your product is totally unique, you may have hit a home run. If there are other products just like it, you may have to position yours as being different in one important way, which can capture the attention of your audience, and can garner enough sales to justify the effort.

Identify competitors
Everyone has competition. Everyone. I once had a boss who liked to tell his employees that the company had no competition. He wanted them to think only about their own success. There is wisdom in that approach, because it can help people focus, however, a strong competitor is a valuable asset. It gives you a peer, a potential equal whom you can rise above, or set incremental goals against, to capture a market. All great athletes have competitors. Businesses do too.

Determine required budget to compete
Do you have the needed budget? You may have the drive and determination, but if a larger competitor has the marketing budget to outgun you at every crucial step, you are going to need to change your strategy, and you may need to consider a different position in the market.

Brand positioning is often a hard process. When you’re excited about getting your business started or launching a new brand, objectivity is usually the one key ingredient most people lack, and often in a big way. I highly recommend pairing with a brand consultant or graphic designer who truly understands branding.

At the end of the process, you should have a brand position summary that clearly states your market position, and can guide your product development, brand development, and marketing planning.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • May 26, 2012 • Tags: ,,

Branding in 5 minutes a day

by Kelly Hobkirk

Do you think it’s possible to brand yourself? Can you do it every day? Of course you can. Branding is about being true. Nothing more, nothing less.

Can you be true every day, for just five minutes? Think what you can do.

Pick a 5-minute window in your day, schedule it in your calendar, and write down one new thought each day about your brand, customers, prospects, products, employees, yourself, advertising, website, messaging or any component of your company that touches your brand.

Keep your thoughts together in a notebook. When it comes time to review your brand, perform a brand audit, or rebrand, you will have a valuable compendium of thoughts about your brand right there at your fingertips.

You can use your 5-minute brand thoughts to reaffirm your motivation, share it with your branding firm, teach your employees, or even to fuel your ad messaging.

Your daily thoughts don’t need to be earth-shattering, new or profound. All they need to be is true.

Have you got 5 minutes? That’s all it takes.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • April 15, 2012 • Tags:

How do you become a branding expert?

by Kelly Hobkirk

What is a branding expert? And how do you become one? I’ve long shied away from the ‘expert’ moniker, but people call me that now, particularly in relation to branding. Do you become a branding expert by reading about the topic? I’ve read a ton about brands and branding, but no, reading didn’t make me an expert.

Does winning design awards make me a branding expert? Design awards aren’t worth a whole lot in my opinion. I consider client success to be the best award, or really, reward. So, no, design awards don’t make me an expert in branding.

Do you become an expert by creating big brands? I’ve branded big brands, but no, branding big companies and their brands isn’t the most fruitful way to learn about branding. Larger companies tend to homogenize their messages to appeal to wider audiences, which means their brands are safer, take less risks and often connect on (sadly) more shallow levels.

Did I just declare one day that I was a branding expert, and made it so? Nope, that would be too easy and too hard at the same time. Too easy because there’s no challenge in making such a declaration, and too hard because it’s difficult to provide proof for something you haven’t any sort of official certification.

Did I learn so much about branding by just creating brands? Not exactly. It’s easy to create a brand. Anyone can do it, but few people can do it well. Most brands fail on some level, and the ones that fail the most are usually those created by small business owners, simply because creating brands isn’t what they do. Yes, I have created a lot of brands, but I believe this alone does not qualify me as an expert.

So how did I become a branding expert? Honestly, I have never called myself an expert. In fact, I tend to shy away from such terminology. My clients, however, embrace the term ‘expert’. I first heard I was a branding expert from a large, international client, all the way back in 1989 (when I still had hair atop my head). I made them think about their company and their brands in ways they had never done before.

How did I do that? How did I make them think? I asked them questions they’ve never before considered. Then, I listened. A ton.

Does being a graphic designer make me a branding expert? No, not at all. In my ‘expert’ opinion, branding has very little to do with graphic design. While graphic design as a modality compliments branding perfectly, branding is much more about listening and making valuable connections. I am exceptional at making valuable connections.

And that, according to my clients, makes me a branding expert. I take their label as a prized compliment of the highest order.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • • Tags: ,

The important differences between brands and branding

by Kelly Hobkirk

Businesspeople often get confused when talking about their marketing, particularly with regard to brands and branding. Items and actions in the English language often have niggling little differences that fail in some way to provide clarity, instead causing confusion. People who know and use the words each day know their meanings like the back of their hand, but people who don’t know them use the words in confusing ways that limit everyone’s understanding and learning.

The confusion of branding, illustrated
I was checking out a newly rebranded Seattle bank a couple years back, and watched a manager trying to help a woman understand the differences between personal and business accounts. As the prospective customer asked her questions, the manager handed the bewildered woman a brochure, saying “Here, let me give you a copy of our new branding,” and walked away leaving her to figure it all out on her own. (The woman placed the brochure on a table and left without opening an account.)

Brand is not branding

The difference between brand and branding is that one is a marketing tool and the other is an action.

Perhaps the biggest mixerupper I hear in business is the use of brand and branding as interchangeable words. Some people also call advertising branding (it’s not even close). Branding is about defining, while advertising is about promoting.

The fact that many graphic designers don’t know what branding is or how to accurately describe it, makes matters worse, particularly because businesspeople expect them to know. Some designers use brand and branding interchangeably, reinforcing confusion instead of providing clarity.

A brand is a thing (noun). Branding is an action (verb). This is more than just persnickety semantics—it’s about fundamental understanding of a core marketing tool.

What is branding?

Branding is the act of creating a brand. The process involves positioning your company or product in the market (carving out your own place), devising brand strategy (how you will reach your goals), creating your name (your verbal identity), designing corporate identity or product identity (your visual identity), writing brand messaging (verbal and written tone), and setting brand standards (how you keep your brand consistent and strong).

When branding (also called brand development) is completed, most businesses (when they’ve worked with an experienced professional) will not have to undertake the branding process for roughly 10-20 or more years. In the life of a 50-year business, branding the company occurs only 2-3 times total.

When a company’s brand becomes outdated in 20 years, then you may once again need to take on the branding process. If you create new products or launch new companies, you get to enjoy the exciting process of branding on a more frequent basis.

Once the branding process is completed, the word ‘branding’ has no continuing relationship to your brand (unless you work with cattle).

What is your brand?

Your brand is the result of the branding effort. Your brand describes who you are and what you do by use of visual identity, verbal dialog and tone of actions. It is utilized for virtually all of your marketing communications. It is how people identify, know and remember you.

How knowing the distinction helps your business

A critical branding concept to embrace is that we are not creating a made-up story or spiel. We’re creating a real marketing communication tool which, when wielded articulately, can empower your entire organization to communicate with greater purpose and clarity. Knowing this enables people to be well-informed, and to impart better understanding, which leads to less confusion, clear communication, and better customer service.

Understanding the difference between brands and branding helps you net a stronger brand because you will be more personally invested the brand development process. Your understanding also helps your employees grasp the full significance of the brand, so they learn how to best utilize it in marketing, selling, and supporting your goals and initiatives.

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

How to have a standout brand

by Kelly Hobkirk

1. Find a brand development firm or designer who truly speaks and understands the language of branding.
2. Listen to your brand consultant. If they are good, they will listen to you.
3. Take time to consider the brand strategy questions.
4. Be truthful – don’t hold back.
5. Expect your brand to revolutionize your marketing, but have patience – it may take time.
6. Don’t take your brand for granted. It can be the most powerful marketing tool you will ever have.
7. Inspire your people to believe in your brand, because it is true—your brand is you.
8. Be sure your brand embodies your vision, speaks in your voice, and reinforces your actions.
9. Stay true to your brand, and your brand will stay true to you.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • March 1, 2011 • Tags: ,

Finding a great graphic designer, part 2: Goal Setting

by Kelly Hobkirk

Setting a list of 3-4 goals before hiring a graphic designer can help you find the right person or firm for the job. If you are new to setting goals, this may be challenging, but goal setting is so powerful because the goals drive the project strategy.

What do you intend to achieve with this project? The question surprisingly gives some clients pause. The answers range all the way from detailed bullet lists of goals in creative briefs to, ‘I have no idea, but I know we need it.’

Communication is key
If you want a big change in the perception of your business, or a boost in sales, or you have some other big goal, find a designer who speaks your language, both verbally and aesthetically. You can usually tell if you’re on the same page within 15-20 minutes of talking. Branding is a personal process, as is graphic design, so great communication with your graphic designer is critical to getting what you want.

Align your budget and goals
If your budget doesn’t align with your goals, ask about options or adjust your goals to a more modest start with increasing ambition as your efforts start paying off. Some graphic designers can get pretty darn creative with solutions to meet your budget.

If you find yourself theorizing about the least amount of business you can take on to survive (to deal with a low budget), try instead thinking about your ideal client capacity.

How do you set goals for your project?
Depending on your business size, a brand audit is a good place to start. A brand audit will show weaknesses and enlighten areas to improve. If you run a small business, a brand audit shouldn’t take very long. If you’re just getting started, do a reverse brand audit by thinking about all of the places you think people will interact with your brand.

Think about every single point of contact you have or will have with customers and prospects. This may be a little hard to do by yourself because you may take your brand touch points for granted, which is easy to do.

Listen for the red flags
Some designers actually view a logo as a secondary element to a website. If you get that vibe while talking to them, find another. Your logo is one of the primary things you want people to remember on your site. It should never be an afterthought. If it is thrown in as a side order, move on. Your logo is the most important visual element of your brand.

Example graphic design goals:

• Design a new logo that you totally love
• Get an identity design that you can be proud of
• Develop a brand that speaks to you and your audience
• Develop a clear brand that motivates employees
• Design packaging that is strong at every touch point

Ask your prospective graphic designer the following goal-oriented questions:
• What is your specialty?
• Where can I see examples of your logo design, corporate identity design, and websites?
• Can you help me do a brand audit?
• Can you provide both individual and package pricing?

Try to get a feel for how the designer listens to you, and how responsive they are to your questions. If you have worked with a graphic designer in the past, think about some areas where you would like a better relationship with a new designer. Ask about those when you are interviewing designers.

This is your opportunity to find a graphic designer who can deliver exactly what you want. Make the most of it.

Read on:
Finding a great graphic designer, an introduction
Finding a great graphic designer, part 1: Budgeting

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • March 8, 2010 • Tags: ,,,,