When Branding outpaces the Brand. And vice versa.

First of all, let me address the common confusion around the two “B” words in this article’s headline. The verb “branding” is often mistakenly associated with logo design. You’ll hear someone say, “Oh, we’re going through a complete re-branding exercise right now,” which in reality is nothing more than a refresh of the logo.

Branding is much more than that. Branding refers to everything that’s done inside the company — and outside — that influences the perception of the brand. If you redesign the product, that’s branding. If you engineer a new manufacturing process that gets the product to market faster, that’s branding. Choosing the right team of people, the right location, the right distributors, the right sponsorships… it all has an impact on your brand.

So branding is not the exclusive domain of the marketing department. It’s not even the domain of your employees… consumers, vendors and partners often do the branding for you, in the form of tweets, posts and good old-fashioned word of mouth.

For this post I’d like to focus one small but crucial aspect of branding: Design. (Yes, art does have a place in the business world!)

nest-thermostat-11There’s no denying that design can make or break a company. Just look at what NEST has done… Started in 2010 with simple, brilliant designs of everyday products and sold for $3.2 billion last January producing a 20x return for its investors.

And yet the simple brilliance of a great product designer, the flair of a graphic artists, the effect of an illustrator, and the poetic power of a great copywriter is often overlooked in favor of finance guys and programmers.

The work of these commercial artists is ridiculously undervalued in the corporate world. Probably because it’s part of a completely irrational, subjective realm that many data-driven executives are not comfortable with. There’s too much intuition and blind trust involved. (You can’t show ’em charts and graphs that prove the new design will work. And let’s face it, evaluating art is not exactly in the wheelhouse of most business owners or C-level execs.)

So what happens, most of the time, is the design lags behind the brand. While the business is moving quickly forward, the brand identity, packaging and advertising get stuck in the past. Then the managers, in an after-thought, say gee, maybe we should re-do our logo. (Whereas with NEST, design was an integral part of the brand from the very beginning. It’s no accident that the founders of NEST worked at Apple.)

tazo-23 smOccasionally, when there’s a really great design firm or ad agency at work, you’ll find design that outpaces the brand. Here’s an example:

When Steve Smith first started Tazo Tea he approached designer Steve Sandstrom and copywriter Steve Sandoz to do some “branding.” (i.e. the usual name, logo and package design exercise for a new product line.) But when that creative team was done, Smith realized something… “Wow, this is really nice work. I think I need to start making better tea.”

The tea guru could envision the success of the new packaging, but not with the product as it existed at the time. The branding had outraced his product.

So the owner of Tazo did what all enlightened business owners do… he followed the lead of his design team and started making a better product. He made sure his tea was in line with his brand identity.

That identity was a brave departure from anything else in the tea market at the time. It was outlandish. And yes, it was completely fictional. And yet, it helped make TAZO the #1 selling brand of tea in the country. They nailed it on several fronts:

tazo-26 smDifferentiation: The Tazo packaging resembled nothing else.

Mystery: The tone of the brand was mysterious and intriguing.

Creativity: When you’re creating a brand from scratch, it helps to employ a little creative license. Without it, you’d have a boring, fact-based brand that wouldn’t stand out.

Alignment: The product was tweaked to align with the design of the brand.

Smith eventually sold TAZO to Starbucks, and look what’s happened to the packaging. Will it move off the grocery store shelves and maintain market share? Probably. Does it fit into the Starbucks brand design guidelines? Sure.

But most of the art is gone.

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Seth Addison Reply

Great article John! I was just having this conversation with a client last week. They were asking if they were too young as a business to invest in their visual identity. My perspective is that so long as there is a defined strategy to the visual identity, it’s never too early. As you said, good design is not just for customers – it is also for internal leadership.

Thanks for the post John!
Seth Addison

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