Bring your brand to life with these four basic pillars
First, a little bit of context
In our everyday lives we are surrounded by brands. We see, consume, wear and recommend them. It’s not uncommon to look up reviews online, or to watch videos about a certain brand or product. We enquire about them and make up our own minds even before coming into contact with them.
For example, personally, to find out more about a certain service, I like to use Trustpilot. This helps me to form an initial opinion on a particular brand. Of course, this should always be taken with a pinch of salt.
Brands live with us, and their message evolves over time. Nowadays, it is impossible for a brand to survive in isolation. People communicate and brands listen — or at least, they try to. Brands actively reach out to their users through various platforms, and users also seek out brands, it’s a two-way street. We share our opinions, we look around, we compare, and sometimes, we even stand up to defend a brand as if it was a part of us!
Recently, I’ve been working on a brand audit, its identity, communication around it, how it is used on social media, its product and various applications. It’s a great opportunity to explore, make room for introspection and in the end — I hope — make the right adjustments ;) The idea is for the brand to evolve, to make it more coherent, to create a long-lasting and solid brand image, but also to provide a pleasant, seamless and memorable experience for users. Ring a bell? I’m talking here about the overall experience, the various messages that are used, the appearance, the different points of contact, how the brand is perceived and understood by others.
I am working in tandem on this subject (👋 Gauth’ 🔥), and our discussions on the matter have been so interesting and challenging that they made me want to write about it. Branding is not a simple matter of aesthetics, but an issue which reaches deep down to the core essence of a brand: its purpose and ambitions, its values, its message, its usage and repercussions of such applications. It is not purely a marketing issue, but a rich blend between history, communication, the promise of a unique experience and everything around it. Design, marketing, engineering… Everyone must carry and support the brand, because we believe in it, and we believe in our work. For this to be successful, together, we must build on solid foundations.
Working on this article has made me wonder about how brands present themselves to users and how do they stand out from others. The work I mentioned is in the context of a social network. As an online social media platform, its key aim is to connect and bring together content creators and users.
What role must it play? What is its responsibility? What exposure does it have and how does it transpire through the various products and services it offers? I believe these are questions which will follow me for the duration of this work :)
Defining a brand
For the sake of coherence throughout this article, I will be using Nngroup’s definition of a brand (source available below): “a brand is the holistic sum of customers’ experiences, composed of visual, tonal and behavioural brand components, many of which are shaped by interaction design.”
The Brand BIOS model: exploring the four key elements
I recently discovered think moto’s (a Berlin-based design agency) Brand BIOS model, which can be used to structure brand identity, using the four components below:
- Story, which gives the brand credibility;
- Offering, which measures it relevance;
- Behaviour (the brand’s personality), which touches upon brand experience;
- And finally, Image, the brand’s visual identity which makes it unique.
Brand Story and Offering can be pooled together, creating, on one hand, the rational viewpoint of the brand, whereas Behaviour and Image represent, on the other hand, the emotional side of the brand. Put together and shared through communication, product and brand management, these four key elements should be at the very heart of the brand. Identifying these allows for evolution and continuous improvement while maintaining structure.
What is the brand’s story?
A story tells us more about a brand’s origin and purpose. Deeply rooted in human culture, narratives have always helped us structure our societies and make sense of the world around us. They create credibility. It is by looking at the story and origins of a brand that one can truly understand historical decisions, key turning points and acknowledge how a brand evolves over time. A brand is able to reinvent itself while at the same time, staying authentic to its roots.
🕯 Here’s a little anecdote I recently learned about authenticity and Adidas’ story. The founder of Adidas, Adi Dassler, helped Germany win the 1954 football World Cup thanks to weather-adapted interchangeable screw-in studs on football boots, allowing players to avoid slipping on a wet pitch — which was the case during the final match against Hungary. Before opening up to the wider public, Adidas was aimed at experts and professional athletes. Adidas’ argument was both historically founded and compelling: “Win the World Cup with Adidas.” The story wrote itself.
Through its story, a brand also determines its positioning, in relation to itself but also its market positioning, where it stands in relation to its competitors. A brand’s positioning strategy sets forth what the brand will prioritize and how it will stand out from others.
Replacing this in my own context — a social network — we use a number of these in our daily lives, but in very different ways, at various times of the day and often for distinct purposes. All these platforms have their own positioning, which reflect a myriad of different stories, offerings, behaviours and images.
Brand offering is the product or service which is provided to deliver value to customers and meet users’ needs.
An offering is not just a statement, but it is the promise to deliver a certain type of experience through its interaction with its customers, and therefore, to share certain values and reach out to customers. A brand offering must meet existing needs. Through our brands, we must create meaning, a unique experience-based core which connects people together.
Closely tied to offering is brand transparency. For a long time, this subject was marginal, but nowadays it is becoming more and more a requirement and even an obligation. Consumers want to be made aware of the origins of the materials used, the working conditions in which a product was made, how the things they consume are created.
Personally, I really like how Alan (an independent French health insurance company) presents its offering on its website. A good offering adapts based on user profile and evolves alongside companies.
Brand behaviour creates authenticity:
- Internally (staff and business partners)
- Externally (customers and prospects)
First, we can translate brand behaviour into values, and from these values we can derive brand personality. I often like to describe a brand as if it were a person:
- I imagine the brand saying this or that…
- I can see the brand partnering up with such and such…
- The brand could do this or that…
Second, we can study brand perception among customers and non-customers. This way, we acquire a better general understanding, and this enables us to address the right questions about the brand’s perception and credibility. I’ve listened to a number of podcasts about redesigning brand identity and it is clear that one of the most important steps which should not be neglected is, first and foremost, confronting brand perception. It is always useful to take a step back to avoid bias, try to detach oneself from seeing things through the emotional lens which often presented by the founders, and to get a realistic and pragmatic overview. Understanding how a brand is perceived is a rich source of information and can help to reassess and reconsider certain choices that were initially made. Indeed, it can be very useful in taking a new direction, correcting or readjusting certain aspects in order to modify brand perception in the future.
Brand behaviour is closely tied to the many interactions it has with its users. By that, I mean online experience, through an app, a website or customer service, but also in-person physical experience, in a store or at various events for example. It is interesting to note whether the brand’s behaviour is in line with the values it wishes to defend.
If so, this is when the brand really comes to life and creates an all-round coherent relationship:
- How the brand looks. How it addresses current staff, future employees, customers and prospects. Is the brand’s image consistent throughout its various communication channels?
- Information architecture. How the brand delivers information, the amount of care and detail that went into its communication, what information it chooses to share, and when and where to do so. What efforts are put in place to make it as clear, transparent and understandable by everybody.
- User-friendly products and services. What experience does it provide? How can this experience be smoothly delivered at each point of interaction and how does the brand use these?
- Simply navigating through various user journeys. In our hyper-connected world, we often navigate various services of one brand (or partner brands): how can we guide users and bring them where they need to be?
As customers, as users, as outside observers, more often than not, we only see the tip of the iceberg: the end result. But trust me, it is a huge challenge to bring and maintain this coherence and consistency throughout the brand’s various applications. Everything is interrelated.
Finally, a brand becomes really tangible and recognizable through its appearance. Of course, there is the visual representation of the brand through its logo, typography, distinctive colours, but also what type of image, post-processing and animation it uses, as well as audio choices.
I see brand image as a way to make a brand unique, so that it is recognisable and stands out to the world. The aim of this article is not to explain how to create a brand, but to share a perspective on how to structure solid brand foundations, and how these interlinked foundations create meaning.
Also, it is important to test brand image. We should not create and release an image without testing and presenting it first. Of course, as designers, we try to work methodically and deliver quality. But sometimes, when we are elbows deep in a project, despite our best efforts, we can miss certain things which might seem obvious to others and ruin a project without meaning to.
Oftentimes, topics around graphic redesign focus on the visual aspect only, brand image, though it is much more structuring and sustainable for a brand to take a deep look at its foundations. What can our history tell us about the choices we’ve made and what have we learnt from them, how can we improve our offering, change our behaviour and from this, create a new and coherent graphic charter and a meaningful brand image?
📖 Personally, I feel like a team’s rich cultural diversity is extremely useful for creating a strong and coherent image. Our multiple backgrounds and points of view allow us to approach brands each in our own way. From there, together, we can create less biased and more inclusive brands.
Being recognizable, fully integrated to everyday life and widely adopted by the general public (or at least the brand’s target audience) is evidence of a brand’s successful consistency throughout. This highlights the hard work put forward by a company to fully convey the values it wishes to share.
To sum up
So, how do the four elements we have just described interact with each other? Easy: through meaning. A brand’s meaning has deep transformational power. It has a strong added value that goes beyond the product or service a brand has to offer.
A brand’s meaning becomes tangible through its behaviour, visible through its image, relatable through its story and usable through its offering.
But in the end, through my various discussions with several mentors, I have realised that — even before considering brand image — one must first look at building strong foundations, especially the three core pillars that are: story, offering and behaviour.
Indeed, it is through our choices — influenced by our history — that we decide on our brand offering, and through our behaviour that we give meaning to what we do. Once this meaning is fully conveyed and understood by all, we can translate it visually into an image, bringing our brand to life. Through this image, we will be able to create emotion, highlight our behaviour and communicate our story.
- A brand creates its offering to meet real user needs.
- A brand is not just a facade, it deeply questions our own values, commitments and actions.
- Transparency, consistency and coherency are essential to brand identity.
- Confronting and testing brand identity is useful to confirm or invalidate certain choices and hypotheses, allowing you to set things straight if needed.
- Focusing your attention first and foremost on a brand’s foundations will definitely pay off and will allow the brand to be understood and shared by all.
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