Branding the Blackstone Way
by Erik Snyder on Dec 11, 2013
In the days of Mad Men, branding was done in smokey offices where suited men labored until someone had a stroke of brilliance. Through combining talent, deadline pressure and whiskey they would come up with “the big idea” which would define a company for the foreseeable future. That idea was sold to the client who would either be delighted or disgusted, depending on just how brilliant the (m)ad men were.
Branding has since evolved. While the creative aspect of branding still requires talent, there is a definite structure and process to brand development. And it begins not in the offices of advertising executives but in the hearts and minds of customers. With the rise of the empowered consumer, brands can no longer push their agenda and expect their audience to simply take it. We are wired and dangerous. We can fact check advertisements using the web on our mobile phone, we’re a few clicks away from user reviews on almost anything, and we’re connected to hundreds of people through social media who can often give us first hand reports on their preferences.
Because consumers are empowered, brands have to begin with understanding the person whose problem is being solved and then continue to be involved throughout the customer experience. At Blackstone, we’ve invented a process that assists in creating these holistic brands. Broadly, it looks like this:
We always begin with listening. Blackstone has clients ranging from financial services to heavy manufacturing to e-commerce. These industries are vastly different, and even within industries there is substantial room for variance in company’s solutions and cultures. The goal of the discovery phase is for us to know what our clients know. We make use of an extensive questionnaire that serves as a guide for deep discussions on company history, competition, solution, and customers. Having discovery meetings in person with the relevant client representatives yields far more (and more useful) information that having them fill it out as a survey. Often through asking follow-up questions we can zero in on insights even at this early stage.
A brand must be true to itself, but branding without considering the competitive landscape is myopic. The battle for positioning requires that we define the competition and how they sell to the same people our clients do. One of the most useful tools Blackstone uses during competitive analysis is brand archetypes. A brand archetype defines a company’s approach to the world, for example Nike is an Achiever while Johnson & Johnson is a Servant. In addition to archetypes, we look at value propositions, brand essence, design themes and more. Using this, we can take a blue water approach to the final brand expression to ensure our clients stand out in a sea of wanna-bes.
We stated earlier that great brands start with understanding people, and that’s why at Blackstone we don’t build brands for demographics. We build brands for personas. A persona is an imaginary individual who represents a desirable customer category. They are given a name, a face, a family, a job, a story and a problem. We imagine working through their problem as them: where would we seek solutions, who would influence us, what are our options? Then we create a value delivery path for each persona whereby they choose our client’s solution over all others. When we develop the brand, no matter how creative it becomes, we have to ensure that it supports this value delivery path.
Based on the notes generated in the discovery phase, we create a company assay following the SWOT analysis method: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. A common marketing tool for many years, the SWOT continues to prove its usefulness by helping us avoid potential pitfalls while zeroing in on areas of excellence we can highlight through the brand identity.
Equipped with the knowledge of our client, their competition and their customers, we come together again for an intensive brand workshop. Utilizing whiteboards, laptops, and sometimes out-of-office collaborative environments, we invite our clients to have some fun while thinking creatively about who they want their company to be. Many of our brand workshop exercises revolve around the concept of gamestorming: gamified brainstorming sessions that deliver insights far more valuable than staring at a blank whiteboard and trying to come up with ideas. One such game is called the bad idea contest. Since coming up with good ideas is so hard, we pose a different question: given the client’s resources, how could they destroy the most value for their customers? For example, an ecommerce company could steal the credit cards of all their customers and max them out on a luxury cruise for all employees. Then we flip the bad ideas. One reason that idea was so bad is because it violates the customer’s trust, so we know that whatever brand we come up with has to be trustworthy or else the customers won’t feel safe spending their money with our client.
The brand identity is the overarching ethos of what the brand will be. This includes such crucial aspects as positioning, essence and archetype for our client’s brand. Often we will include metaphors that help define what our brand means. For example, we might compare an underdog company to the story of Rudy. Brand identity is the core of who a business is and why they deserve to exist. It is from here that all expressions of brand, such as logo, tagline and headlines come from. This is the creative well we can go back to time and again to reimagine our brand’s expression, how we relate it to the world, but at it’s core this is concrete identity of the company.
A company’s visual identity seeks to express the brand identity through a logo, colors, fonts, shapes and design themes. Often one of the more difficult parts of branding due to the subjective nature of graphic design, visual identity can be a homerun when done right. For example, the wide white spaces that define the Apple visual identity can be found on their website, in their stores, in their ads and even as a part of their products. Consistent visual identity is important so that customers feel at home when they experience your brand no matter what format they’re consuming it in. So the visual identity aspect of a brand defines the design language so that there will be no miscommunication resulting in a fractured user experience.
Making sure that all other aspects of the brand support the central brand identity is the job of the brand guidelines. Here you’ll find explanations of things like proper brand tone, intent, and general dos and don’ts of how the brand should be expressed in advertising, online, and in interactions between employees and customers. The key with brand guidelines is not to anticipate all aspects of the customer’s experience and write hard rules for them, but instead to find a way that all employees can understand the spirit of the brand. When employees have done that, they become brand advocates who self-enforce the guidelines.
This is where clients receive some of the most common branding deliverables such as taglines and headlines. At Blackstone, we take it a step further and mock up potential communications so that our clients can view their messaging in action. For example, we create mock Facebook posts and newsletters so our clients can understand how to work in key messaging that abides by the brand guidelines. This is especially helpful for companies with limited internal marketing resources as it removes some of the barriers to translating brand into it’s most common marketing formats.
In reality, every profitable solution comes down to successfully creating a positive user experience. No matter how many features a gizmo has, it’s in the using of those features that value is delivered. Here is where branding is actually most crucial. Though marketing and the purchase process we have set up expectations in our customers minds for what their user experience will be. The moment they find out whether the experience lines up with their expectations is called the Ultimate Moment of Truth. In that moment, the user experience must be consistent with branded expectations or else we risk a mis-step. If the brand can exceed expectations, then you’ve likely created a brand advocate — possibly for life. Infusing the brand into the user experience through creative means helps ensure delighted customers. And delighted customers are like rocket fuel for brand growth.
Knowing what heading to take, we can use our brand documentation to chart a course through digital and traditional media that makes the most sense for our client. The questions of where to advertise, how much to spend, and where to get involved in social media are all answered via the marketing strategy. Just because it’s traditionally done, or because competitors are doing it, doesn’t mean we will. In fact, we often recommend for our clients to take novel approaches to advertising that will circumvent their competition rather than winning head to head. Also, we only create marketing strategy for six months at a time because anything longer than that runs the risk of not being adaptable if market forces change.
When it comes to marketing tactics, Blackstone is a proponent of lean marketing. The lean marketing technique means we try many many campaign ideas but test them in the smallest possible way first. One of the many ways we do this is by using Google AdWords to test messaging before we use it in more expensive print campaigns. Sometimes for as little as $10 per day we can determine what headline customers engage best with. We feel like lean marketing not only respects our client’s budgets but also results in better outcomes.
The Blackstone way of branding is based on a test process that produces results. We also believe in full transparency so that by the time we get to revealing the brand identity, it is a logical next step and not a leap of faith for our clients.
In the coming weeks we’re going to dig into some of these steps and more fully explain how they are constructed and used. Stay tuned, and if you’d like to get tips like this every month, sign up for our newsletter.