5 ways to master branding strategy

Terms like ‘brand strategy’ can seem daunting, conjuring up images of stacks of dense, theoretical documents filled with buzzwords. But it doesn’t have to be like that, and taking a more strategic approach could radically improve the effectiveness of all your design work.

We touched on the strategic side of the design process briefly in our ultimate guide to logo design, including the importance of asking the right questions – but there's plenty more to it than that. Read on to discover five ways to improve your strategic thinking…

01. Chuck out the jargon

There are plenty of buzzwords in the world of strategy, but this simply isn’t necessary: focus on the substance, particularly when talking to clients. 

“We’re in the business of communication, so why use complicated jargon when talking to people who are not familiar with the industry?” reasons Katherine Heaton, account director at top brand consultancy Johnson Banks.

“There’s so much nonsense spoken about strategy,“ agrees Simon Manchipp, executive strategic creative director at SomeOne. “It just feels like a scary place for a client to be.”

Hiring a ‘strategic consultant’, he points out, can be a scary experience. “You get a report at the end, and not necessarily the action,” adds Manchipp. “We try to avoid talking about it in that way: we call it ‘a plan’, and then people settle down a bit.”

02. Do your research

London-based agency Purpose splits its process into four stages: See, Think, Create and Do. The first stage involves stepping back, looking around and ahead to understand the client.

“‘See’ is about emotion,” explains creative director Stuart Youngs. “What are this organisation’s ambitions; what does the marketplace look like; what are the internal and external perceptions?”

In the next stage, Purpose develops that insight into a narrative. “‘Think’ is how you take all that understanding and articulate it into something that becomes a brief for everybody internally,” says Youngs. “It becomes a strategy for that organisation, and then you can start to build a plan.”

03. Ask the right questions

Interacting with clients on a conversational level can feel less like an interview, and help humanise the process. And at that point, it’s all about asking the right questions.

The big one always is: ‘What do you want your brand to become ultimately?’” argues Kristoffer Fink Parup, strategist at Pearlfisher. “‘Where is it 10 years down the line, and why is that so?’” By asking this kind of open question, he adds, you can reveal the deeper thinking behind a brand, as well as any underlying issues or blind spots.

It’s essential to get buy-in from the outset, insists Simon Manchipp: “You only need one person in the core group that hasn’t bought into that idea, and as soon as the door closes they walk away and say: ‘I’ve never liked that.’ The seed of doubt is a nightmare, so collaboration is the best way.”

04. Find the big idea

"Finding a unique solution for each client is about having a big idea, and that usually comes from the bedrock of great strategy,” argues Greg Quinton, chief design officer at The Partners

How do you know a big idea when you see it? For SomeOne’s Laura Hussey, it should be contagious: “It’s like cayenne pepper: it hits you and then 20 minutes later you can’t think of anything else.” She continues, “There’s a buzz that goes around, everybody cottons on and feels the same thing.”

A big idea also needs to translate effortlessly across different touchpoints. “A brand world is a kit of parts; a toolbox, an operating system,” explains Hussey. “It’s the stuff that flexes around the main idea, and can be completely different in each type of media.”

05. Stay flexible

Even when you find that killer idea, fluidity between the stages of the design process is key. As Johnson Banks founder Michael Johnson explains, his studio’s process has ‘five-and-a-half’ stages for this very reason. 

Research and strategy come first, and design is third – but step 2.5 recognises that strategy can also be influenced in reverse once you start designing. “We often blur stages two and three,” he confirms. “It’s an issue for many companies: how to go from where they are verbally, to visually how they’re going to look.”

The message here is simple: don’t let strategy be a straitjacket. “You have to listen to the research and the strategy, but try not to let it contain you,” advises Jess Phillips, senior designer at Pearlfisher. “Strategists are a great sounding-board for ideas, but don’t be too closed in by the theory. Use it as a springboard, rather than a net.”

One of the best pieces of advice that Pearlfisher’s head of 3D design Mike Beauchamp received from his university tutor is to always question why something is there – and that’s particularly true when it comes to brand strategy. “If somebody can’t explain it, then there’s a conversation that’s worth having,” he insists.

Enter the Brand Impact Awards

If you’ve already mastered the craft of branding, submit your best work to Computer Arts’ international awards scheme.

The Brand Impact Awards celebrate the very best branding work from all around the world. Deadline for 2017 entries is 9 June. Find out more at www.brandimpactawards.com.

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Nick Carson

Nick is a content strategist and copywriter. He has worked with world-class agencies including Superunion, Wolff Olins and Vault49 on brand storytelling, tone of voice and verbal strategy for global brands such as Virgin, Pepsi and TikTok. Nick launched the Brand Impact Awards in 2013 while editor of Computer Arts, and remains chair of judges. He's written for Creative Bloq on design and branding matters since the site's launch.