How Identity Stays Constant in Changing Times

How Identity Stays Constant in Changing Times

In some ways, the work to define and express brand identity has completely transformed over the past 30 years, and in some ways, it’s stayed exactly the same. The internet has been transformative in creating new distribution channels, like social media, and opening up access to audiences. Brand marketers and advertisers now have more tools, better information, and troves of data they can use to craft and hone their strategies. 

However, the principles that underlie good branding haven’t changed. Organizations are still made up of humans, and so are their markets, investor pools and regulators. Technology has improved the process of understanding your business, your market and your potential, but the strategic process still involves learning everything you can about yourself and your environment, analyzing that information, coming up with clear and measurable objectives, and finding ways to communicate and operate that meet those objectives.

At Marshall Strategy, we believe that a brand is a distinct promise—Hershey promises quality chocolate, Nike promises athletic performance—and that an effective brand identity is clear and simple, yet powerful. It’s the aspirational, defensible and sustainable human story that sets you apart from all others. A brand identity needs to be cohesive to have impact, and this is where companies can run into trouble.

I spent 18 years as Landor Associates, which grew from a one-studio package design firm into the leading international identity firm with 16 offices around the world. Landor was working with some of the best known and most respected brand identities, but they became diffracted and diffused by multiple communication strategies. Advertising agencies, PR firms, website designers, and others all have their own purposes and tend to go their own way to demonstrate their chops and vision; Internally, leaders of different teams also try to put their own spin on the corporate strategy. This fragmentation weakens brand identity. If the corporate strategy for a product is meant to evoke elegance, an ad campaign that is rooted in slapstick comedy is going to detract from that message.

With a cohesive, unified strategy, the various mechanisms for communication reinforce each other and make the identity of the product or company more powerful. However, then as now, getting everyone on the same page is a challenge. Creative firms often balk at identity guidelines because they feel like their creative freedom is being taken away, but the opposite can be true. Guidelines, or even constraints, can fuel the creative process.

When I was working with GE, all of the 50 or so ad agencies GE was working with gathered together in a grand hotel ballroom in New York. The main client told everyone that GE was working hard to reposition the company and then asked me to present the identity guidelines. You could hear the moaning throughout the room. The brand guidelines were extremely simple: Use this one typeface, use this one laser red line to added a techie feeling, don’t line up the elements on the left margin, etc. There also had to be some tension that suggested dynamism and change. That was it, and the agencies were tasked with incorporating these guidelines into the projects they were currently working on. The spirit of competition kept everyone engaged in executing the task well.

Six weeks later, the agencies came back to present and all the work was placed on a large well. The results were amazing. No matter what they were selling—fridges, light bulbs, or jet engines—it all looked like it came from same company. Growth and diversification doesn’t need to come at the expense of a strong brand identity.

Much more recently,  when we (as Marshall Strategy, the firm I co-founded 17 years ago) worked with the University of California System,  we saw that the Office of the President’s communications team was suffering under the individual scandals, misaligned messages, and independent brand efforts at their 10 individual campuses. While we knew the President’s Office would have no success demanding that every campus, from Berkeley to Merced, say the same words or make the same promises. We did discover, however that there were a few high level promises that could hold true.  We suggested that the University System recognize its unique role in California, position itself as both catalyst and creation of the greatness that is California, and promise three things: a commitment to research, to education, and to the future prosperity of California. No matter what decision they may need to make,  whatever challenge may erupt on one campus or another (and they always will) as long as the people understand that those three commitments will never waver,  the University’s brand integrity will remain solid.  This simple promise makes it possible for each campus to retain their autonomy even as they work to fulfill the high-level commitments espoused at the University system level.

In today’s environment, just about every ad agency refers to itself as a “digital agency” (even those that are not) and PR firms are scrambling to adapt to all the changes in the market and the media. There are myriads of messaging channels and data analytic tools that reveal insights into every aspect of consumer behavior. The need for brand coherence like that of GE or University of California is as important as it has always been, if not more so. At Marshall Strategy, we work with organizations of all kinds and sizes to ensure their strategic positioning and messaging is coherent and compelling across all media and audiences. Simplicity, focus, commitment and coherence are essential to a creating a strong brand identity, and when done right, this makes all the other decisions around advertising, PR, and design easier.

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