Behind every good brand is a story. And speaking as a designer, the importance of telling that story, the right way, is both thrilling and daunting. For years, hundreds of clients have entrusted me with turning who they are and what they represent into something both visual and tangible. Something that’s understood. And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned along the way, it’s this: crafting a brand isn’t about making something that’s pretty or trendy. Sure, those things are nice to look at. But at the end of the day, thoughtful design and authentic storytelling are the key ingredients to any successful brand that intends to effectively target the right market.
Now, when it comes to crafting an effective brand strategy, there is no one right way to do it and many designers have their own methods, depending on what works best for them and their clients. Today, I’ll be sharing my own process with you in hopes that you’ll be able to apply these strategies yourself, whether it’s for your own brand or the brand of someone else.
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
The first thing I do with any new client is send them a comprehensive questionnaire (via google docs) that I’ve carefully tailored and revised over the past several years. To be completely honest, not all questions yield the best answers, so you need to be thoughtful when considering what you’d like to ask your clients. For example, if you ask a client what their favorite color is and they simply say “red,” that doesn’t give you much to work from. If you instead ask “what color do you think best represents your brand and why,” you’ll receive more detailed results.
Here is a general overview of how my branding questionnaire is setup so that I’m receiving valuable and useful information:
1. BUSINESS BACKGROUND: The first grouping of questions is all about my client’s brand and business so that I can better understand where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’d like to go. I encourage them to be open, honest, and tell it like it is, as if we were casually chatting over coffee. Here are just a few examples of questions I ask:
- What excites you about owning your own business?
- What has worked well for your business in the past?
The answers provided in this section of my questionnaire typically give me a really good background and base for the upcoming brand strategy by learning who they are, what they do, how they do it well, and why they are so passionate about their services and / or offerings.
2. TARGET MARKET: The second part of the questionnaire is where I guide my clients in painting a picture of who their target market is as well as any competitors they may have. I keep this section short, but ask them to be as descriptive as possible. Here are some examples of what I ask:
- Can you describe your typical customer / client (age, gender, income, location, values, taste, etc.)?
- Please list 2-3 of your competitors. What are they doing well?
- What makes you stand out from your competitors?
This section is a biggie, as their answers help define exactly who they are aiming to attract. The last question is my favorite, though. This is where I learn a lot about my client’s strengths and skills, which often are the very things I help them capitalize on.
3. BRAND VOICE: When I was in design school, we had a professor that would always make us imagine whatever brand we were working on as an actual person. Where did the brand live? What did they wear? Did they have glasses? It seemed silly at the time, but I can’t tell you how rewarding this exercise has been ever since implementing it with my own clients. Here are a few fun questions I ask:
- Where does your brand like to shop?
- What’s in your brand’s bag?
- What kind of home does your brand have?
Questions like these help paint a real life picture of a brand’s ethos (their voice and spirit). Often times, the answers reflect the clients themselves, especially if they represent their brand in a more personal way (ie: photographers). But that’s not always the case, so make sure that you always tell whoever you’re working with to answer from the point of view of their brand! This section typically gives me a more accurate visual of what the brand’s vibe (ie: modern, casual, eclectic, masculine, etc.) should be.
4. DO’S AND DON’TS: In the fourth section, I save space for clients to tell me what they do and do not like, from a design standpoint. This is their brand, after all. And although the primary goal is to attract the right audience, the client should also be pleased with the end results.
Answers in this section provide benchmarks for where to start and what to avoid. For example, if the client is heavily against the use of pink, I’ll avoid it at all costs (unless it actually makes sense for the brand, in which case I’d bring it up with the client). Or if they’re drawn towards simplistic design, we’ll use that as a starting point and explore from there.
5. ANYTHING ELSE: In the final section, I leave room for clients to bring up anything else they feel hasn’t been covered in the questionnaire thus far. I love this section, as I usually pick up on extra (and important) tidbits that I may not have otherwise received.
CRAFTING A BRAND STRATEGY
Once my clients fill out their questionnaire, I set aside a few hours to fully immerse myself into their answers, all in one sitting. As I’m running through everything, I’ll jot down words, phrases, and anything important that sticks out. For me, it’s much more than coming up with a few buzzwords to work from. My goal is to dive deep and really understand who they are + where they want to go so that I’m able to help them get there as a visual communicator.
So what is a brand strategy anyway? Good question! I’m sure a lot of designers handle this differently as well, but for my clients, I put together an in-depth PDF presentation that outlines how they can move forward, reach their goals, and stand out from the crowd. It also happens to serve as a project checkpoint, where I’m able to make sure that all parties are on the same page, or if a few adjustments need to be made. The following is a short + sweet overview of what’s actually inside my brand strategy presentation:
1. THE GOAL: The first thing I define is what our project goal is. For example, maybe my client needs to rebrand an existing business so that it better attracts their target market. Or maybe they need to stand apart from their competition more than ever. This part is relatively simple to figure out as long you’re asking the right questions up front, which I outlined above.
2. MISSION STATEMENT: If my client already has a mission statement, I like to reiterate it here, or even tweak (to reflect the new direction) if necessary. If they don’t, I’ll flex my wordsmithing muscles and come up with something that I feel best describes their business. Even if a mission statement isn’t outrightly used on their website (or anywhere else), it’s nice to boil down who they are + what they do into a few digestible sentences.
3. TARGET MARKET: I spend a lot of time on this one, since one of the most important things a brand can do is target the right people with the right message. So instead of resorting to simple phrases like “young females” or “millenials,” I try to get as descriptive as possible. Where do they live? What do they enjoy? What are they looking for? It’s fun to dig deep here and get creative. ;)
4. COMPETITION: Researching competition is so important because it allows you to figure out how your client can stand out from the crowd. In this part of the brand strategy presentation, I’ll typically point out similarities, differences, and discuss how both can work to my client’s advantage. For example, if my client prides themselves on delivering locally made products (and their competitors don’t), that could be a big selling point!
5. BUZZWORDS: Once I’ve outlined all of the above, I also like to share a summary page of select buzzwords that quickly capture the vibe we’re aiming for. Remember when I talked about jotting down words and phrases while reviewing my client’s questionnaire? Well, those very words and phrases are often the ones I end up using in the buzzwords section.
6. MOODBOARD: I’ve been putting together moodboards for clients since I began freelancing. But recently, I started including them towards the end of my brand strategy presentations as well. This way, the moodboard connects the dots and pulls everything together, visually!
Because I am able to transform my client’s questionnaire answers into an organized and thoughtful strategy, while also revealing new + unique ways in which they can grow as a brand, there’s a level of trust that’s established which is essential in the designer / client relationship. Plus, the brand strategy itself also serves as an important first checkpoint during the design process, where all parties can make sure that they’re on the same page.
As I said earlier, there is no one right way to craft a brand strategy (for yourself or for others). But if you take the time up front to really dive in and understand the ins and outs of a business so that you can authentically tell their story, you’ll be set. Hopefully, this guide will help give you some fresh ideas when crafting your next brand strategy. And if you have any other tips that you’ve used yourself (and love), please share them in the comments section below! It’s always fun to learn from one another, after all.
About the Author
Breanna Rose is a Minneapolis based designer who thrives on simplicity and organized rule breaking. After graduating from design school, she said “no thanks” to the traditional route, began her own business, and hasn’t looked back since. Rowan Made is her adventure and design is her medium. On the side, she’s also the co-founder of Be Free, Lance, an online workshop tailored for designers who want to build their own successful business from the ground up. Outside of the design world, Bre enjoys quoting The Office, dreaming about Paris, adventuring around with her husband and puppy, wondering what meal is next, and seriously hoping that it’s pizza.