How to build a brand identity the Equus way

Branding any product or company in a way that is true to what it is, and enhances its success, is difficult at the best of times. But it’s easier if you know how. Over the years we have developed a tried and tested branding process, which we adapt to meet specific client needs. Whatever branding or design project we undertake, the basic methodology is the same.

Before we reveal what our process is and why we build brand identities the way we do, it would be good to define what we mean by ‘Branding’, so that our readers will better understand what our methodology is designed to achieve.

At its most fundamental, branding is the process of creating a distinctive identity for a business or a product in the minds of the desired target audiences, with the aim of making it stand out from competitors and become the preferred choice. The outward expression of that identity is carried both visually and verbally. On the visual side it consists of the logo, font choice, colours, and other graphic devices. It also includes the distinctive design style employed in its various outward manifestations, which depending on the brand might include digital and print media, advertising, packaging, uniforms, or physical assets like buildings, interiors, vehicles, furniture and equipment. Verbally it is expressed in the name of the company or product, and the distinctive tone of voice and messaging conveyed in its various communications.

There’s more to a brand than meets the eye

But while the visual and verbal expression of a brand is very important, branding is much more than what you see on the surface. It’s about what lies underneath, which is to say it’s about the essence of the brand itself and the total spectrum of what it delivers to its customers, at every brand touchpoint. In other words, how the customer experiences your brand from the moment they encounter it in an online search or a random advertisement, through to the staff engagement around the purchase process and after sales service, and then the ongoing experience of the product.

Branding is much more than what you see on the surface. It’s about what lies underneath, which is to say it’s about the essence of the brand itself and the total spectrum of what it delivers to its customers, at every brand touchpoint.

That’s why in a service brand like a retail chain or a hospitality brand, the service design and the way the staff embody the brand, are just as important as the design of the logo, or how well the total environment is branded in its physical spaces and ambiance. These intangibles are not “secondary assets” – they are the essence of the brand itself. Uncovering and leveraging these assets is therefore critical to the success of the brand.

The best brand identities reflect these intangible assets even in the visual and verbal expression of it, telling the brand story in a way that draws customers in and shapes the way they think about the brand. As highlighted in our thought piece on the importance of aesthetics in branding here, this is why logos and names – and all the visual aspects of brand identity design – are so important. Because they must reflect the reality of what the brand is all about, and provide all the right visual cues. This is how, over time, brandmarks like the Nike swoosh or the Mercedes logo come to symbolize everything about the brand they represent, without the need for words. And this is why brand identities need to look good, sound good and have the right sensory and emotional appeal too. 

Which brings us back to the subject of this blogpost, how to build a great looking brand identity, and manage the experience of it in a consistent way, throughout the entire customer journey. The answer is to apply the right methodology. So now let’s take a look at the Equus branding process.

Across all our branding projects we apply a consistent three-phase methodology, which we call Investigate, Integrate and Ignite.  

Phase 1. Investigate

The purpose of this phase is to get under the skin of our client’s brand and capture its essence in words. We call this the Brand DNA®, and we need this to guide our efforts when we express it visually at the Integrate stage.

We believe for any brand identity to be successful, it needs to express the underlying reality of the brand and its story – what it offers, how that offer is different from its competitors, where it is going, what values it stands for, and even its ‘personality’.

We start this phase by gathering relevant insights in a rigorous process that begins with market research, investigating the macro-economic trends affecting our client’s brand, and the competitive landscape. Here we aim to identify our client’s main competitors, and also appropriate benchmarks or role models in the same category. We do this not only to help us differentiate our customer’s brand from its rivals, but also to identify what category benchmarks and ‘must-haves’ the brand needs in order to appear credible.

For a service brand such as a hotel or an airline, we will map the entire customer journey, from online booking through to the hotel stay, including reception, the in-room experience, and ancillary experiences such as the F&B outlets, spa and excursions.

We then identify the target customers of the brand, assessing not only what outcomes they expect from using the brand, but also the psychographic drivers that influence their purchasing decisions. These inputs will help us identify which brand attributes and experiences are meaningful to them and that we should highlight in our brand building efforts.

In parallel we conduct a brand audit assessing the client’s existing brand identity and collaterals. And if it’s a service brand such as a hotel or an airline, we will map the entire customer journey, from online booking through to the hotel stay, including reception, the in-room experience, and ancillary experiences such as the F&B outlets, spa and excursions. The aim here is to identify the whole spectrum of the brand experience, identifying in particular the ‘pain points’ that if successfully resolved, can become great differentiators.

We then conduct a series of in-depth interviews with key internal decision-makers to gain a thorough understanding of the brand’s purpose, story, values, and aspirations. This part of the exercise is crucial for gaining stakeholder buy-in from the very beginning of the project. But to ensure balance, we also interview external stakeholders in order to get marketplace perceptions that can help shape the brand. 

Following this we aggregate all internal inputs from our desktop research and stakeholder interviews in a preliminary findings report, for discussion with the client’s senior management team. On the basis of these inputs we then conduct a workshop with all the key internal stakeholders to consensually build the client’s Brand DNA® together, because we believe in building the brand blueprint with them in a team effort. Feedback from the workshop will drive a final recommendation, which will then be synthesized in a report which defines their DNA in terms of what we call the ‘5Ps’ or brand pillars, as follows:

  • Purpose – what does your brand do, and who is it for?
  • Positioning – why choose your brand over competitors?
  • Personality – who are you, and what defines your personality?
  • Promise – what do you deliver, and stand for?
  • Platform – how do you project yourself, visually and verbally?

The ‘Five Ps’ is an easy-to-understand framework we use to build an understanding of a brand’s essence, and how to position it. This is defined in what we call a ‘Brand DNA® report’.

The Brand DNA® report is a simple construct that serves as the foundation for the next stage in the brand building process.

Finally, if the brand we have been tasked with creating or repositioning is part of a group of brands (such as a hospitality brand with different hotel offerings), the Brand DNA® report may also include a recommendation for the appropriate brand architecture, which is a diagram defining the relationship between the master hospitality brand, and its associated brands.

Phase 2. Integrate

The purpose of this phase is to develop the logo and key brand elements that will become the main visual expression of the brand and set the tone for everything which follows. Sometimes this will involve creating a new name, as well.

This phase will begin with a creative team briefing using the Brand DNA® report as a basis, giving the team a clearer overall idea of the creative goalposts, and how to position the client’s brand visually, so it stands out.

If a new name is required for the branding project, we will establish naming objectives based on the Brand DNA® report. We will then proceed to brainstorm naming ideas in a collaborative process, with the client. As soon as the name is agreed, the client will submit the selected name candidate for legal registration.  

Once the name is successfully registered, the phase continues with the development of design concepts for the logo. We will brainstorm a broad range of ideas initially, narrowing them down later to a shortlist. This shortlist of logo concepts will be applied to an indicative selection of collaterals such as the website home page, business card and exterior signage, in order to show the client how the logo will look in context.

As a general rule of thumb, three to five logo concepts will be presented to the client, after which they will be expected to select one concept approach for further development.

Once the client selects the preferred concept, we establish the core brand elements required to build the brand identity system, such as the approved brand signature permutations, primary and secondary fonts, and colour palette. These are documented in a brief two-page guideline, which is immediately issued to the client.

Phase 3. Ignite

The purpose of this phase is to bring the brand identity to life through the key brand touch points, expressed in various core collaterals. From design to content development, this stage concludes with the delivery of production-ready formats for the proposed list of collateral.

In this stage we design the key collaterals that form the visual expression of the brand, creating in the process what is called the ‘brand identity system’. These will differ according to the client or product involved, but for corporate brands they might include the stationery, literature system, website and signage, presentation style, advertising style, corporate video, staff uniforms and vehicle liveries. For product brands it may include packaging, point-of-sale items, and exhibition design.

So the first step in this process is to agree with the client what brand collaterals are appropriate for them. Then we will develop the design and proposed content for each collateral, in consultation with the client. For communications tools such as the website, brochures or video, this will include the development of information architecture, page plans, storyboards, copywriting, art direction of photography, image selection, and illustration.

For every collateral we will provide clear strategic direction linking the significance of the design to the Brand DNA® report. Client involvement is crucial throughout this stage, especially when it comes to providing the right input for the collaterals, and checking and approving text and images.

Once the core collateral have been designed and implemented, this part of the phase continues with the development of production-ready or other appropriate production formats for the collateral, and the supervision of external vendors such as printers, signage fabricators or video production houses.

The next step in this phase is to develop what we call ‘The Brand Toolkit’, a comprehensive manual or set of guidelines that will ensure the brand identity system we have developed will be implemented accurately and consistently by the client, on an ongoing basis. With this manual they can also brief external vendors to produce their collaterals in a way which is consistent.

The first step in this stage is to agree with the client the extent of the brand manual and what it will contain. Typically the minimum is that it would cover the following:

  • Brand story
  • master logo and rationale
  • logo variants eg horizontal and vertical formats
  • logo restrictions such as minimum size, clear space guidelines, colour usage
  • corporate fonts
  • corporate colour palette
  • photography style
  • copy tonality
  • messaging samples
  • design templates for key collaterals such as brochures and advertising

We will develop the design of the toolkit, liaising with the client throughout the process to agree the content and the layout, and to ensure the accuracy of the information it contains.

This is the cover of the brand toolkit we developed for one of our customers, the home electronics retailer Prolink.

As a final step we develop the appropriate format for the output of the toolkit, be it artwork for the print production of a physical manual, or high resolution pdfs for online versions.

The final stage of this phase is to launch the new brand internally and inculcate its essence to staff so that they know how to ‘walk the talk’ and embody the brand in all their client interactions.

For brands to reach their true potential an inside-out approach is key – the staff are the real ‘brand ambassadors’. Internal roll-out is part of the brand building journey, starting from educating employees about the brand to engaging them with the right processes so that they develop a genuine loyalty toward the brand and are equipped and motivated to ‘walk the talk’ in all their client interactions.

To start this internal journey, senior management and other brand champions will participate in brand training workshops. In the spirit of ownership, they will then cascade these workshops to all the relevant employees, organically nurturing a culture around the brand.  

Typically we will also develop communications tools to help the management in this process, which might include a brand launch presentation, an internal Brand engagement book, motivational posters and customised premiums for ongoing use, which also remind them of the values.

Ensuring successful brand communications, internally and externally, provides that holistic touch that delivers all the brand building efforts begun in Phase 1: Investigate.

What’s next?

That just about wraps up an overview of our branding process, which we hope you found helpful. In our next blogpost we will deep dive into what happens in phase 1, and explain why brand strategy, and uncovering the fundamental DNA of a brand, is so important. Watch this space.

Build your brand identity with us: We know how to create a compelling brand identity and design the iterations of it in a consistent way, at every customer touchpoint. With our unrivalled expertise in brand strategy, naming and identity design, and having worked with brand owners across Singapore, SE Asia and the world, we are able to craft inspiring brands and a holistic brand experience, in any market. If anything we have written above in the blogpost strikes a chord, and you need our assistance, do get in touch with us here.

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