Strategic Branding: Step by Step Design Methodology

In order to build a brand identity or any other kind of design project, Equus follows a tried and tested strategic branding process which we adapt to meet specific client needs. But the basic methodology is the same whatever project we undertake, be it a brand identity, a brochure, a website, or an annual report. So in order to help you understand how it works, here we give you an overview of our strategic branding process, applied to a typical branding project.

In general there are five phases to a branding project, as follows:

strategic branding steps

Phase 1. Brand Strategy

The purpose of this strategic branding phase is to get under the skin of our client’s brand and capture its essence or DNA in words. We call this the brand blueprint, and we need this to guide our efforts when we express it visually at the brand creation 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 synthesizes information we uncover from what we call the ‘3Cs’: the Company, Customer and Competitor.

brand strategy

Under the ‘Company’, here we want to find out the vision, the purpose and the attributes of the brand, whether it’s a corporate or a product brand. By a combination of desktop research and interviews with key internal stakeholders, we deep-dive into the business and marketing strategy, the philosophy, the values and the future vision of the brand. As strategic branding development is an ongoing journey, these interviews also serve as a way to engage stakeholders in building the brand from the very start.

To ensure balance we also interview external stakeholders in order to get marketplace perceptions that can help shape the brand.

For the ‘Customer’ we seek to find out not only what their functional needs are in relation to the brand, but also the psychographic drivers that influence their purchasing decisions. These drivers will help us identify which brand attributes and experiences are meaningful to them and we should highlight in our brand building efforts.

Finally with so many choices available in the market, standing out from the crowd is crucially important. Which is why we study ‘Competitors’ as well as peers or role models in the same brand category,
not only to decide how to 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.

Bringing these ‘3C’ insights together we organize a Brand Workshop with our clients, because we believe in building the brand blueprint with them in a joint team effort. In this workshop, we test brand hypotheses with the client, incorporate their feedback, and make recommendations which we then synthesize into the Brand Blueprint, marking the end of this stage. The Brand Blueprint is a simple construct that articulates the DNA of the brand, serving as a foundation for the next stages 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 parent, sister or subsidiary brands), the blueprint may also need to contain a description of the appropriate brand architecture, a diagram defining the relationship between the brand and its associated brands.

strategic brand creation

Phase 2. Brand Creation

The purpose of this strategic branding phase is to develop the logo and 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.

Depending on the requirements of the branding project, this phase will commence by conducting a design audit of the existing brand (if it exists), as well as other brands which are positioned close to it in the same category. This gives the project team a clearer overall idea of how to position our client’s brand visually so it stands out.

If a new name is required, we will establish naming objectives which align with the brand DNA, and then proceed to brainstorm naming ideas in a collaborative process with the client. Once this process is complete the client will submit the selected name candidate for legal registration.

Once the name is registered, we will follow that by 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 like the business card, website home page 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 determine the core brand elements required to build the brand identity system, including approved brand signature permutations, primary and secondary fonts, colour palette, photography style and copy tonality – all of which will flesh out the unique flavour of the brand.

strategic brand expression

Phase 3. Brand Expression

The purpose of this strategic branding 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, pageplans, 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 blueprint. 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.

This stage concludes with the delivery 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.

strategic brand manual

Phase 4. Brand Manual

The purpose of this strategic branding phase is to develop a set of simple, easy-to-use guidelines to ensure that the brand identity system we have developed at the last phase will be implemented accurately and consistently by the client on an ongoing basis.

Up to this point it has been our responsibility to help the client develop their brand identity. But once we have agreed the brand identity system with them and designed the core collaterals, our clients will need a manual to document the system so that beyond our engagement they can apply it themselves and protect their brand. 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 recommend the appointment of a ‘brand guardian’ within the client organisation to champion the brand and police the implementation of the guidelines, once they are produced.

The next step 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 e.g. horizontal and vertical formats
  • – Logo restrictions such as minimum size, clear space guidelines, colour usage – Corporate fonts
  • – Corporate colour palette
  • – Photography style
  • – Copy tonality

Beyond the above, the manual might also include guidelines for the ongoing production of core collaterals such as stationery, literature system, advertising style and vehicle livery.

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

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

strategic brand roll-out

Phase 5. Brand Roll-out

The purpose of this strategic branding 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 the 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 at the Brand Strategy Stage.