Sunday, February 3, 2008

Branding? You Don't Know Jack!

Jack was an executive in an organization for whom I once worked early in my career. Jack was extremely busy, but there was something he always found time for. Every piece of print collateral -- from note cards to full page New York Times ads had to be approved by him. This was in the days before art was prepared digitally, so carefully marked up mechanical boards had to be taken to his office before they went to the printer. Jack read every word. No deviation from the organization's logo, tagline and colors escaped his red pen. In those days, changes weren't as easy, or as fast to make as they are now, but Jack would make them and he never compromised.

Jack wasn't a public affairs or communications guy, but what he understood deeply about his organization's message and its face to the world can be summed up in one word: consistency. I didn't fully appreciate his value at the time, but Jack with his obsession with details and consistency, was a brand steward. This is a rare thing to find in a Washington organization today -- and even more rare then.

One of the comments we hear from clients a lot is that "our materials don't look like they came from the same place." When you lay all of their publications and communications on the table, it's true. Typically you're looking at a lot of very nicely designed pieces but with little cohesion among them. Decisions have been made by department heads, short sighted communications directors, and worst of all, designers. I say this not to disparage the profession I have built a business on, but because designers are trained to make design decisions, not brand decisions. The scenario starts with "we need a brochure, get us a designer." There may be a graphics standards, but its usually pulled out at the last minute and handed over with a "see-what-we-can-get-away-with" wink. So a piece gets designed, printed and distributed -- independent of whatever else is going on in the organization. The result may be pleasing and a beautiful design, but often not the right design.

Unfortunately, many organizations identities are subject to the whims of whomever happens to be working on them at the moment. This can be an ego boost for the individual who wants to put his/her stamp on the organization, and fun for the designer who needs a cool piece for their portfolio. But it's deadly to the organization's brand because it usually sends disconnected, conflicting, or just plain wrong messages.

Imagine new staff at Starbucks' corporate office deciding to do "something different." Change the corporate colors, add a photo behind that plain logo, change "grande" to "large" ... just because. How long would they last? About as long as it takes to slip that sleeve on your mocha latte. Is this because Starbucks doesn't value design? No. It's because they do value design. But it has to be the RIGHT design -- and design aligned with their message. It's amazing that something that would never happen in corporate America happens daily at hundreds of Washington organizations run by very smart people.

Things are getting better. People are in general more savvy about the value of branding for their organizations, and the role that design plays. Change has to come from those with the biggest stake -- the people at the top. They're the ones who'll be left to look at the table of stuff that "doesn't look like it came from the same place" long after the staff have moved on.

Copyright 2008, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

No comments: