A lot of fuss is made about brands these days, so much so that the very idea has become alienating, overwhelming, and a little larger than life. But the truth is, branding isn't so complicated that it’s out of anyone's reach. Interior designers have a lot to juggle already, but don’t stress—your brand already exists, and it plays out in how you do business every day.
Put simply, a brand is just a collection of abstract attributes and values, expressed in concrete ways. A logo (or brand identity) is one part of the equation—one expression of the brand—as are the look of your office, your client intake process, social media, and more. A successful brand is one with a holistic, organized view of all these aspects, executed in a way that is mindful of its core principles.
Developing those principles is the foundation of a brand, and they are codified into an invaluable document called a “brand brief.” You don’t need an expensive consultant or agency to create one—only your team, some creativity, and a commitment to open-mindedness.
Your brand is a symphony, your orchestra comprised of everything your business does, and you—the business owner—are the maestro. Now let's compose your score!
Start by thinking of your design firm as a person, rather than a business—clients and prospects already do.
To a remarkable degree, people choose to work with you based on who you are more than what you do. For many buyers in a creative market, differences in style and quality between practitioners is pretty hazy compared to their stark emotional assessments based on personal interactions. They’ll remember the experience of interacting with you more potently than your work. Keep that in mind as you begin this exercise.
Creating a brand brief should involve your entire team, if possible. Perspective and dialogue is key, so it's important not to do it alone. If you’re a solo practitioner, pull in your most trusted colleague, best friend, or favorite client, and take advantage of their valuable outside perspective.
Part 1: Finding Attributes (30 minutes)
Get plenty of sticky notes, and distribute among all participants. With a timer for 10 minutes, write as many descriptive words and phrases about your firm as possible, one per sticky. Saying each idea aloud will help participants stay inspired and build on each others’ ideas.
There will naturally be a concentration of “positive” adjectives (smart, elegant, innovative), but too many can genericize a brand, rather than differentiate it. Don’t be afraid to find attributes that are controversial, silly, or may be met with resistance. It adds crucial perspective and will spark valuable discussion later.
Avoid getting snared by discussion or analysis here. Just let the ideas pop like popcorn. If they’re still popping after 10 minutes, do another round, and stop when 2 minutes go by with no new ideas. And always heed the golden rule of brainstorming: There are no bad ideas.
Part 2: Organizing Attributes (90–120 minutes)
Divide a whiteboard into Yes and No sections, with some space in between. As a group, go through every sticky and place it in the Yes section if it truly reflects the firm’s strongest qualities; otherwise, it’s a No. If you get stuck on one for more than 5 minutes, put it in the middle and move on. Later discussion of other terms may resolve the initial dispute.
This step is the real meat of this process. The dialogue it spurs is invaluable for establishing a holistic view of the company, and therefore its brand. If you think someone’s input is off the mark, take the time to learn why they included it—you may learn something new about your business. And if a few disagreements remain at the end, that’s okay. But if most of your stickies are in the middle, you may need to return to the process and dig deeper.
Now document your board with photos or on paper and call it a day. Great job!
Part 3: Identifying Patterns (60 minutes)
Get your Yes stickies ready—you’re about to find the patterns and clusters of ideas they contain. Spread out all the Yes stickies on a table and start grouping them together into the following categories:
- Visual ideas about things like style, color, or texture. That’s your presentation.
- Communication-oriented concepts like friendly, authoritative, cerebral. That’s your voice.
- Human-like qualities, such as being whimsical, witty, dramatic. That’s your personality.
- More abstract, philosophical notions like transparent, innovative, eco-friendly. These are your values.
Once grouped, the attributes should be narrowed down to the three most potent, unique entries in each category. If you’re short in any category, use your newfound collective understanding of the company to come up with the necessary attribute, returning to your original group of stickies from Part 1, if need be.
Now that you have all your brand attributes organized into categories, you should codify them into a document: finally, your official Brand Brief! I’ve created a template you can begin with and build on, but there’s one more step before you get there...
Part 4: Positioning Statement
A brand positioning statement sums up everything above in one or two sentences and applies it practically to the marketplace of business. A kind of “elevator pitch,” it pulls all the core facts together—the who, what, when, where, why—into a tidy package and acts as both setup and context for the more freeform brand attributes. It’s easy to construct like a Mad Lib:
[Company] is a [type of business] that provides [target customers] with [service] by [unique approach].
There are several approaches to building this statement included in the template doc. Try them all and see what feels most natural, or you can construct your own.
Congratulations—you’ve built your brand brief!
You now have a brand roadmap, and when you have a roadmap, goals and decisions get easier. Use it to help a graphic designer execute the perfect logo, see that your marketing efforts use on-brand language, or ensure consistent client management between different members of your team. It can even act as a meaningful reminder to you, during the many trials of running a business, of why you’re practicing this craft in the first place.
Here’s your Brand Brief template.
Enjoy it, build on it regularly, and don’t forget to have fun!
Samantha Merley is the President and Creative Director of Merley Design, a full-service branding and marketing agency in New York City. Merley Design specializes in crafting integrated creative solutions for startups and other emerging businesses across a spectrum of disciplines including print, digital, code, content, and strategy. A do-everything creative who's peered under the hood of nearly every type of business, Samantha has spent her career helping founders, makers, movers, shakers, CEO's, entrepreneurs, and their teams find their brand's voice tell its unique story.