Designers Should Care About Messaging and Strategy Just as Much as Identity.
Do you know the three legs of a brand tripod? Every designer should know the answer if they want to be an asset to their companies. The three legs are Identity, Messaging, and Strategy. This is a fast introduction to each, why they matter and how they are misunderstood. Knowing them in and out is the key to being more than just a designer. It’s how you start to be a Brand Steward.
Identity is the visual components that help to make your brand uniquely recognizable. Things like your logo, colors, fonts, patterns and other visual assets are in this category. A good Identity is clearly-outlined in a style guide that is easy to understand by non-designers. It should outline all the don’t-dos but it should ultimately offer a lot of flexibility. Nobody wants to be tied up in a straight-jacket of style rules, but I’m surprised to notice that’s even more important to non-designers than it is to designers. This is obviously the designer’s purview, but it’s not the only thing they should care about. Also, Identity is regularly confused with being “the brand.” Just as your logo is not your brand, your identity is not the brand.
Messaging is the words, phrases, values, voice, and tone of your brand. Your company might have different levels of messaging depending on the makeup of your audience. For example, Coca-Cola speaks in a different way to first-time customers than it does to corporate share-holders. It’s important for a designer to know how words, voice, and tone very across your audience. It will inevitably dictate the kind of designing that you do. However, messaging is often left unarticulated or delegated to just one team member who “knows the brand.” This invites inconsistent messaging and leaves most of your team in the dark about one third of the brand. Isolated messaging decisions or dependence on one team member’s instinct are a sign that your brand is not well integrated into the company culture and process.
Strategy is the third leg of the brand tripod. Strategy is the planning of how your brand will achieve objectives like increased revenue, expanded audience, more engagement, or shifting to new markets. Strategy connects your daily efforts to macro level goals. A designer should care about strategy because every creative decision should support those aims.
Strategy is often confused with the smaller Tactics that support it. For example: Say a company has been using a third party agency to reach its audience and wants instead to connect directly with their audience. It decides to encourage subscriptions to its website and email list so that the company can eventually cut out the middle-man agency. That’s the strategy: Maximize Email and Web subscriptions to access the audience directly. Within that strategy are the tactics, such as funding more advertisements on social media of the benefits that go with a web membership, as well as a offering a store discount for email subscribers. A designer who knows the strategy can help develop the clever tactics to serve the end goals. Confusing tactics and strategy, or stying ignorant of them, leads to conflicting tactics, back tracking, and reduces brand integrity. It also wastes company resources and it can drive major personnel divisions.
Designers Can Help Integrate the Tripod
What I notice is that the Identity is usually the only aspect of a brand that is very well integrated into a company. Obviously this is related to the visual nature of Identity, but a tripod needs all three legs to stand. If your company is treating its messaging as a subjective arena dominated by a select number of team members who “get it” but haven’t articulated the messaging in a structured way company-wide then you are in for trouble. Similarly, if the strategy is a black box closely guarded by executives, how can the company really count on its teams to come up with innovative, creative tactics? It falls to designers to be an advocate for clearly-understood messaging practices and strategies.
Designers, ask yourselves: If Identity is well in hand, then why wouldn’t you take efforts to solidify the other two legs of the brand? How will you ever know if you need multiple “looks” that correspond to different forms of messaging if you don’t know or care about the messaging? How will you know when it’s time to eschew Identity as part of a guerilla-marketing campaign, or to bring it front-and-center for new audiences if you are ignorant of Strategy? The answer is you can’t.
The fact is, that it’s easy for Designers to act like their job stops with the visual Identity of a brand. But that means losing an opportunity to act as a Brand Steward. The worst thing a designer can do is to draw a hard line between themselves and the rest of the company. It’s a certainty that when they do, Identity is quickly cheapened in the eyes of the other teams. If they start to write Identity off as “artsy stuff” then you’ve actually damaged the brand. Designers need to be champions of all three legs. Develop your identity with an equal interest in the messaging and strategy, if you really want to be an asset to your company.