The most noticeable part of any rebranding initiative is the visual identity—that striking new logo, fresh palette of colors, vibrant photography and appealing marketing collateral that turn heads and inject new life into old businesses.
So why do so many professional services firms that undergo a rebrand separate their visual brand process from their brand strategy process? On the one side, they revise their positioning and marketing approach to engage more, better clients. Meanwhile on the other side, they undergo a visual transformation to make their identity more contemporary and interesting. And rarely do the twain meet. But why? Like oil and water, are they just too different to mix?
What these firms fail to understand is that these activities are two sides of the same coin. By divorcing aesthetics from the strategy, firms actually sacrifice many of the benefits of rebranding. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Strategic design is a process that merges these two components, using strategy to guide the graphic design process.
But before we dive in, let’s begin with a definition.
What Is Strategic Design?
In the branding process, strategic design allows an organization to communicate important aspects of its brand visually. Rather than rely on words alone to express key brand attributes and benefits, a firm can enlist color, images, layout and typography to set a tone and help tell its story. By applying brand strategy to its design, a firm can even engage its audience at a raw, emotional level—laying a psychological foundation that builds engagement and trust.
Why Strategic Design Matters
What are the benefits of strategic design? And why should you care? We’ve already mentioned a couple of reasons: It reinforces the positioning, themes and messages central to your brand strategy. In addition, strategy-aligned design speaks to people on a subliminal level, working its persuasive magic without words.
But that’s not all. There are many other reasons you’ll want to embrace strategic design:
- It forces you to “think bigger” about your brand identity—delivering an experience that is both beautiful and rich in meaning.
- You’ll avoid the tired visual tropes and clichés that pervade your industry.
- It sparks creative design thinking, taking your brand in a more innovative and distinctive direction.
- Prospects are more likely to recognize and remember you.
- It streamlines approvals and buy-in for your new brand.
- It will be easier to attract new clients and top professional talent.
- You will be better positioned to grow and achieve leadership status in your market
How It Works
People experience brands on many levels. For instance, a professional services buyer may be stirred by the words a firm uses to describe its services and benefits. But if the words appear on a poorly designed website, they can lose their luster: the message is garbled by the messenger. Similarly, an ordinary message can be elevated by elegant design, enhanced (at least momentarily) by its appealing packaging.
Brands are most powerful and persuasive, however, when their message and visuals are in sync. When a rebrand initiative integrates design into its overall strategy, the firm’s positioning and message are amplified. Conversely, the visuals become more imbued with meaning. The result? A more compelling, memorable client experience.
Strategic design can work in a number of ways, but it is particularly effective in three areas:
- Differentiation: by establishing a brand identity that is visibly different from your firm’s key competitors. In the minds of your audience, you set your firm apart visually from other firms that are otherwise similar to yours. At the same time, your brand positioning narrows your focus to a specific audience group. By building contrast in two ways (visually and through specialization), you effectively multiply the power of your differentiation.
- Personality: by crafting a visual context that expresses your firm’s temperament. Are you methodical with clients? Laid back? Humorous? Obsessively professional? Your visual brand should reflect the personality traits of your firm. Personality is not often part of a professional services firm’s brand strategy—but it should be. Your firm can choose and mold the persona it presents to the world to further differentiate your practice from competitors, to appeal to prospective clients and to create an environment that more easily attracts and retains talent.
- Credibility: by presenting an image that inspires confidence. If you want to be perceived as a leader, you have to look and act like one. Through visual branding you can convey an immediate impression of competence and sophistication. So long as this impression aligns with your firm’s positioning and strategy—with no mixed signals that break the spell—you can establish a foundation that instills trust before a buyer (or other member of your audience) even talks to you.
Design Is from Venus. Strategy Is from Mars.
At first blush, brand strategy can be difficult to reconcile with brand design. They seem so different! After all, strategy is often built on meticulous market research, while brand design is a creative and seemingly subjective process.
How can you possibly use hard data to guide creative decisions? And even if you could, would that be a good idea? Wouldn’t a strategy-driven design process produce a less creative outcome, stifled by “business-think”?
Here’s the interesting thing. Data and strategy can actually stimulate creative thinking. For instance, if a goal of your rebranding initiative is to differentiate your firm, competitor research can reveal what visual territory is already taken and where the open plains of opportunity lie.
If competitor research reveals that the color blue and sports imagery are well-trod ground in your industry, you can look for fresher fields to stake your claim. Because your options are narrower, your agency or designer can explore the remaining possibilities more deeply. And deep exploration can lead to more interesting, more creative design solutions.
Client research can reveal areas of strength as well as weaknesses that require remedy. Armed with this knowledge, a brand designer can take a variety of steps to illustrate, emphasize or otherwise address specific features and traits that prospective clients are looking for in a firm.
Market research can be mined for data to feature on the client’s website or in infographics. In this way, research can support a firm’s thought leadership aspirations and demonstrate a deep familiarity with the marketplace.
A Strategic Design Process
One huge advantage of inserting research and strategy into your design process is internal: it supplies the rationales and empirical evidence you need to explain and defend your design decisions. Without these anchors, critical decisions can drift from one opinionated stakeholder to another, taking up precious time and eroding confidence in the process. More than once, I’ve seen entire rebranding programs ground to death on the rocks of indecision.
So how do you actually implement strategic design? Below is a process you can adapt to your next rebranding project. If you are working with a creative agency, you may need to delegate many, if not most, of these tasks to them. Just be sure you discuss your goals and expectations beforehand to ensure they are indeed thinking and acting strategically.
- Brief your design team on the research and strategy. Clearly articulate the overall goal(s) of the initiative so they don’t miss the big picture.
- Document the key points in a creative brief. Equip your team with a consistent reference tool they can return to again and again during the creative process. The brief may include some or all of the following elements:
- The problem to be solved
- Points of differentiation
- Market positioning or positioning statement
- Key messages
- Target audiences
- Important competitors (include URL and a brief analysis of each)
- Competitive opportunities
- Desired project outcomes or business goals
- Require designers to explain how their concepts address the strategy. In this way, you force the creative team to think about the problem from a business perspective. The goal is to foster strategic design habits at every stage of the process, including the early ideation phases.
- Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. Every major design presentation is an opportunity to strengthen the connections between your brand design and your strategy.
- Ensure all decision makers are present at major presentations. This is one of the most important things you can do to improve the odds of moving the project forward. If key decision makers are not involved along the way, they will not understand why certain decisions were made—and it becomes all too easy for them to torpedo the entire process and waste weeks or months of work.
A brand is a multifaceted thing, and it requires a multifaceted approach. When strategy and design work in concert, they deliver a richer, more effective brand experience. And because the audience engages with the brand at both the intellectual and subconscious levels, the message is clearer and more persuasive.
If you are planning to rebrand your professional services firm, take advantage of strategic design to make the most of your investment. You will be rewarded with greater opportunities and a more commanding brand.
How Hinge Can Help
The best brand building strategies help your firm connect with its buyers, build your reputation, and increase your marketplace visibility. Hinge’s Branding Program can help your firm stand out from the competition and build a brand that drives sustained growth.
- Our Rebranding Guide gives you the tools and knowledge you need to lead your firm through a rebranding.
- And our Differentiation Guide for Professional Services Firms will help you position your firm’s brand based on real differentiators.
- Uncover your firm’s true differentiators in Hinge University’s course, Differentiation, Positioning & Messaging.