Self described “design addict”, Scott Hodgson has been the creative brain behind countless branding, identity, advertising and packaging projects. Responsible for our own branding and identity, as well as those of many of our clients, we knew there was no one better to talk to about brand identity: what it means, the importance of differentiation, commitment, and using an authentic voice.
Heidi: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me and share some of your thoughts on brand identity and the part it plays in marketing. The word brand gets used heavily today but how do you define it?
Scott: I have to say that the word “brand” does get thrown around a lot.
Heidi: I actually Googled “brand identity” in preparation for our talk and every article voiced a different opinion.
Scott: Yeah, it is a bit of a catch-all phrase. And it is useful in that everyone sort of gets it. So it’s a useful general term.
Heidi: Is there a more useful and specific term, or terms, that you use?
Scott: Honestly, for the most part, what we’re doing is corporate identity. Back in the day, that’s what it would have been called. The whole identity thing has evolved, and there are certainly more branding aspects in an identity than there were in the past. For some companies, branding is really about the visual component and that’s all they need, but for others it requires a much more in-depth branding exercise.
Heidi: Do you see a difference between brand, identity, and logo, or are they all different sides of the same coin? I read an article today where the author was saying that they are three separate things, with ‘brand’ being the perceived emotional corporate image as a whole, ‘identity’ being the visual aspects that form the overall brand, and the ‘logo’ is simply an identifier, a mark or icon. Do you agree with that?
Scott: Actually, that’s not far off. I mean, it’s very, very simplified but yes, the brand is really an emotional connection to the audience, to the consumer, so that does make sense. If you’re going to differentiate it from identity, on the very simplest terms, then yes, it’s the intangible parts if you want to look at the highest level of what the brand is — the beliefs, the mind share, all that kind of thing. The identity is the visual manifestation of all that. The tactile part.
Heidi: So let’s say you are working with a new client and they’ve got absolutely nothing in terms of branding. They come to you and say, “We need to come up with a brand for our practice?” What sort of process would you go through?
Scott: First of all, a lot of the practices we work with are small groups, so it’s personality driven to a large degree. In those cases, the direction is often quite clear. When a practice is led by one individual, often they are the brand.
Heidi: Sure, that makes a lot of sense.
Scott: You kind of need to define the scope of the business. If it’s large institutional organization, a big corporation, it’s a different exercise than if it’s something that is individually driven. Part of what they are going to do is to start with figuring out who they are as a company, what their personality, their values and core beliefs are. We need to establish that and we need to know who the audience is, who they’re talking to. Then we need to figure out who the competition is.
Heidi: OK, so you’ve determined the “who” in terms of the company, the audience, and the competition — what comes next?
Scott: Then you need to decide … and this is in very simple terms… you need to decide what you want to say to the audience. Is your vision aligning with what you are now? That’s really where outside consultants and the branding exercise can really be helpful because maybe what you are now is not what you want to be.
Heidi: That’s a really good point. I’m sure a lot of clients have a brand that just isn’t the right fit, that’s not working for them. They’re saying, “Okay, here’s our identity. Here’s our personality. These are our values.” And then your job is to say, “Sorry, your brand does not express that. If these are the traits you believe in moving forward then we can help you get there.” Scott: We have to ask, “Does what they have now align with who they are and where they want to go? If it doesn’t, then we help them to figure out who they are and what they need to do to make that happen. It’s really that simple …well, not simple but that’s a pared down explanation of the approach. Of course they have to buy in to it too. The client really has to believe in it because again, it all comes down to authenticity. They might say, “We want to be this kind of company, but… it’s not really in our DNA.” So then they have to make the choice. They need to ask themselves, “Are we going to forget everything that we’ve done before and go in a different direction? Do we really believe in where we’re going? Or do we just like the idea of it?” And that’s sort of the difference between branding and just identity design, is that you can design what you want it to look like and you can decide who you want to speak to, and you can develop that. That’s the easy part. But, can you live it? Do you believe in it? At a certain level, it doesn’t always matter. Practically speaking, many practices already have an established clientele. Say we’ve got an established pediatrics practice, they know who they are and who their audience is but they just need to look more professional or tighten up their marketing. They’re not the pediatrician to the stars. They’re the suburban soccer mom practice and maybe they should accept that — own that — and be the leader within that market. And that’s part of it too, the differentiation. It doesn’t matter what market you’re in or what niche within that market. It’s about being the best in that market and differentiating your practice from the others.
Heidi: So if you have a client who’s resistant to change, or who has a hard time seeing the value in changing and establishing their brand, how would you explain to them why this is so important? How do you explain why they need to do this for their practice?
Scott: First off, “Are you happy with what you’re doing now?” That’s my first question. And if they’re perfectly happy, great. But if they want change, if they want growth, this is an important thing to consider. You may think people know what your practice is about but from the outside, the reality may be that people don’t know what you do, what your specialty is, and what sets you apart. It’s all about communication. Do they currently have really clear communication of what they are and what they offer? If they don’t or if they want to change it, then the branding and the identity is the first step. There are other parts too but that’s first. Then there’s the marketing, social media, employee buy-in. But it all comes back to what your goals are. Where do you want to get? And then work back from there. It often comes down to resources, because it’s something that’s ongoing and requires management, and all that stuff. Take social media for example. Clients sometimes see social media as a shortcut, that it’s an easy, low cost approach and all they need is a logo to pop on the profile page. But brand identity and social media are very entwined. To do social media for business right, that requires resources, that requires personnel, expertise. It’s much more in-depth than people realize. The payback can be there but it takes work.
Heidi: And even if a company thinks they can just “hop on” social media, they’ve still got to have some sort of brand identity, or else there’s no focus, no authenticity as you say.
Scott: Right. The brand is the personality, the voice and all the core beliefs — it’s how the customer understands you. You can’t separate that from the communications. If all that stuff is in place then you can have an authentic voice when you do any marketing, but social media in particular. It really comes down to authenticity and you can’t outsource that, or it’s very difficult to do.
Heidi: That makes sense. Social media started as a person-to-person network but today companies and brands are seen as living, breathing entities with their own style and approach — that’s the voice. It all has to work together, doesn’t it? All of these marketing pieces are just that, pieces to a larger plan.
Scott: Yeah, ‘cohesiveness’ is a pretty key word for that. The branding really takes all of that and more into consideration. When you have a single, clear voice in everything that you do, it works.