Branding in Action

Ask a dozen designers, “What is branding?” and you’ll undoubtedly get twelve completely different answers. It’s a buzzword that we use (or overuse?) when we argue how valuable we are to the business world. Afterall, how can a company establish, modify or reinforce their brand without design? We talk about how design shapes customer attitudes – but do we really understand the full meaning of brand?It’s a useful exercise to consider what I am about to tell you, so please do your best to suspend disbelief.There is more to branding than design. And realizing this might just help your own brand.

I studied marketing and communications in school and have spent the last 12 years in the field of communications, 8 years specifically in graphic design. I thought I knew a lot about branding. That was until I read an article over at Andy Haven’s Legal Marketing Blog on the topic. What he’s says about law firms can easily be said of design firms. He says:

Q. of the Day: How do you brand a law firm?Branding Answer: The same way you brand anything else — by assigning and supporting the qualities you want the public, prospects, clients, partners and employees to associate with whole, above and beyond the qualities that are associated with individual people and specific events and elements of the firm.One decent definition of “brand” is “corporate personality.” So, the question becomes, what is the personality of your firm?What is it that sets you apart from other firms …? In many cases, for many firms, the answer is, sadly… nothin’.[snip]You can’t “build” a brand out of nothing. You can, though, decide to market a brand, and change a culture to fit that marketing image, but it must be based on real qualities…. advertising (is) in no way necessary for the promotion of brand … a brand can be thought of as a consistent metaphor or personality that you choose to strengthen through your actions in order to build up an association that you hope will have a positive economic effect.

Through your actions. Hmmm.After reading this, I asked myself, “What is my brand?” And I’ll be honest, I was not so confident that my marketing positioning matched customer perception. Not because I failed to communicate through design or advertising, but because of my actions.Actions shape attitudes about company personality. Hmmm.So I took out a sharpie and made a long list of qualities that I like to think of as “my brand”. Because I know you’re busy, I’ll give you just one example: I want to be perceived as professional. If I am to be a marketing partner for other businesses, and promise to help them succeed, the obvious occurred to me: I must be a professional myself and know how to run a successful business!What a concept.Dressing appropriately and having excellent written and verbal communication skills clearly isn’t enough, I said to myself. I did some soul-searching to really determine whether every single thing that I do communicates “professional”. Sadly, I realized that is not the case … but room for improvement is just another name for opportunity!I then brainstormed another list: What actions communicate “professional”? I drew upon a recent experience to help me create this list: Last weekend I needed a plumber to come over and fix a leaky shower. In the first call, they were already chatting up money, “The clock starts the moment we walk out the door,” they wanted to get an account set up right away, and the next day the plumber double checked that payment was arranged before he left.A strange thing happened, instead of feeling like they were greedy over-paid bastards or don’t deserve what they charge … I had this feeling that it all sounded reasonable, and I felt respect. My perception was that they were probably a pretty profitable and successful business, fairly compensated for their services. Clearly they have lots opportunities and no time to mess around. (Now why didn’t I choose to become a plumber again?)The plumber was friendly and worked in a focused manner (and fast!), so my overall perception was: fair, efficient, friendly … and yes, professional.With that in mind, I started sketching out my list of “professional actions”:A professional :

  • (pro-bono and creative job quoting aside) does not work for free, nor does “favors” or “courtesies”, or discounts their rate for the benefit of another business and at the expense of their own. (Don’t believe me? ask a plumber, lawyer, electrician or even a prostitute if they do anything for free.)
  • is in the business of making money and is profitable
  • charges a fair market rate
  • requires a deposit and contract to initiate all projects
  • does not schedule a project in their calendar (no matter how “urgent” the project may be for the client) and business is not accepted without due consideration (contract/deposit) to secure that time
  • keeps a file of all client communication to protect themselves in the event of a future dispute, and requests that certain topics, such as a change in the scope of the project, are discussed or clarified (repeated) in writing
  • outlines in advance, the exact deliverables in the estimate and educates clients what might constitute an additional charge and what that will be
  • manages projects well, so anytime a client makes a request, they know immediately if it falls within the project scope or if it will be an additional charge; then notifies the client at that time if it is additional so they have an opportunity to decide if they want to “buy it”
  • does not release final work before the final bill is paid under any circumstances, and provides a credit card payment option so there is no excuse for delay
  • keeps track of milestones and notifies clients if they are delaying the project and what the consequences are (shift in deadline, incremental bill to cover time to date, etc.)
  • sends bills on time, the same day each month, and follows up with outstanding invoices in a timely manner.
  • is not afraid to send a bill, even if it’s just for a service that took 15 minutes to provide*
  • has set office hours, and takes all client phone calls and responds to emails in a prompt manner

*Though all of these things I could stand to improve on (and some things I haven’t yet thought of), I identified this in particular as an area where I personally need the most work.I justify letting things slip through the cracks because it takes me longer to prepare and send a bill than it does to provide a quick service. But, is doing work for free “professional”? What kind of attitude might my customer form if I do stuff for free? (Professional? No. Sucker? Yup).Furthermore, if your hourly rate is $80 per hour, and you let 30 minutes of billable time slip past you each day, and you work 250 days in a year, that’s $10,000 that slipped through the cracks and benefited somebody else’s business, not your own.Would a C.E.O. be concerned with a $10,000 loss in revenue? Yessiree.I hear a lot of whining and complaining from graphic designers, “I am under-paid! I am under-valued! People just don’t understand what we do, how complex it is, how much education is required. Why can’t I get some respect around here?”A professional, though, doesn’t whine and complain. They prevent and correct problems. I hope that considering how our actions influence customer perception makes it easier to understand WHY we must run our businesses profitably and behave like a C.E.O. before any design work begins. It’s part of our brand. A metaphor for how we conduct business; and that can only translate into respect from those businesses that expect for us to help them succeed in business too.I think it’s hard to fit a square peg (creative services) into a clearly definable round hole (this creative idea has $X value). But the manager of a retail store wouldn’t allow a few items to fall into the bag for free just because they didn’t have confidence in the product. They would delight that they made a sale, knowing that the customer was educated and made that choice to purchase, and they would capture every opportunity to get their average sale up!And now I must be off. I’ve got a successful business to run.


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