Many people see a brand as just a logo slapped on a website or swag. Not many people understand the nuances and feeling a proper (or improper) branding can have on its customers. In this Q&A session I sat down with Michael, the Creative Director at VSSL Agency, to talk about branding as well as the Brand First eBook VSSL just dropped.
Dwayne: Hello Michael, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Obviously I know you and most of your amazing work I get to witness firsthand, but for the readers could you please let them know who you are and some cool things you do here at VSSL.
Michael: Yeah, sure. I’m Michael, the Creative Director at VSSL. I get to work with experts in lots of different forms of creative expression to bring our client’s brands, products, and ideas to life in order to propel their business goals. That includes the fun stuff like brainstorming with copywriters on concepts or working through design feedback with designers but my role also includes enabling the team to do their best work through operational efficiency and an effective creative process. Since VSSL is so brand-focused, I get to spend a lot of my time working with the team to figure out how to create ownable identities for our clients and then maintain them in order to build strong brand equity.
Dwayne: That’s a lot more complex than I imagined, that’s great. From an outsiders perspective, it only looks like y’all get to build cool logos and campaigns haha. So VSSL just created a brand first eBook, and it was a wonderful read btw, but I wanted to pick your brain and dive deeper on this branding conversation…
Michael: Yeah sounds good, let’s do it.
What does brand first mean to you?
I think it’s worth first defining how I think of the word brand because that can mean a lot of things to different people. To me, a brand is a lot more than just a logo, some colors, and fonts. The word “brand” encompasses all of the reasons why someone might choose one company, product, or service over another. It’s basically a company’s personality. Like people, companies have a unique history, appearance, way of speaking, motivators, values, and strengths. Those sometimes nuanced characteristics are what make companies unique, and give them a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. That targeted differentiation is how brands can build an emotional connection with their audience and ultimately, grow their business.
So back to your question. For a business, brand first means that they hold so true to their brand principles that it starts to influence things like ICPs, internal operations, product creation, hiring practices, and customer service.
For marketing teams, brand first means that all marketing efforts will be viewed and executed through the lens of what the brand represents and stands for. That’s not just a matter of using the right colors and slapping your logo on it. Brand first also includes all of the strategy and tactics tied to marketing initiatives, such as which channels you use to communicate with customers, which publications to advertise in, or which influencers to work with. When you think about a brand as bigger than just some tangible visual attributes and more as an ethos, it’s easier to see how branding should be a key factor in strategy formation and execution.
I know you might be a little biased, but why do you believe branding is a worthwhile investment? What benefits does good branding provide?
I am biased haha. But I think branding is a worthwhile investment because it gives customers a reason to care about your products or services beyond just technical abilities. It answers the question of, “Why you and not this other company?” It shows them what your company stands for and why you make the products that you do. It gets people excited about new products or features. There’s a reason why so many people watch or read about Apple’s big product announcements twice a year. People have come to expect nothing but the best in technical innovation and design because of the brand they’ve built for almost 50 years.
Is there a brand out there that inspires you and one that you think does a really good job with branding?
I’m always inspired by companies that think of a brand as an ethos, a perspective, or a way of thinking. Some that come to mind are Apple, Nike, and Patagonia. Despite having nearly universally recognizable logos (two of the three don’t even have words in their logo), that recognition didn’t come because of the design of the logo.
It came from their ability to stay true to a core set of values and demonstrating those beliefs over and over again until customers know exactly who they are and what they stand for to the point where simply wearing a Patagonia hat says something about your stance on the climate crisis.
If a company is not Apple or Patagonia, and they are starting from scratch, what are some quick wins, or easy ways they can start establishing a unique brand for themselves and their customers?
Most companies start because they’ve identified a problem and have an idea of how to solve it. It’s easy to focus on the technical attributes of your solution and why those are better than the competition. But tech specs aren’t everything. When starting out, I think it’s important to have a clear idea of why you’re doing it and how that differs from the competition. Focus on a really tight, ownable mission statement. Having that from the start will give your business an underlying purpose as it grows, which will naturally carve a unique path that creates separation from the competition and engages with your audience.
That foundational brand work will also make all of your marketing efforts exponentially easier because they will all be driven by a core set of beliefs. You won’t find yourself starting from scratch on every campaign or product launch, which makes the process more difficult but also opens you up to inconsistencies and confusion with your brand.
It will also avoid falling into the trap of marketing subjectivity. When there are no rules, it’s easy for everyone to bring their own sensibilities towards forming an opinion about everything from visuals, copy, partnerships, tactics, etc. When it is very clear what the brand looks, sounds, and acts like, it’s much easier to make defensible decisions based on absolutes.
Can you talk about all the ways a well constructed brand can serve a company?
Yeah so it’s pretty well documented that customers have brand preferences and develop emotional connections to brands more than we might think. People notice when brands are doing something differently and purchase accordingly. A great example of that is Liquid Death. They came into an extremely crowded space with brands like Dasani, Aquafina, and Evian and they are totally killing it. Is their product any better? Probably not. Liquid Death has completely subverted all of our expectations over what a water company can look like, who it can partner with, and what it can say. And it is definitely working.
As far as marketing goes, having a strong brand to build things like campaigns, websites, product launches, and other collateral will save a lot of time and money. Not only will the ideation and creative process be more focused and quicker but the feedback process with internal stakeholders will as well because they will be evaluating ideas against an established set of guidelines and principles.
How do you think branding has evolved over the last couple of decades? Do you think it is still evolving, if so how?
Branding used to be very one-sided—a company tries to entice you through marketing and advertising in order to win your business. Now branding is much more of a conversation. With all of the ways that brands interact more directly with their customers through things like social media or kickstarter, companies are no longer the only ones in the driver’s seat of what a brand represents or what products it creates. Customers have come to expect that brands are aware of and participating in cultural trends in the same way that they are. For example, Tiktok trends have prompted brands like Starbucks, Chipotle, and several fashion brands to create new products in order to respond to the social conversation and consumer demand. It will be interesting to see how the gap between brands and customers continues to shrink and morph.
Dwayne: Wow, this was very insightful! Thanks so much for your time and sharing your stance on branding. I am definitely seeing brands in a new light and slowly starting to peak from behind the magical curtain that is branding. Is there anything else you want to share with anyone who might be reading this before we finish?
Michael: No I think that’s it. I love talking about this stuff though so thanks for giving me the chance to geek out on some brand talk!
Dwayne: Don’t worry, it won’t be the last!
If you want to dive deeper on the nuances of what goes into a brand, download the Brand First eBook and see more examples of how branding touches not only your company, but the entire market.