Beginning a branding project as a designer

This is part of a series, The Consultant’s Guide to Branding, supporting purpose-driven organizations and businesses.

Written BY

Sarah Obenauer

Sarah is the Co-founder of Purpose Craft. She runs Make a Mark, 12-hour design and development marathons benefitting local humanitarian causes. She also publishes Limitless, built to create a community of women surviving and thriving with Rheumatoid Arthritis. She has been working with nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations and businesses for nearly a decade.

All author's posts

October 29, 2020

My interest in design started developing over a decade ago, truthfully, it was probably present my entire life. The idea of creating something beautiful and functional that also communicated a message was mind-blowing to me.

About five years ago, I started digging into branding. I inherited a scattered and inconsistent brand and the ‘organizer’ inside of me wanted to clean it up. When I began this process, morale was low and confusion was thick. No one knew what to call our company, what colors to use, or even where to find our logo.

This first branding process was long and messy with plenty of hiccups, but we landed on solid footing. It improved employees’ confidence and their abilities to make decisions, it built trust with our audience leading to increased revenue, and most importantly, it genuinely represented who we were, which everyone could see and feel. I discovered the real power of curating a brand.

Storytelling and storylistening

This transformative experience changed my whole approach to design and, in particular, branding. A brand requires care, nurturing, and a deep understanding of purpose. It is not a facade, but instead tells an authentic story. A well-executed brand can share the journey of where an organization has been, where they are today, and where they hope to go in the future.

There are no quick tips or tricks here. Branding with purpose is all about being intentional, listening, and being willing to learn, unlearn, and relearn. It all begins with storytelling, or more appropriately, storylistening. Let’s dig in!

Get down to the ‘why?’

Every organization or business has a mission statement, tagline, elevator, pitch, etc. and while those are helpful for clearly and quickly communicating to the public, you need to dig deeper to get to the heart and soul of an organization during the branding process.

If you say, “tell me about your organization,” you will likely be met with a mission statement and perhaps an overview of services, products, or programs. This is important information, but you already have access to this public-facing communication. Go ahead and get this out of the way. You won’t be able to move forward with deeper, more intentional questions until then.

Start by asking about the founding story, preferably from the founder. How did they get started? Why was this something that they were passionate about? What problem were they trying to solve? What made them move forward with this idea?

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for the moments when that person becomes emotional — joyful, sad, frustrated, victorious. Make a note of the stories and moments that are most memorable, what moments were hard, what moments brought them pride. These are the formative experiences for that person and for their work, which is reflected in the organization.

For those who weren’t part of the inception, find out what drew them to it. What about the purpose, the founder, their coworkers, and their job gets them excited to wake up and get to work.

Create a safe environment for sharing

When you’re starting a branding or rebranding process you may be familiar with the organization or business, but not with the people. To create something truly meaningful and impactful, you need to build out a safe space to share and collaborate.

Respect for one another is an absolutely fundamental part of a successful project. So often we want to share our accolades with the other so they will respect our time and our work. This is our ego taking control. By being humble and setting our ego aside, we’re able to show our respect for their expertise and knowledge in their field. By doing our work well, the client, in turn, respects us. We become partners in the process—one team working toward a single goal.

You build this respect by asking thoughtful questions, giving people the time and space to respond, and by listening.

Ask thoughtful questions. Don’t just skim your client’s website and marketing materials, but read news stories and blog posts, review reports that they have created, and study the founder. This research will allow you to understand and appreciate your client, and help you formulate more intentional questions, yielding better results.

Give people time and space to respond. Reflection is something that I value immensely. I like to take in information, digest it, and return with my perspective. People have varying degrees of how quickly or slowly they wish to respond. Honor this as you get to know your client. Disclaimer: this doesn’t apply to critical deadlines that were agreed upon or exercises in which you need a spontaneous reaction.

Listen. Listening can be hard because we regularly listen for the answers we want to hear. We might have a list of questions that we want answered, but new questions arise as we listen and we should be open and willing to follow those paths and trails to get to a deeper truth. Listen for key words, tone, emotion, and anything that gives you insight into your client.

Branding doesn’t have to take months

In 2014, I started Make a Mark, an organization leading 12-hour design and development marathons benefitting local humanitarian causes across the globe. Within Make a Mark, we have completed dozens of rebrands over the past several years. It is an intense process with high energy and creative challenges. It is, well, a marathon.

I’m not proposing that all branding projects be completed in 12 hours, but it is possible.

Branding projects can drag on for months if you let them, but that results in a loss of energy and excitement and a lack of focus for all involved. We’ve all been there. A quick process of just a few weeks keeps momentum high and all parties engaged to the fullest. There is no loss of work or rework that has to be done due to long pauses or unnecessary gaps in progress.

A shorter process forces you to follow your intuition and forces the client to follow theirs. Not every decision has to go to a committee and contort the work into a camel. This shortened and heightened time frame also encourages you to focus on only the strongest concepts and toss the ones that aren’t working.

By getting down to the ‘why?’ and creating a safe environment for sharing you become instant team members with your clients regardless of the time spent together.

In action

A couple of years ago, we worked on a branding project with a small, family-owned boating company. Their goal was to create a comfortable and attractive boat used for fishing and relaxing on coastal waters. We knew that we needed to intimately get to know the founders and owners of this business to be able to create a meaningful brand to help them find their own space in the industry.

We ended up meeting with the entire family, from grandma (the clear matriarch) to the youngest cousin (a hunting and fishing guide) in the sunroom on their farm in North Carolina. This was a slightly unorthodox way of leading a branding workshop, but gave us true insight into this particular company and family.

We led several exercises, but the most insightful way to begin was to hear the founding story from each member of their family. Because this was a small, intimate group, we gave each person plenty of time to share their perspectives and recorded key words and themes that presented themselves during their recollections.

From this, we learned that they not only wanted to build a well-crafted and attractive boat to cruise on the coasts of the Carolinas, but to create an experience and opportunity for families to get back on the water and spend their days basking in togetherness and the majesty of the water. These conversations completely reshaped how we decided to approach the external brand for the business.

The Consultant’s Guide to Branding

The Consultant’s Guide to Branding is part of Branding with Purpose. This guide is built to help consultants and freelancers curate better brands for their clients through a more meaningful and intentional approach.

Nonprofits to support this holiday season
We have the great honor and privilege of working with nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations on their design, development, and marketing strategy. Through this lens, we have the opportunity to learn more about the problems that these organizations are solving, and work to capture their purpose and tell their story.
December 13, 2021
Why your organization needs a rebrand
The term “rebrand” can evoke a plethora of emotions – excitement, fear, hope, anxiety. You’ve established your organization’s brand over the course of years. You’ve grown accustomed to it, attached to it, even if the design and the language aren’t suited to who you organization is. Now just might be the time for a rebrand.
October 29, 2020