The Creative Liberation Lab Notes

An official publication of Limeadestand Works

My brand principles

August 18, 2018 | Branding and brand communications

Long before I got myself into the creative industry, I was a keen observer of brands and designs. I grew up in the 1980s when many businesses were into the corporate identity fad. When I developed my interest in art as I entered middle school, my sight was actually on industrial and graphic designs rather than the traditional fine art.

Over the years, I have learned much from how brands were designed and implemented by businesses, as well as from mistakes I made when I was still experimenting with entrepreneurship.

These are what I consider to be my "brand principles" -- a distillation of the lessons learned -- that I build all of my works upon.

1. You create a brand, but your customers will own it.

Brands do not exist in a vacuum of your office or boardroom. You (or your designer) may create a brand and even register it as a trademark. But ultimately, your brand is not yours; it belongs to your customers who build their own experiences with and around it. It is important to have a good, solid brand document that consistently presents your brand in a specified manner; however, you won't be able to control how your customers will use your brand (think of all the artists who mutilate Barbie dolls!).

2. Be consistent at all times.

Brands are touchstones of a certain anticipation for a specific experience. When you hear "Starbucks," you automatically conjure up a mental image of certain experiences--the kinds of coffee Starbucks has to offer, the ambiance of its "third space," fast and reliable Wi-Fi, and so on. Note how every Starbucks store, regardless of what country it is located, has a more or less consistent "look": the color schemes, types of furniture they use, how products are displayed and presented. Brands without consistency are no brands at all. On a practical term, this means the use of colors, typefaces, layouts, words, and graphics. Have a comprehensive brand document. If you don't, I offer a "Brand Tune-up" package for only $100, which includes an extensive review of your existing branding scheme, recommendations for improvement (but not redesigns), and if necessary, a creation of a basic brand document you will be able to use right away to improve your brand communication.

3. Be impeccable with your words.

Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements, one of the said agreements is "be impeccable with your words." Especially in America, I see too many people who are careless with their words. They just throw words around without even knowing whether these words mean what they mean to say. Every word, however, has meanings and ideas they present have consequences. Be impeccable with your words: use correct words (double-check dictionaries if you are unsure), do not make words up, and be very aware of how your words are perceived by others. Furthermore, in branding, if you refer to your product in a certain way, don't use other words to refer to it. You should use the same word (or set of words) to describe your product at all times.

4. Don't be deceptive.

Americans love euphemism. Sometimes, euphemism is appropriate. But you cannot deceive people by calling something by a word or words that isn't/aren't true. Even if you don't mean to deceive, it becomes confusing. For example, I have seen taverns that call themselves an "inn" or a "hotel" even though they do not have overnight guest accommodations. In 1997, Barnes & Noble sued Amazon for the latter calling itself "the earth's largest bookstore." Why? Amazon was not a bookstore but rather a broker. In addition, certain words are restricted by regulations. You cannot call yourself a bank if you do not have a bank charter, for example. Deceptive branding can cost you down the road in legal fees.

5. Don't confuse people.

If your business is a hotel, don't call it a farm. If your business is a restaurant, don't call it a market. Even if such practices are sometimes tolerated as a form of metaphor, it creates confusion among consumers and you will end up explaining every time. There's a bar in Portland, Oregon that calls itself "The Liquor Store." Under the signage, it says "{Not a real liquor store.}" This is not just confusing but is bad for SEO as well: if you search for "liquor store portland oregon" (like most people might), you will see a listing of real liquor stores first.

The only exceptions to this rule seem to be those in the IT sector. Because computer programming is a kind of metaphor in itself, most tech companies succeed while branding themselves metaphorically. Examples: think of Treehouse (online-based coding school) and Kabbage (fintech products).

6. Don't be cheesy.

Don't use unproven or undeserved qualifiers (such as "best"). [Seattle's Best Coffee, originally Stewart Brothers' Coffee, was rebranded so because it earned the moniker in a city-wide coffee competition.] Don't use cliched expressions. Avoid intentional misspelling (such as "rite" for right, "miti" for mighty) -- this used to be a practice widely used in the past to allow companies to register their trademarks based on understanding that dictionary words may not be trademarked, but now it is a very outdated practice from the previous century.

7. Be pithy.

Good brand names should contain no more than three words (two if you can). Your tagline or slogan should not exceed six words. Anything more will lose memorability and makes it harder for graphic designers to fit all those words into a limited space.

8. Be memorable.

Both visual elements of design and verbal elements should make consumers (and prospective consumers) remember your business. Sometimes this can be accomplished through a wacky ad campaign. Sometimes it can be accomplished by creating intrigue or by generating conversations.

9. Be timeless.

Your brand should be designed to last for 15 to 20 years at the very least. Avoid design fads and cliched expressions that can timestamp the brand. Refined designs that combine the modern sophistication with classical elegance can go a long way.

10. Be appropriate.

Playful or whimsical brands are appropriate in certain industrial sectors, but not all; avoid when trust, refinement, and stability are the cornerstones of the brand. Furthermore, your brand must be appropriate for and relevant to the culture in which you operate. Also, be sure to avoid cultural appropriation (in particular, exploiting the heritage of marginalized ethnic or cultural groups for your commercial gain).

11. Have a brand voice.

Think of creating a "customer avatar" (also known as a hypothetical ideal customer) and address that person to create a consistent tone of voice. In addition, you can also create a "brand avatar" -- a personification of the brand -- what do they look? act? talk? The consistent "brand voice" should be used in all forms of public and internal communications.

12. Be comprehensive.

Your brand encompasses everything you present to the public: visual, verbal, kinetic, and sometimes even aromatic. The brand is both tangible and intangible. It is also both hardware and soft skills. Think beyond brochures, Websites, or logotypes. Knowing the importance of this point distinguishes true professionals from "ma and pa's" and wannabe entrepreneurs.

13. Be unique and original; don't be a copycat.

Don't steal ideas and designs from others. Check search engines and USPTO to see if your brand looks or sounds similar to another registered trademark or servicemark. Failing to do so will expose you to a lawsuit (or at least, a "cease and desist letter" from a trademark attorney, which forces you to rebrand everything within a specific timeframe to avoid getting sued). Your brand should be unique and come from you. If you want to be a copycat, why don't work for them instead?

14. Give serious thoughts.

Branding is a serious matter, just like naming your children. Consider how your brand may be perceived by the public and various stakeholders (not just your customers). Rebranding, once you started your business, will be expensive. Don't just brand yourself on a whim with your dreams, fantasies, and passions as your only sources. Get expert opinions of a brand strategist. Do consumer opinion researches (don't ask your friends or family members for an opinion!). And don't be hasty or shortsighted.