Branding is an art, not a science. What makes the best ones work? Following the network-wide rebrand of S4 Capital, Media.Monks’s chief marketing officer Kate Richling and chief creative officer Jouke Vuurmans explain how brands can sustain a strong brand amid a fragmented digital landscape.
What makes a brand? For a long time, it’s been a logo, a color palette, a typeface or a slogan. This traditional approach may make a brand recognizable, but it can also feel stagnant within a fast-moving world. The brand characteristics outlined above are largely reflective of how a brand wants to be seen – not how it’s built to engage with people.
Traditional branding then begins to feel like keeping up appearances. How the brand presents itself to the world becomes tied up in a tightly-wound series of rules codified in a brand bible or style guide, often with little to no input outside of senior leadership and the design team.
These restrictions can alienate teams who are often reined in by these constraints lest they ‘misrepresent‘ the brand, and limit marketing’s ability to show up in interesting, transformative ways as consumer needs evolve. And so over the course of years – or decades – the brand stagnates, at least until it’s time to hit refresh with a new coat of paint.
Do away with a ‘look, don’t touch’ mentality
Today’s audiences want to see action, not ads or messages delivered from on high. They want to engage and belong within a community – experiences that brands can support in meaningful ways. As digital platforms substantially grew and evolved over the two decades that Media.Monks has been in business, we’ve long argued that the interface is the brand – that every experience you deliver becomes a reflection of your core products and services.
This is something that fashion and luxury brands excel at: what draws consumers to these brands isn’t just the craftsmanship and materials, but the premium service and luxe experience felt both online and in store on a path to purchase.
A brand is more than its product, and it’s more than a logo and typeface. Design and marketing must align so that branding becomes less about how you look and more about what you do to activate people and get them engaged: building advocacy among employees, creating community among consumers and ultimately making a positive impact on the lives of people.
Think of the brand as a platform
How does one build a brand like that? We wondered that ourselves. Late last year, Sir Martin Sorrell announced that the S4 Capital family of businesses – 24 companies made up of 6,000 people in 33 countries – would integrate into a single brand. Our challenge was to find a way to represent every culture and discipline across our team while maintaining a sense of homogeneity.
It’s hard work – no wonder no one else had done it before – but it’s not so different to the careful balancing act that every business must master: catering to audiences everywhere by combining reach and relevance. Realizing this, we began to think of our integrated organization not just as a brand, but as a platform.
Our people are our greatest asset, bringing the passion, drive and eagerness to confront any digital challenge. Despite our differences in expertise or geographical location, we gathered our people around a shared set of values that became the bedrock of our community. A large part of this meant giving people the tools and space to play with our brand and make it their own through our flexible framework. ’Media’ before the dot in our name became a variable that people and teams can switch out to represent their passions and talents through unique brand expressions.
Embrace being a hero with a thousand faces
Our flexible framework is messy, but it’s not sloppy or without order. It’s ’us’. We reinvent ourselves every day by combining and connecting our diverse talent and skills. So the framework represents our superpower: we constantly evolve and adapt to stay relevant, and we help our clients do the same. We take inspiration from the spirit of early MTV, where a community of musical and visual talent came together to build something wholly new. We want to build a similar vibe for our community of digital experts and our partners. Building a brand starts with dreaming big, right?
Of course, a joyfully disheveled identity doesn’t suit every team. That’s why we developed a visual frequency spanning expressions both lively and loud or buttoned-up and formal, depending on the category we’re servicing at a given moment. While the adage that you can’t always please everyone rings true, modern brands must cater to a wide variety of needs, interests and concerns in their audience. Different styles to communicate and engage go a long way in meeting people where they are.
Give people a stake in the process
Platforms drive engagement with a provocation. Twitter asks: What’s happening? Facebook wants to know: What’s on your mind? When you begin to think of your brand as a platform, the next step is to think about how it’s built to engage your audience and encourage them to take part. As we road-tested our brand internally over the span of months, we prompted our primary audience – our people – to push the brand to answer the question: Who are you?
This came together through Brand.Lab, an internal platform we launched that gave each of our people access to tools to personalize the brand. From email signature generators to a full github of premade assets, we wanted to inject the same energy into our own brand that we would put into our client work.
Accenture made a feeble attempt at something similar in its mid-October rebrand. The consultancy asked its people to attach one of Accenture’s core promises to their headshot – reminiscent of Facebook’s profile photo frames – to become a ’voice of change’. It was a cute idea, but did it really bring those promises to life or create ownership? Probably not. By turning inward and drawing from the creativity and feedback from our team, meanwhile, we were able to launch with a staggering amount of assets, guides and people-first communications that each represented everything our brand stood for in all its shapes and iterations.
It’s important to note that we intentionally did away with the idea of offering a stringent style guide. Instead, we issued a brand brief – a collective call-to-action designed to drum up excitement among our team and get creative juices flowing. This is an important part of building a brand like a platform: make it easy and exciting for people to become active participants in it, not harder.
Consider your brand a constant work in progress
We built our new identity on the philosophy that brands should be ever-evolving and give people the space to engage with it. While our own launch focused on our people, consumer-focused brands can take a similar strategy with their own audience. Align design and marketing efforts to create opportunities for people to see themselves in the brand and help pull it into new directions.
For us, this comes together on our website: a digital experience built by our designers that’s home to content powered by the marketing team. Through media and interactivity, visitors can take delight in following our story as it develops over time. And as people engage, draw on audience data to pinpoint opportunities to show up in new ways as audiences or channels emerge. With the flexibility to deliver, you can continue to evolve your brand to meet people’s needs and stay relevant.
So, a brand shouldn’t be an unyielding, obstinate set of rules that inhibits transformation or limits the way people engage. Think of modern brand building as a continual work in progress. Our brand remains under construction – as a team of makers, we wouldn’t have it any other way. And as we share that with the world, we can’t wait to build what comes next.
Kate Richling is chief marketing officer at Media.Monks. Jouke Vuurmans is chief creative officer at Media.Monks.