Benefits of Our Integrated Branding Process
Our integrated branding process supports social impact leaders through an in-depth look at the core aspects of your organization.
One of our sweet spots as a creative agency is working with organizations that have realized that it’s time to update their brand — including their visual identity, digital presence, and messaging. They know that something feels “off” but they’re unsure how to express their current identity as an organization while they’re in transition.
How can a social impact leader take their organization through this transition when you’re still trying to figure it out? You might be surprised to discover that the branding process itself can bring clarity at a depth that goes far beyond your logo and website.
While we expect that other creative agencies have a similar effect on their clients’ evolution, we can only speak from our own experiences. With that caveat, let’s break down our integrated branding process and examine how it can help you define or redefine your brand — even when you don’t quite know where you’re headed.
Before We Dive in… Is Your Organization in Transition?
An organization-wide change can be driven by several factors. Yours is at an inflection point when one or more of the following conditions occur:
You have had a leadership change that’s introduced a fresh perspective and focus
Your organization is new or ready to grow beyond your roots
Your legacy website is difficult to update and has a poor user experience
You are evolving your mission, programs, focus, and/or size
Your visual identity looks and feels “dated”
A shift or repositioning of the organization isn’t reflected in your imagery and messaging
Your messaging doesn’t reflect the current state, purpose, positioning, or theory of change central to your organization
You realize that your organization needs to elevate their digital strategy to compete in the attention economy
A change in your issue area has prompted a pivot in your organization
The market in which your social enterprise operates has shifted
The needs of the community you serve have changed
Technology or other operational changes are driving you to keep up or lose relevance
Social impact organizations typically evolve organically and sometimes struggle to keep their digital presence and brand expression up to date as they change. This can lead to a dissonance between current messaging and communications, collateral, programs, and even the mission and vision of the organization. Even something as simple as branded swag can fail to represent your organization as it exists today.
In short, if it feels like you have outgrown your current brand, website, messaging, and/or digital presence, you are likely in transition.
It’s a significant investment in time and resources to rethink who you are from the ground up. But it’s worth it. We have seen the branding process get CEOs, EDs, Development teams, staff, and Communications Directors as well as volunteers and community members to align and rally behind their brand and mission with newfound enthusiasm.
Our branding process can give everyone in an organization an opportunity to stop and pay attention, focus on their ethos, culture, and external communications and examine every visual identity element. In fact, it forces you to stop and pay attention; to think deeply about aspects of your brand that you may not have considered previously.
Our Integrated Branding Process
It’s common for people to think of visual identity and messaging as separate aspects of an organization. We think of them as an intertwined lattice that creates a complete brand experience.
Think about visiting the website of any social impact organization. The visual and written elements exist in the context of each other. A good branding experience nails the balance between style and substance. This is why we develop branding and messaging together in our integrated branding process. Below, we’ll discuss these elements individually, but always know that they work in unison.
Brand Look & Feel
Your visual identity should be a system of visual elements that people identify with your brand. For that reason, we typically start a visual identity project with moodboards. We explore color, typography, illustration styles, photo treatments, the use of photos and illustrations, shapes and symbolism, and other components of the visual brand system.
Moodboards are a tool that helps collaborative teams have a conversation about brand system components from a concrete, rather than theoretical, perspective. We typically show 2 - 4 different moodboards during our initial presentation. We discuss the strategic choices behind each component. Typically, we also include initial messaging ideas to integrate the visual system and messaging from day one.
With several brand expression directions to choose from, we ask our clients to have an internal discussion about which moodboard elements best capture the essence of the organization and why. This is deep work. It forces you to closely consider how your organization is seen in the world.
Every component of the visual brand system is up for discussion. Preparing feedback for us to use in refining your brand’s visual direction requires that you articulate why elements of the moodboards do and do not represent your brand. This includes how early messaging elements mesh with the visual treatment of fonts and copy.
5 Questions to Consider About Your Brand Expression
Take a deep dive into concepts you should explore when examining your visual brand expression and system.
Your Visual Identity is a Container for Meaning
Deeply examining all of the elements of moodboards and generating actionable feedback from your thoughts on your brand expression can seem like a lot to think through. It is. And that’s the point. The branding process requires that you make decisions about who you are as an organization. It’s nearly impossible to make definitive decisions about your brand identity without an extensive understanding of your organization. So go ahead. Geek out on everything. Now is the perfect opportunity to create a container of meaning for your brand.
Over the years we’ve been doing branding work, the mantra “Your brand is a container that you pour meaning into.” has served us and our clients well. It helps everyone understand that every choice in the process from shapes, colors, fonts, etc. that forms your organization’s aesthetic conveys meaning to stakeholders and external audiences. But a logo doesn’t convey everything — nor should it. You create meaning over time by consistently employing the integrated visual and messaging brand expression over time.
The branding process gives you time to contemplate and reach consensus about which elements of your brand system truly express who you are today and who you want to be in the future.
The Sprint Method Moves the Process Forward
We sprint with our clients every week. Each Thursday, we present our work and the strategic thinking behind it. Typically, we present visual and messaging elements during the sprint. We encourage clients to set aside a significant amount of post-sprint time on Thursday or Friday to discuss what’s been presented and give us consolidated feedback. Your ability to produce actionable feedback is dependent on discussions among your team and resolving any differences in opinion or perspective.
One week at a time, the sprint method helps us create your visual identity and overarching messaging. By default, you have to sit down as a team and have an in-depth discussion about the culture, ethos, and important communications points of your organization. In order to give us feedback that leads to final designs and messaging, you need to reach decisions. Over time, that process brings increasing clarity to the direction of your organization.
To see how messaging and design work together, look no further than the work we did with EarthRights International for their Frontlines of Climate Justice campaign. Its bold copy treatment punches hard from both a visual and message perspective. The two work together to deliver the organization’s strong stance on their issue area.
From this sample billboard to swag mockups, it’s easy to see how branding and messaging work as an interwoven system.
The messaging elements are the result of clarity around the focus of their campaign. Let’s look at some of the messaging components we developed with them as examples of how the messaging process can help define or redefine an organization’s brand.
This work includes Positioning (their place within the climate justice ecosystem and their relationship to other organizations in that space) and their Differentiation (what makes their organization unique in the climate justice ecosystem). The process of defining the two elements led to a short but detailed description of their primary focus, “We support Indigenous-led territorial defense movements to resist fossil fuel and other climate-destroying projects.”
We developed this statement together over several iterations. In the end we were able to decide on a strong positioning statement for the campaign. In the sample billboard, you can see how this message is integrated into a visual brand system unique to the Frontlines of Climate Justice campaign.
This type of messaging often surfaces on the Homepage and About page. It has four components.
Brand Story - Frequently referred to as an organization’s “Why”, this long-form copy lays out the backstory of an organization and describes what they do today to create their desired future state. This messaging component is often found on the About page of a website.
General Messaging - This is a more succinct version of the Brand Story, often sent to journalists who need a short description of an organization.
Core Message - This component is the minimum default message that describes the organization. It’s used where space is limited, such as in a conference program.
Elevator Pitch - Sometimes called a ‘Party Pitch’ this is a version of the Brand Story used during casual events. It’s jargon-free and meant to be understood by anyone.
You can probably see how the messaging, just like the visual branding, requires that decisions be made about how to define and describe your organization. The two elements inform each other, which is why we use an integrated branding process.
Target Audiences + Voice, Tone, and Personality
We typically break this up into two parts. But the key here is to know that who you speak to and how you address them is critical to defining your organization. And you must be sure that the visual elements and the tone of the messaging are cohesive. If not, today’s savvy audiences will feel disconnected from both.
Putting it All Together
By now, you probably have a clear idea about how the process of co-developing the visual identity and messaging forces you to step away from day-to-day operations and find clarity around the direction of your organization.
When you’re looking at the Homepage design with a value statement at the top, you have to decide what message you want to communicate to a site visitor. It has to be clear and succinct. You only achieve that when you have determined the core nature of your organization, reached a conclusion about where your organization is today, and charted a path for how to reach the future state you’re working toward.
Even when you get the words right, the tone and visual expression have to match. When we take the design elements from the moodboards we mentioned earlier, combine them with the messaging we co-develop, and merge them on a website and throughout every touchpoint you have with your audiences, customers, and funders, it all comes together as a singular coherent brand expression. The website design melds with content and visual design to create a strategic information flow that encourages site visitors to engage with your brand and support your organization.
Decisions = Definition
Creating designs and crafting communications both require careful strategic thought and a series of decisions. As people go through the branding process, choices must be made. Step by step, each resolution further defines the organization.
Over the years, we have seen how interweaving visual design and messaging can have profound positive effects on our clients. It has helped them discover where they have scope creep. It has provided a means by which to delineate and describe their niche. It has led to a more clear expression of their theory of change, and even changed how they run their organizations.
Most impactful, we have seen our integrated branding process play a central role in transforming an organization from one in a murky transitional period, to one that is confident in its direction, focus, and purpose.
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