Excerpts from a conversation between Ellen Bruss, Jennifer Hohn, and Andrew Hoffman on The Ad Club’s Design in Advertising Panel – Why Design Driven Brands Are So Successful. Moderated by Ken Garcia.
Ken (moderator): Welcome everyone. We’re so grateful to be in front of you all today to discuss why design driven brands are so successful. Most of the topics we’ll be discussing today are based around branding, how it affects a business, why it’s important and so on and so forth. Our first question– How and why does it make a difference when a brand follows a certain level of consistency?
Ellen: I think the biggest thing is the result. It’s been said that it’s about 35% more in sales if your brand is consistent across all avenues. Mainly because people aren’t confused, so they know at every point that [the brand] is still you, you’re just embedding yourself deeper into their psyche.
Jen: Nowadays many brands don’t have a physical space, they only live in digital spaces. So visuals, copy, tone, all of it becomes the environment. The more cohesion you establish, the more every time you put something out into the world it builds on top of everything you’ve already built. You get brand equity rather than a chaotic feeling.
Andrew: Consistency is paramount. Especially in this Covid landscape.
Ellen: And overall just cutting through the noise, right? There’s a lot of information out there so if you’re inconsistent, you’re only hurting yourself. [Consumers] are having to look at hundreds of different things, with consistency, you could occupy 10 of those spaces while being just one brand.
Ken (moderator): That leads me to my second question which is how do you make design consistent on all channels from advertising to digital and collateral?
Ellen: For us, we try to create a brand that has, what we call, legs. It’s not just a logo. It’s copy, other brand expressions, submarks, photography, illustration, colors, all of those pieces and parts. Oftentimes you’re rolling out across a huge platform, so in order to do that you need a lot of different things so that it’s not looking too repetitive, yet it maintains consistency while being expansive.
Jen: If you look at a brand system today as having to be flexible at the same time that you’re looking for those consistent threads that pull it all together, you begin to realize that you really need to look at each channel as its own thing. Hopefully, you’ve built a toolbox that is big enough to serve every channel while still feeling like it’s a part of the family.
Andrew: Yeah, the flexible system is key. We call it responsive branding, or digitally responsive design. You can use the same theory when analyzing branding or looking at how a logo is broken down and used on different forms of media.
Ellen: I love that. Responsive is a really good way of putting it.
Ken (moderator): How do you involve design early on in the process in order to strengthen a brand?
Ellen: We’re very design forward. We produce all of the positioning and guiding documents first and then the design follows that. It’s super important to us that the design follows the brand pillars so that it has strategy and purpose behind it. There is a reason for every color, there is a reason for every word, there is a reason for everything.
Jen: The earlier design is involved, the more it influences every step of the process. If you think about a new product in the market, a lot of the time consumers are curious to know how it works. Design offers balance– how does a product matter to a consumer while keeping us grounded in the product?
Andrew: It all goes back to this concept of consistency. Design, strategy, voice and tone, it all has to coincide, especially if you’re pitching an ad campaign.
Ellen: Agreed. One doesn’t happen without the other.
Ken (moderator): Early in the design process we create style boards and pair them with an introduction copy. It gives clients the chance to react not only visually, but verbally. You get feedback from the beginning and can refine everything from there.
Ellen: We call that the ‘Ken Romance Copy’. It’s very poetic– meant to set a real mood. It definitely helps clients start to imagine the brand and then we know where we’re going as we get further into it.
Ken (moderator): But the hard part is, how do you convince clients to see the value in that?
Jen: You really have to maximize investments. If you’re putting the effort forward, it should all be building on what came before it. That’s how companies grow, that’s how companies gain trust. You have to follow the rules in the beginning in order to get that freedom later.
Andrew: Trust is the perfect adjective for that because we’re being hired for our expertise. Clients hire us to help them, but at the same time they know what they do better than you do.
Ellen: It’s important to ask a million questions in the beginning so that you know you understand their field. The brand is not about personal gratification.
Audience Member: Have you found that there’s a structure to how you ask those questions?
Ellen: We have a document that we refer to as ‘Brand Homework’ that we give to clients and it really works. It’s a series of questions that we have our clients fill out separately so we can see if and how their answers are aligning or not. If the team is on the same page the answers come back relatively consistent, but it’s a very helpful process for us to notice every detail.
Jen: With a process like that, it starts a series of internal conversations. Clients get the chance to work out their differences and personal preferences.
Ellen: And it’s fun for them to see each other’s responses because a lot of the time there are details that they’ve never gotten the chance to discuss. They’re always amazed by the other’s responses and it helps keep them focused when you’re starting the brand process.
Ken (moderator): The most important things to notice are where they don’t overlap.
Andrew: We do a similar process and, more often than not, the client hasn’t even thought about those questions before, so it can be enlightening.
Jen: It gives a sense of what everyone’s preferences are too. What brands in particular do our clients really admire? Do they like something clean and simple? Or do they like something more intense? Personal and team preferences help us determine if they are the audience for their own brand, and sometimes they’re not. Trying to get them to look at the brand with the audience in mind is key.
Ken (moderator): How do you keep brands fresh over the years while maintaining that sense of consistency? And where do advertising campaigns come in?
Jen: It’s a lot of education at the first stage of the process. The core identity; a logo, key colors, maybe even the typography, will last longer than any trend. It’s important to have something recognizable that can also be built on. From there, every one to three years brands should be doing different campaigns that grab attention from new spheres. Ideally, these [campaigns] are a little bit different from your brand, depending on your goals, but they should have threads that keep everything tethered to the core.
Andrew: Ad campaigns are very focused on the current moment, but a brand is timeless. It’s important to remember that people change and brands will change overtime, but it’s up to the team to determine how and when to pivot.
Ellen: When we created Marczyk Fine Foods, we wrote an imagined history in order to build character for the brand. We corresponded marks to build a brand with history. It’s a good strategy for a small company: to build small, yet expansive details into the brand at the very beginning so that they can move through time while still being true to their core. The brand is almost 20 years old and we still use different pieces depending on different instances and it has been really effective.
Ken (moderator): It’s also about trying not to follow too many trends because they’re, obviously, going to end soon.
Ellen: It’s about freshness, not trendiness.
Andrew: It’s definitely okay for an ad campaign to follow a trend, but for brands that strive for timelessness and uniqueness you really don’t want to use a trendy logo.
Ellen: Instead of following design trends, Ken and I try to look at different places when searching for inspiration. We look at architecture, art, and other realms so that we have fresh minds. A certain color can change an entire mood or personality.
Jen: There is a lot more access to design now so everyone has the tools to make things. That’s why it’s even more important for people in the industry to grab inspiration from other places, not the templates, not the things that are happening over and over.
Ken (moderator): Everything we have access to is just a tool. It comes down to creating something unique that comes from your emotions, information you have, and the problem that you’re trying to solve.
Ellen: Those tools and increased access create layers that ultimately raise our work up. It gets to sit at a place of value. It has a strategy behind it that online and stock templates don’t give to clients.
Andrew: Technology changes but quality is timeless. When I graduated college, it was hard for someone to create a logo and get it printed. You need an expensive setup, and now you can do it in five minutes. But I think we can all agree that quality will never change, something is either good or it’s not.
Ellen: Things like VR are gonna blow up the world. The possibilities are endless.
Jen: And people are really looking for environmental stimulation now. They want to go experience something but they want to do it from their living room. The more people get comfortable with the virtual world, the more that will start to seep into the design sphere. But looking at the changes in technology over time, the thing that’s most important is learning how to think and solve creative problems.
Audience Member: What is some advice for someone in a creative role who is managing mid-level production designers? How do you take someone and put them on a career path towards being an art director if they’ve got the skill?
Andrew: It’s all about if they want to, it’s up to the individual.
Jen: A lot of production designers that I work with are fine artists in their free time. They’re structured when they clock in and then do wildly creative things when they clock out. Finding someone who has the skill set but not the confidence, and giving them the chance to change the way they think. People in structured roles can’t cross over if they’re not given the chance.
Ellen: I think it’s all about opportunity. It takes patience and time, and Ken could probably speak more on this, but it’s about taking someone and putting them in a situation that might be over their head and seeing how they work through it. If they do well, then move to the next step, but you have to start with the opportunity in order to break through their fears.
Ken (moderator): Meeting one-on-one is really important. Find out what their goals and aspirations are. Get in touch with them emotionally first and really gain their trust. It also depends on their skill sets too, what do they do well? What do they not do well? And then how can you help them move forward? When you show someone you care, it opens their mind to more opportunities.
Ellen: Inspiration, in any field, is important because it creates this sense of possibility. Inspire first, teach second.
Ken (moderator): Where do you see the future of design going? What skills will be most important?
Jen: We’re definitely hitting on adaptability, everything is constantly changing. If you have a learning mentality you can learn, unlearn, and relearn. You can keep up with the changes, you’ll be willing and able to take on new challenges and it makes everything much more fun.
Andrew: All designers will always have one area in which they’re stronger, but being well-versed will help you succeed.
Ellen: Design has become so many things, and the unique opportunity we have is to touch so many parts of a brand. It’s funny, we refer to designers as creatives, but the amount of technology that they need to understand at this point in the world is crazy. Designers have had to become more mathematical and scientific.
Andrew: Luckily, technology is becoming easier for us to learn.
Ken (moderator): The skill of knowing when to push forward is important. Just don’t fall in love with the first thing you do. Keep pushing beyond what you know. You’re only as good as your last project.
Andrew: Everything keeps moving forward so learn how to learn.
The previous text has been modified for clarity.