Building a whole brand, not just a style guide.


We were sitting around a conference table in Bellevue, a few weeks ago, presenting our research results and proposed brand strategy for an enterprise software company.

There were six people in the room and ten members of the senior leadership on the line from the USA, Switzerland and India. I thought it was going pretty well, but right before we got to our conclusions, the CEO broke in.

“Noah, can I stop you for a second?”

I took a sip of water and shot a glance at Matty, our creative director. Eyebrow up.

"Does it feel true?

What does this mean for us? How does this effect how we work on a day-to-day basis?”

“As you listen to this,” the CEO continued to his team, “I want you to think about three things. The first is, does it feel true? When you hear this I want you to ask, does this sound like us? Second, is it inspiring? Does it excite you? And finally, and this is the most important part, what does this mean for us? How does this effect how we work on a day-to-day basis?”

Matty nodded slightly. Internally, I high-fived our client.

The CEO went on, “This brand strategy is like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Of course it sounds great, who wouldn’t want to be a citizen of this country? But it means something entirely different to have to live it. So I want you to give this some serious thought.”

Amen brother.

Seems like branding projects typically fall into one of two categories: transformative business initiative that helps reinforce culture and drive growth, or colossal waste of marketing dollars and time. Invariably, the difference is CEO involvement and participation.
We’ve been lucky enough to work with clients that understand that brand is much more than marketing. It’s a collective personality. A way of doing things that remains consistent as faces and job titles change. And it is not something to be undertaken lightly. Not liking a logo or a color isn’t a good enough reason to dive headlong into a rebrand (though a tweak or two to the visual identity probably won’t hurt).

Rebrands can be transformative initiatives or colossal wastes of time.

A few years ago we were asked to help evolve the brand of a different software company, even though it had just been rebranded four years earlier. The problem was a lack of cohesiveness and personality beyond the visual identity. The brand was hollow. To quote my friend Paul, “There was no there there.” Our customer interviews revealed a frustrated and confused market and, perhaps most insightfully of all, one employee referred to our client as, “A loose federation of companies.”


Finally, while presenting our brand strategy, we couldn’t help but notice that their CEO was not present. “It’s not really his thing,” we were told.
Uh huh. Twenty months later we were back. The company had the same issues, the same lack of cohesion. The work we had done sat gathering cyber-dust in a PDF, ignored by all but a handful of new and confused marketing coordinators.

Only this time it was different. There was a new CEO and a new feeling in the air. Change was afoot. Brand was a part of it, of course, but only a part of it. There was a new approach to software development. New hiring (and firing) practices. A new vision and clear goals set. The brand was an integral part of announcing this change, both inside the company and outside, and Alex, the CEO, was intimately involved in the process. He’d defer to our client and our team on matters of aesthetics, like nuances of color, but he made sure that our work remained consistent with his vision of the company. Alex came to our meetings engaged and excited. “You’re the best part of my day,” he’d often say.

And I can see why. Changing the culture at a company is incredibly difficult, but working on the brand is one area where he could see immediate improvement. Our meetings were opportunities for him to feel inspired and renew his own excitement for the work ahead.

Alex stayed only just over a year, but we still feel the transformation he enacted every time we walk into the office. The whole tenor of the building has changed and the business continues to attract good, talented people who drive the business forward in smart and innovative ways. He built something more lasting than his own charisma and leadership. He built a whole brand.

That’s why Matty and I got so excited the other day in Bellevue when we heard this CEO say, “We have to live this.” We’ve seen how powerful brands are when the CEO is on-board and engaged. His involvement told us (and his management team) that he’s interested in creating something lasting; a whole brand, not just a style guide. He’s building a collective personality that endures, continuing to have a positive impact on not only the bottom line, but on the lives of the people who contribute to it.