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Brand vs. Design Strategy

June 14, 2023

If you’ve shopped around different brand design studios, you probably noticed how many of them offer brand strategy as part of their services. But, often times what they’re offering isn’t brand strategy at all. In my experience, the brand strategy often offered by freelance or small-scale design studios is more creative direction and brand guidance than true brand strategy.

According to the branding textbook Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler, a “brand strategy defines positioning, differentiation, the competitive advantage, and a unique value proposition” and “is a road map that guides marketing, makes it easier for the sales force to sell more, and provides clarity, context, and inspiration to employees.”

And yes, design can help with those things too. But, brand strategy is so much more. It is not just a company’s audience profiles, brand voice, or surface level differentiator. It’s more than “your brand voice is calm and your target audience is a millennial”. It’s not just the what, it’s the how. It goes deep, and is even often ongoing and evolving with the market. Simply put, brand strategy is more marketing than it is creative direction or design. Marketing Consultant, Sally Hudson, says, “The importance of brand strategy and the cost of building brand should be understood at the highest levels of an organization and across functional areas — not just sales and marketing, but in legal, finance, operations, and human resources as well.”

So, who develops a brand’s strategy? Designing Brand Identity says, “It is usually a team of people; no one does it alone. It is a result of an extended dialogue among the leadership team that must stay focused on the customer. Global companies frequently bring in brand strategists: independent thinkers and authorities, strategic marketing firms, and brand consultants.”

Notice that brand designers are not mentioned in that list. There are so many hands that work to form a brand and I’m not sure when designers started thinking that we were the one’s to also take on the formation of a brand’s strategy. For example, a brand copywriter doesn’t offer brand strategy even though brand strategy is imperative to their work as much as it is imperative to design. A brand photographer does not offer brand strategy, even though it is imperative to their work. You get my point, right?

While a copywriter or photographer may offer a consultation that includes strategic direction, that strategic direction is not, by definition, a brand strategy.

I think for some designers, the confusion lies in the fact that creative direction is often strategic. But, that doesn’t make it brand strategy. To design well, a designer must have parts and pieces of a brand’s foundational strategy. Without it, the design falls flat. Sometimes, the client is able to supply the designer with these things and that is sufficient enough for the brand. Other times, it’s the designer’s job to ask the right questions to help uncover these things for the brand. And other times, it’s the designer’s job to realize that the project would benefit from bringing on a professional more fluent in brand strategy (and in these scenarios, the client is typically aware of the need also).

There is truly so much that goes into branding. Branding looks different for small companies than it does for big companies. Sometimes, a robust brand strategy is crucial to the success of a brand, and other times it doesn’t need to be so complex to be impactful. Sometimes, more strategy is needed before design happens and sometimes, more strategy is needed after design happens.

That’s another reason that I stopped offering strategy as a one-size-fits-all to my clients. By putting brand strategy into a box (aka a predetermined PDF template), I was undervaluing the importance of true brand strategy. Now, I am more than happy to help a client think strategically and creatively about their brand and its position within the market. But, I also know that my expertise is in strategic design (aka I am good at translating business ideas, concepts, strategies, or messaging into logos, colors, typography, and photos) and not as much in collecting business or market data and analytics to turn into strategy.

I understand the language of design; I know how it can be used for business; I am able to use my creative mind to solve a business’s problem(s). I want to help my clients use design strategically in their business.

My focus is always on design. That is my expertise. I would feel as if I was doing my clients a disservice if I were to pretend that I could offer them brand strategy apart from design strategy. That is why I’ve turned my focus to strategic design — shaped by the understanding of brand strategy — rather than focusing on brand strategy as a standalone service.

Like the topic of strategic branding as much as I do? Check out this blog post on strategically thinking about your audience.

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