No one should probably have to say this out loud, but clients (also, humans in general) hate paying for things they don’t get. In the creative industry, that often comes in a few forms: campaigns that don’t pay off, websites that break, and brand strategy that exists in a PowerPoint deck and nowhere else.
Branding sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s thinky. It’s high level. And it’s fuzzy as a deliverable; especially because depending on what agency you’re dealing with, if you sign on for brand strategy you might get anything from a logo and color choices to a fully researched insight bomb that lays out every facet of your company’s DNA in great detail.
At Edgar Allan, we think solid brand strategy is really important to a company or product’s success (and we do our work closer to the insight bomb/DNA end of the spectrum, FWIW), but we engage with a lot of potential clients who…don’t.
We think implementing a Content Design mindset can help, however. Here’s how.
Let’s get this out of the way first: brand shouldn’t be a dirty word.
Oh, brand. We want to write odes to you. We want to hold up a boombox outside your window in the middle of the night. We understand you, even when no one else does.
Some of our clients, though, have been burned by the branding process. Some don’t see the practical ramifications of it. And some think it’s an expensive bunch of runaround that doesn’t result in any action. And that’s fair, because it is difficult to bridge the gap between brand thinking and brand doing.
But that’s not because brand doesn’t have value. It’s because a lot of agencies have a hard time with brand activation and implementation. But why?
Creating a solid brand is tricky. But putting it to work can be even trickier, especially when clients, creative teams and customers aren’t in sync.
The issue we often hear from clients — that they’ve spent way too much money and energy creating a brand strategy that went nowhere and no, thank you, they’re not interested in going through that process again — is a product of the way that agencies typically work.
To implement a good brand, you start with the insight, story, audience research and positioning presented in a brand strategy deck. But to make it real, to test if it’s the right story, and to see it create awareness or conversion, those ideas and that DNA has to be present in places audiences encounter it (and I promise you, they’re not reading your strategy PDFs). That means on a website (a company’s most important owned digital asset), brand should be woven into navigation, copy, design and build — all the way through, from top to bottom. The thing is, getting it there requires collaboration and effort, and sometimes that’s just hard, especially with tight budgets and schedules.
Here’s a rundown of how a brand to build project often looks with regard to tasks and responsibilities:
1. Brand Exploration and Definition (Strategist)
2. Wireframes (UX Architect)
3. Copy Creation (Writer)
4. Design (Designer)
5. Build (Developer)
Note that everyone has their own “part” to play. They don’t overlap, and the strategist — and the focus on brand — falls away pretty quickly. By week two in cases where teams are particularly disconnected, even.
Why does brand thinking get lost so quickly? Two potential reasons:
1. Strategists hand over carefully crafted brands and just expect teams to run with them, with little background or context. UX, Writing and Design are left to their own devices to interpret brand the way they see fit…or not at all. It’s odd: In development, there’s always a “cutover” period, where the agency phases off the project and the client phases in. It’s not a cold hand-off. But between brand and implementation, it’s often pretty abrupt.
2. Projects aren’t scoped or planned well, and creatives get rushed and out of time. When it’s crunch time, continually asking brand and audience-focused questions seems less important than just getting the thing done.
One solution: Put collaboration and users at the center of the process with Content Design.
Rather than having creatives all work independently and hoping that brand essence and vibe will find its way to the finish line, Content Design can work to preserve not just audience-focused thinking but brand thinking throughout the process.
A website project including Content Design would flow something like this:
1. Brand Exploration & Definition (Strategist)
2. Content Discovery (Content Designer, UX Architect, Designer, Strategist)
3. Wireframe, Writing & Design (Content Designer, UX Architect & Designer…everyone in the pool)
4. Build (Developer)
Note the overlap of roles and the bundling of activities — this model turns on collaboration. Rather than sending writers off to write and designers to design, writers and designers work together, with input from up-front audience research and content discovery to craft the user experience. And the brand isn’t handed off cold from strategist to team — it’s placed at the center of the work and ushered through the project from start to finish, informing not only the copy but also the design and development.
This process may sound idyllic. That’s because it is.
In an ideal world, each of these creative pros would work seamlessly together, and there would be zero issues moving to this kind of integrated process. We don’t live in an ideal world, though, so we’re not going to lie: moving to a Content Design process is challenging. Switching teams to a Content Design mindset and workflow is hard, and definitely harder (at least at first) than letting every team work independently of one another.
But it’s also really worth doing, and the more practice your teams get at it, the easier it will get.
The way that most creative teams build websites now isn’t because it’s the best way to build a website — it’s because that’s the process that we’ve fallen into over the past 20 or so years as web has become one of the most important facets of a brand’s identity.
Moving to Content Design will take time, but we believe that it is definitely time well spent. Any time you put the user at the center of the experience is an improvement. And any time you prioritize cross-discipline collaboration, teams grow and improve, too.