Debbie Millman, brand strategist and author of Brand Bible, describes branding as “deliberate differentiation.”
When brands are successful, they give those who share the same values and vision for the future a way to be part of something bigger than themselves.
When remarkable brands tell stories and act in alignment with their values, it inspires people to take action, support movements, and create change together.
In the +Acumen Master Class, Debbie Millman on Branding for Social Change, she outlines the five steps required to build a remarkable brand for social change. Use this summary of her process as a starting point to develop a brand for your own social change venture or initiative.
#1 - Understand the Need for Your Brand
Before you start building a new brand, Millman recommends answering the question:
Why are you the best brand to fulfill a need in the marketplace or community?
When you answer this question explicitly in one sentence, you clarify your organization's purpose and benefits to the people you serve.
If you cannot articulate your strategic reason for being, your brand likely isn’t needed.
Thinking strategically about how your brand is set apart from the rest allows you to own and defend your value proposition to your specific audience. If there are existing brands that serve the same audience, you need to understand precisely how your approach or solution is different.
Girl Scouts Case Study
In the Branding for Social Change Master Class, Millman interviews Bobby Martin and Jennifer Kinon, co-founders of Original Champions of Design (OCD), about their project to rebrand the Girl Scouts.
When the Girl Scouts first came to them, the organization was seeking a redesign of the logo created in 1978 by iconic designer, Saul Bass.
After thirty years, they felt it was time for an overhaul. With an established presence across North America and a mission to uplift women, the Girl Scouts had a clear strategic reason for being. However, they needed a refreshed brand presence..
OCD realized there was a considerable amount of brand equity and emotional connection already built into the organization. Pulling from visual history dating back to 1910, Bobby and Jennifer saw a long narrative of visual elements and recognized that the Girl Scouts did not need a new logo.
Instead what they required was a more extensive system of brand elements that could be used by the individual chapters in their own way, while still achieving a consistent brand identity.
As Jennifer summarizes, “A brand almost always requires a system...we look at the whole visual universe of that product, of that person, of that nonprofit, to understand what the elements are that they have been using over time (and) their visual history. Then we try to figure out: where do they project their business to go in the future; who will that audience be?”
#2 - Research: Get Input from Your Potential Audience
After establishing your strategic reason for being, you need to speak with your potential audience and gain their input on how they perceive your brand. Engaging your customers or constituents early allows you to understand what makes your audience feel connected to the work you are doing and how they feel about what you are creating.
Depending on your needs, there are several research methods you can use:
Small focus groups and one-on-one interviews help you gain a qualitative understanding of what makes them feel connected and included.
Observing potential or current customers interacting with your brand illuminates how your brand fits into their life.
Diagnostic research looks at the current mindset of customers, (i.e., what does this visual mean to you?)
Projective research looks at possibilities for the future and gathers input to develop your brand (i.e., how would you feel about this direction?)
Collecting themes from your potential audience will give you clues about the the type of branding and communications that will resonate most with them.
This understanding will help you translate your values into language and visuals that resonate with your audience.
Debbie reminds us that we need to, “understand what you don’t know that you might not realize you don’t know.”
If you have an existing audience and are considering rebranding, engaging them is critical to ensure the direction you’re heading is aligned with their values. The decision by email provider, Convert Kit, to rebrand under a new name was so poorly received by their community that they renounced the name change.
Girl Scouts Case Study
OCD began the research phase of the Girl Scouts brand update with a deep dive into the archives, looking at visual artifacts from 1910.
Next, they brought current scouts into the conversation through collage-making sessions. They asked questions like, “What reminds you of Girl Scouts?” and “What are the things that you love?” This process helped OCD visualize what was meaningful to them, what type of organization they wanted to be involved with, how they felt about Girls Scouts right now, and where they wanted to see it headed.
OCD also interviewed stakeholders including troop leaders and the most involved community members, called ‘green bloods.’ One of the most informative research activities Jennifer and Bobby undertook was joining a Girl Scout convention where they were directly immersed in the organizational culture.
#3 - Positioning: Position Your Brand in the Marketplace
“Creating a platform for the brand to occupy is positioning” - Debbie Millman
With an understanding of your brand's strategic reason for being (step 1), and input from your target audience (step 2), you have the information you need to position your brand within the marketplace.
Framing your brand requires analyzing the context your brand lives in and crafting messaging that sets you apart from alternatives.
Brian Collins, founder of Collins, describes positioning as the combination of three elements:
How does your offering compare to theirs in terms of story?
Is that promise materializing in performance?
Are you innovating in that space, and will your impact last?
Once you have clarity on the positioning of your brand compared to alternatives, the next step is to communicate it to prospective clients and other players in the marketplace.
The two primary tools for this communication are a positioning statement, which is an internal and descriptive ‘North Star’ to guide your work, and a tagline or slogan, which is generally a single line that will be memorable to customers and inspire them to believe in what you believe.
Girl Scouts Case Study
The focus of the Girl Scouts rebrand was less about messaging and direction, and more about designing a visual system that would align with their needs and vision.
At the time, the organization was going through internal shifts to reduce the numbers of councils, and external changes to update programming and curriculum. OCD wanted to give them a new brand system that would support their plans for the future while remaining flexible and straightforward.
The solution was to give individual councils more brand assets that they had freedom and flexibility to use in their own mix-and-match style while reducing overall brand inconsistencies.
#4 - Design: Bring Your Brand to Life
At this stage, you have determined your brand’s purpose, relevance, and positioning. The next step is to translate those ideas into visual brand elements to express the same.
The visual expression of a brand that often comes to mind first is a logo. A logo is a symbol that serves as a visual shortcut to help people identify your work. Other visual elements include the color palette, typography, imagery, and graphics.
Typically, a brand design is expressed first through a creative brief which outlines the challenge, the componentry, the characteristics and the criteria for success.
Debbie explains the value of a creative brief, “I find that one day of working on a creative brief can prevent two weeks of mistakes, maybe more, maybe two months of mistakes. A lot of people are very anxious to get the design process started when creating new identities and often circumvent a creative brief feeling like somehow that will curtail what is possible, but I think the opposite is true. I think a creative brief gives you the ability to focus and then go deep and wide within that focus to be able to deliver the best possible outcome.”
In this design phase, it's essential for the visual elements to be aligned with the brand values and messaging determined in earlier stages.
Girl Scouts Case Study
After OCD completed the research phase, they had a plethora of insights to inform the visual brand identity. Their primary task in the design phase was to translate the abstract concepts they had collected into visuals that served to demonstrate the same ideas concretely.
Research also informed what elements needed to be in the system. For example, OCD determined that a custom and versatile typeface, illustration-style graphics, and a full brand architecture would be required for the new brand system to be successful.
The design charted how all the brand elements visually come together. OCD came up with several iterations of the design before first presenting to Girl Scouts, including options that were both evolutionary and revolutionary to show shortcomings and potential of each direction.
#5 - Implementation: Bring the Brand to Market
Now that you understand your brand’s purpose, your audience’s desires, and your visual elements, the final stage is sharing your brand with the world.
Here you take the visual elements designed in step 4 and start to push them out through channels like your website, storefront, advertising, public relations, social media, and other marketing and communications collateral.
In this phase it is crucial that brand elements are consistent across channels so that, together, your brand translates your core values and messages to your audience.
Girl Scouts Case Study
The implementation phase for unveiling the new Girl Scout’s brand architecture included gathering input from the girls to confirm they liked it. Internally, they launched the new identity with case studies to demonstrate the new brand system in action.
OCD also created a 96-page brand user guide, or identity guidelines document, which served as a reference manual to show how the new brand elements and architecture work together. The guide outlined ‘brand rules’ to help councils feel empowered to engage with the updated brand on a day-to-day basis.
A brand user guide helps users determine if the implementation is ‘on brand’ versus ‘off track’. On brand means the implementation follows guidelines in an appropriate way. If it’s veering off track, the brand guide helps users make adjustments to realign.
One thing to keep in mind as you go through this five-step branding process that Millman outlines is that your brand will likely be an evolution from the beginning.
As you progress over the life of your organization, you will gain more clarity about your brand identity,voice, values and messaging.
For more insights and exercises to help you take your branding to the next level, enroll in the Debbie Millman on Branding for Social Change +Acumen Master Class.