The Iceberg Principle | John Sotirakis
I attended a great lecture by ThoughForm’s John Sotirakis recently as part of local printer Trust Franklin Press’ lecture series.
John, who is the creative director and branding guru from ThoughtForm’s (formerly Agnew Moyer Smith) team, took time out to describe a bit of a “behind the scenes” look into their process of developing a branding program. The gist of his talk was that, while a branding and identity program should appear to be simple and clear on its surface, much upfront work, planning and research is done in working with the client at the front of the process. Hence the “iceberg principle” – 90% of the branding effort is unseen. Having worked on John’s team during my career, his presentation reminded me of why he is one of the foremost thinkers (and a kind of a local hero) on the subject of branding. He, like me, is a self-proclaimed “branding geek” … another reason I love hearing him talk!
In his example of the American Planning Association identity (APA), the evaluation and planning tactics he used working with APA’s national governing organization and their associated local chapter sub units reminded me of some of the larger branding projects I have worked on, so this talk was especially interesting.
Here are some of the take-aways from my notes:
Branding can be organized into a four phase process:
- Discovery (Understanding & Strategy)
- Brand Structure (Articulation of the brand “picture”)
- Brand Expression (Execution of branded elements / Design)
- Guidelines (Standards, Templates and Guidelines for use)
Since it’s Discovery that constitutes much of the upfront analysis and planning work of a branding program, John spent the majority of the talk discussing this first phase.
One of the most important parts of the Discovery phase is taking a look at all of the existing material within an organization. This can include external as well as internal communications collateral, templates, brochureware, etc.
John advocates a thorough process of evaluating each piece’s effectiveness across a spectrum of criteria. In other words, for a given brochure – how well does it express the desired personality of the brand? How well does it maintain the consistency of the brand’s parent pieces? How well does it the meet expectations?
John also spoke about examining the brand from a personality profile standpoint. Much in the way traditional DISC or personality profiles are used to evaluate, a brand can be evaluated across a wide spectrum of traits. Ranging from one extreme to the other, John recommends looking across an organization and ask, “Friendly” or “Reserved,” “Outspoken” or “Subdued,” or even “beer” or “champagne.” By plotting where across a continuum these traits fall, it can give valuable insight into the target for a brands personality. John also suggests that this type of exploration should be done openly and publicly.
If Your Brand Was A Magazine
John also described an additional exercise as asking the branding team stakeholders a simple question:
“If your brand was a magazine, which one would it be?”
This is a clever and fun way to get to the heart of the perceived “personality” of a given brand in the eyes of those in charge. Again, John urges those who engage in this process to do so publicly.
In the same way the brand’s stakeholders can help uncover the personality of an organization by describing it as a magazine, it can also be useful to articulate it with “gut reaction” word associations. “When I say ‘Process,’ you say ‘xxxx’ “
John also described a process that seemed familiar to us here in SEI Marketing, and that’s position statements. By breaking the branding team up into groups, A, B C and D, and asking each to write statements that describe the position (desired outcome) of the brand, useful information can be gathered. John outlined a template for these statements, following a “_______ + ______ + ______ = _______” approach.
By using a series of qualitative questions and statements, John also outlined a process of measuring the audience perception across a “Agree” to “Disagree” continuum. This might include things like color theory, familiarity and statements that test a variety of hypotheses.
As an interesting approach to measuring a given brand’s performance against other similar organizations, John revealed a useful “points distribution” system. By distributing a total number of points (20) across a series of criteria for a brand against other competitor brands, you can begin to see patterns or “thin spots” reveal themselves regarding these factors. This can be particularly useful in assessing the needs of the brand, or the kind of work a given identity system must do to support the goals of the organization. It may also uncover many issues that extend beyond the brand’s identity itself and may lend itself to consideration of factors deeper than the superficial public-facing presence.
Another familiar exercise described by John was to examine the brand from the perspective of a variety of relevant personas. In other words, how does a potential customer view our brand? A potential collaborator? An industry partner? A stakeholder? These all give a branding team useful insight into the end user.
John also discussed the process of market evalation by way of a quadrant plot approach. By using a 2 x 2 matrix, on one axis spanning from “Reactive > to > Proactive” and the other “Discreet > to > Outspoken” you can plot the perception of the brand by the stakeholders. This can also work to get to the heart of what makes up a brand’s stance on what it is willing and is not willing to say and do.
John wrapped up his discussion of the Discovery phase by urging branding teams to finally ask another simple question of the branding team’s stakeholders; “What would success of the branding program look like?”
John also notes the importance of a “Brand Champion” within the client organization. It is most often incredibly difficult to gain and maintain the needed momentum for a successful branding program effort without the help and support of an internal resource. This “champion” makes certain that the branding effort maintains the presenence needed within and organization and keeps the “seat at the table.” Without this person at the center, it can be difficult for the effort to hold the priority it needs to among other issues.
2 – Brand Structure:
Understand and Articulate Brand Structure
From here, as John describes, the branding process moves to 2 – Brand Structure, where the branding program begins to take shape. The team begins to articulate the brand configurations of signatures / wordmarks and in context of any subrands or secondary business units.
3 - Brand Expression:
Through the design process, the brand voice and personality is extended throughout the various pieces of collateral. Here is where we begin to see a “family” of material form, with common elements and theme tying the pieces together. This is where consistency in branding has real value and power, keeping the character of the brand firmly intact.
4 - Guidelines:
Documentation of Guidelines
As John points out, perhaps one of the most important final steps in any program is to document and articulate guidance for those who will be using or creating any the branded material. Not only is the “how-to” material critical, but it’s also important to relay the branding team’s findings and recommendations. These guidelines may take many forms including electronic, web-based or a traditional “kit.”
A big thank you to John Sotirakis for a fantastic talk, and for sharing a bit of the little known but critical thinking work we designers do. This is a great reminder that what we do as “design thinkers” can have real business value. It’s the work of those like John that reinforces the shift that communication and information designers have made from “decorators” to “thinkers” and continues to legitimize our roles as strategic partners.