Lines and texture, font schemes and color palettes, imagery and composition—all important decisions when it comes to creating the look and feel of a brand. In fact, the concept of branding is often synonymous with these decision points. The creative team focuses on three goals for designing the brand experience: the brand must be descriptive of its mission and products, attractive to the target customers—its tribe—and finally, adaptive for the future and the potential placements for their logo and visual identity. A brand must be designed in such a way as to communicate value to the right people and stay relevant to its tribe forever.

In 2019, the amount of information available to a brand about its tribe is unprecedented and invaluable. As such, branders have an increasing responsibility to listen more to consumers before creating anything at all. Online and on social media, in public forums and across our communities, people are communicating openly about what they want, expect, and demand from brands and their products. “Our job is distillation more than creation. We start by listening,” says Justin Watkins, founder of Native Digital, the branding creatives behind the recent San Jose city identity rollout. Brand teams must first focus on the tribe to which their brand identity most appeals, and from there, determine the voice, visual nuance, and style for the brand. From active listening, to data capturing, to identity frameworking, to brand designing—the branding journey continues. 

Descriptive (of your brand + products)

There is tremendous value in the ability to distil something down to its true essence. Free from distraction and detraction, the pure essence of something is allowed to stand alone, shining in its own uniqueness. It is only in this singular state that we can begin to understand the true properties and value of a thing, product, or brand. The ultimate goal for brand identity is to wholly understand and seamlessly communicate a state of uniqueness within an industry. In short, distillation must happen so description can begin. “We believe objectivity is more important than familiarity,” supports Watkins, the Kansas City native brought in for the San Jose city project. This is truth in the world of branding. When the goal is to determine what differentiates something from everything else, the ability to step outside of that something and look back on it with objectivity is essential.

Of the San Jose project specifically and better branding practices in general, Watkins shares, “We [didn’t] project a new identity onto them. We distilled what we observed into something that no one else could claim.” The essence is inherent—a brand is something. As in San Jose, “We just give it a mark. Which is necessary. Every idea or movement needs a name or a mark. It can spring up from many different sources; the point is people can say ‘Yep, that’s us,’ ” Watkins offers. This mark must be descriptive of the essence that already exists and must be drawn out. Looking at the San Jose project specifically, the visual aspects of the logo speak to the inherent identity of this valley. The font was chosen to simultaneously speak to the street culture and the tech scene of San Jose. The accent mark capping the “e” pays homage to the amalgam of culture brought together by birth, immigration, industry, and innovation. A brand’s design is born from an understanding of who that brand is with the desire to share its value with its target market. The efficacy of the message is dependent, in large part, on whether or not a brand’s tribe is attracted to their brand design. This attraction is born out of familiarity and self-identification with the sentiments behind the design itself.

Attractive (to your target market)

What makes a brand attractive to its tribe ultimately depends on the individual people within it. Understanding the lone customer is the first step in designing a look and architecting an experience for those people. Brand teams explore the dreams, challenges, aspirations, gaps, insecurities, and histories of their customers. These same principles must be explored whether the brand’s product is a microchip or a pita chip. Speaking directly to the tech hub of Silicon Valley, Watkins insightfully offers: “There’s no such thing as ‘low interest’ categories. Just ‘low interest’ brands. Everything has a story. Some of the biggest brands in the world sell meaningless objects, but they have poured substantial meaning into them.” The concept of meaning requires a mutual understanding between brand and customer. This understanding is only achieved through the customer being attracted to and experiencing the brand. That happens by design.

Watkins endorses “adding a level of unexpectedness by doing it, let’s say, 10 percent wrong. A few savvy brands do this well. That kind of experimentation and irreverence is exciting. When I see it, I love it,” he says with enthusiasm, delving into what brands can do to differentiate stylistically. Explore the unexpected and try it on for size and then, possibly, invert the entire thing. This is an idea the people of San Jose can get behind, as that 10 percent “wrongness” can often lead to much larger percentages of innovation. In the discipline and art of branding, differentiation is pivotal. By incorporating qualities divergent from tradition, even just by single digit percentage points, a brand is able to demand attention by igniting interest. Brand teams must strike this elusive balance between attracting their customer base and jolting expectations with the brand equivalent of a plot twist. Deft skill leveraging creative nuance married with solid tribal understanding is vital moving forward into the future, where we’re all hurtling at breakneck speed.

“While the gift of prophecy is not required, deductive reasoning skills and design chops in spades are recommended for aspiring brand builders.”

Adaptive (to the changing times + placement)

Flexibility is key for creating a long-lasting brand. “For the San Jose identity, we pursued a mark that would feel at home in a skate shop as much as a tech conference,” Watkins explains. This speaks not only to the adaptivity required across demographics and interest groups, but also placement—the eventual homes for the brand’s presence: will the brand feel organic concurrently on a billboard, pop socket, and the CEO’s LinkedIn profile? When a brand is developed, it is created within the context of the present and the past precedent, with only a hypothesis for the future. The most timeless brands hypothesize correctly, designing a brand to withstand the changing societal demands and tribal cries for innovation and ingenuity. 

On the subject of tribal demands, Watkins shares Native’s requirement for a brand’s coolness factor: “If it didn’t pass our T-shirt test, we were going back to the drawing board.” While perhaps not universally applicable, the T-shirt test indicates whether or not a brand is packing the coolness factor required by its tribe. For San Jose, the city residents needed to adopt the brand identity in a personal way—incorporating it into their personal identities through fashion. The Native Digital team internalized this truth, refusing to project an identity of San Jose natives from the outside. Rather, by revealing the brand in the form of T-shirts, stickers, and other swag, people were able to experience and adopt the brand for themselves, before it ever became the forward-facing identity for their city. San Jose residents were afforded the opportunity to adopt the identity—to try it on for size, as it were—for themselves, personally. Was it the right fit? Is this how they experienced San Jose and how they idealized the future? For other brands, ways of connecting with their tribe will differ and even change over time. Designing revolutionary brands, cognizant of the eventuality of these shifts, demands creativity, because it flirts with the line between anticipating and engineering the future. While the gift of prophecy is not required, deductive reasoning skills and design chops in spades are recommended for aspiring brand builders.

In Summation

The voice and the visual identity of a brand are both descriptive of the brand and the essence of the brand itself. A brand extends beyond the color and font choices, graphic schemes, and wording of the company manifesto. Its tendrils of influence incorporate into the larger cultural landscape of the industry, and at times, beyond. Remarkable power is contained in a solitary brand when harnessed and channeled in line with its mission and in the direction of its goals. The challenge is in marrying knowledge, experience, intuition, creativity, and innovation together to create something new and different, but also attractive and ripe for adoption. A brand must deliver what the people want and need, in a way that challenges what they thought previously. This is both the challenge and the draw of the discipline. In this context, a brand’s currency is meaning. Using words, colors, typography, and images, meaning in branding is designed. When meaning is conveyed without error in transmission, to then affect the way a member of the target market behaves, feels, or thinks about themselves, the ultimate brand goal is realized. To affect change we brand.

Native Digital
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This article originally appeared in Issue 11.2 “Device”