Designing brands that are built to change

Why radically agile brands are taking center stage post-pandemic.

Overthrowing consistency

Recently, if you asked a group of branding professionals to identify the key to a successful brand identity in just one word, most would have said consistency. Just four years ago, consistency was extolled by this article in Forbes. The author presented a hypothetical situation: Imagine you visit your local Starbucks, and they get your order or your name wrong. The next day, you go to another Starbucks, and they get it wrong, too. How many trips would you endure before quitting Starbucks? The argument is that consistency is the key to building and retaining brand loyalty.

Our beef isn’t with the claim that a string of negative experiences will lead to a lost customer. What’s concerning is the implied premise that brand experience can be confined to a single touchpoint (in this case, a brick-and-mortar Starbucks) and that consistency is paramount. The point isn’t to rail against this article. In fact, the article eventually places consistency in its proper context—as a guardrail for core purpose and values. Our point is that a blind commitment to consistency will rob a brand of the versatility required to thrive in today’s digital world.

“…blind commitment to consistency will rob a brand of the versatility required to thrive in today’s digital world.”

Having a script and sticking to it across a handful of brand touchpoints used to be the best way to ensure that your brand message was always delivered in its purest form. But in our modern digital economy, brand engagement is far more complex. Today, brands connect with customers across myriad channels, each one requiring a unique content strategy and approach. There are few catch-all spaces to market your brand. Therefore, you must go where the customer is and speak in the channel’s tone.

It’s important to point out that some things should never change. Your core purpose. Your values. The things that define who you are and why you exist. These fundamentals provide guardrails to what you want to say and where to say it. Your message may bend, your strategies may differ, and your business should evolve, but what’s core will always guide you through each shift.


The Big Shift

There’s a parable that tells the story of two men: a wise man who built his house on the rock, and a foolish man who built his house on the sand. Right now, we’re all building on sand. And many of us feel like fools trying to keep up with a constantly shifting marketplace. Market factors, such as the flight to online shopping, the rise of the homebody economy, remote work, and sociopolitical anxiety, are forcing businesses to adapt. Brands that are built for change welcome these shifts, seeing opportunities to meet customers wherever they are and magnify their core values by acting on important issues. Brands that are not built for change will quickly fade from relevance.

Building on sand

So how can it be done? How do you build—or rebuild—a brand, or a house of brands, that is designed to thrive and scale in a shifting landscape? Back in 2018, long before the COVID-19 pandemic made this mission critical for many of our partners, we set out to solve this exact problem. At that time, we knew that the traditional approach to brand building—siloed teams connected by abrupt handoffs—was ineffective. We had some ideas and decided to try solving this for ourselves first to be sure it worked for our clients. We designed our process to evolve in real time with unique client needs across any vertical or execution. Three key ingredients to success came to light:

  1. Digitally dialed. All brands are digital brands. We’ve found no exception. That means every aspect of brand identity development—from research to strategy to visual identity—must consider and take inspiration from digital influences. At Traina, that meant building out our digital team so the work stayed in-house and they could play an integral part from kickoff through activation. In doing so, opportunities are often revealed that would fail to surface otherwise.
  2. Data driven. Because consumer behavior is constantly ebbing, truly understanding the needs of your target audience is essential to crafting a relevant brand story. Primary and secondary research, including syndicated data, should precede and inform every other phase of the brand-building process. Data eliminates ambiguity and clarifies opportunity. It’s the only way to ensure that your brand is pointed in the right direction, and that the entire team feels confident in why.
  3. Dynamically documented. The PDF brand style guide should be illegal. Beyond the proliferation of old files (we’ve all fallen victim to an outdated PDF brand guide at some point), there’s the more critical issue of inflexibility. Your brand guide is your roadmap. It should direct and enable evolution, not prevent it. To that end, a digital brand should be complemented by a digital brand guide. One that is built online on a CMS framework that facilitates change rather than obstructs it. This digital tool also makes implementation easy and accelerates the speed to market. For most of our clients, the online brand guide that we produce also doubles as an employee onboarding tool and culture microsite.

“The PDF brand style guide should be illegal.”

Preaching in practice

Like many companies re-emerging after 2020, we realized that it was time to take our own medicine. Our goal is not unlike that of our clients—to return with a clarified purpose, enhance and streamline our digital presence, and position ourselves to evolve and grow with changes as they arrive. At the time of this article’s publication, our rebrand is still underway. But the clarity of mission and purpose that has already emerged is sparking new life throughout the agency.

Looking ahead at a digital future where the only sure bet is change, agility will be the key to brand success. Consider whether your brand is digitally dialed and built to evolve in an ever-changing landscape. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that you’re ready for what comes next because business is booming. Brand loyalty must be earned every day, across myriad digital touchpoints and through culturally relevant messages and actions. Brands that are digitally dialed and radically agile stand ready for whatever lies ahead, especially the unknown.

“Brands that are digitally dialed and radically agile stand ready for whatever lies ahead, especially the unknown.”