The brand decider: inclusiveness vs. democracy

The brand decider: inclusiveness vs. democracy

{Volume 1, Issue 3}


For the third white paper in our Drive Your Brand series, we’ll examine the subtle but significant difference between inclusiveness and democracy when leading the brand development process. This insight should ring true if you’re a CEO, brand manager or marketing director and whether you’re working with outside talent or driving the process with an in-house team.   

Okay, here’s the situation …

You’re a marketing director, brand manager or CEO about to embark on an exciting new branding initiative for your innovative technology company. It could be a new website, corporate rebrand or marketing campaign. You’ve got your creative team in place — it might be in-house talent, a creative agency, independent contractors or a combination thereof.

You want to make sure the creative work not only knocks your socks off, but also that your entire team gets it, gets behind it and feels a sense of ownership. Ideally, you want them to integrate your branding campaign into their day-to-day work.

How do you get the team involved and engaged without it becoming a time-sucking design by committee?  

While the relationship between client and the creative team is key to producing great work, that’s a topic for another day. What we’re talking about here is how to develop and launch a branding initiative and get collaboration, buy-in and ultimately brand love from your entire internal team.

A brand is not an island

The creative work that goes into building brave and effective branding efforts is inclusive and collaborative by nature. Driving your brand is a collective conversation with your audience and internal team. You can’t go it alone.

The challenge many of our clients face is how to draw the line between inclusiveness and democracy.

Democracy: sounds good

It’s an understandable choice to want to open up the creative process democratically. Everyone has ideas. Everyone can be creative. Everyone should get a vote. However, as with other big business decisions, tallying up everyone’s voice and vote does not always yield the best results and can ultimately hurt your brand.

Driving your brand democratically is akin to design by committee in the engineering world. Engineers understand that a horse designed by committee is a camel. For the most part, engineers have built their workflow to avoid design-by-committee, compromising product development. When it comes to building brands for innovative technology companies, the lines are not nearly as clear.

Driving your branding democratically often yields a weak, watered-down brand identity. It’s safe — not likely to offend and also not likely to be effective.

Inclusiveness: a better path to buy-in

Whether it’s coming up with a new name or logo for your company, launching a website or developing sales materials, when you drive your brand internally with a spirit of inclusiveness, you ensure internal buy-in, align marketing and sales efforts and ultimately build a stronger brand.

The slope between inclusiveness and democracy is a slippery one. So how do you get the entire team excited and engaged in the branding process without losing control of the process?

Based on decades of experience and countless conversations with colleagues and clients, the following is what we’ve learned about how to avoid design by committee while securing internal buy-in:

1. Decide on a decider and stick to it

The most important way to avoid design by committee is to have a clearly defined chain of command with a single leader at the helm.

The first of the 10 things we tell every new client is to decide on a decider. In 2006, President George W. Bush famously declared himself “The Decider.” While back in the day that constituted presidential crazy-talk (… long sigh), W. was on to something. When it comes to successfully driving a branding effort, appointing a decider is just the kind of strategery that gets things done.

Deciding on a decider is just the kind of strategery that gets things done.

If you’re a hands-on CEO and you don’t have a team member dedicated to directing marketing or managing your brand, then tag, you’re it. You’re the decider. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Obviously, you deeply understand your business, customers and goals. If you have the passion and the time to direct your company’s branding efforts, then it’s simply a matter of aligning the time, talent and treasure to get it done.

Commit to a committee, or don’t

As long as the decider is determined and there is a clear chain of command, a small branding committee can work nicely — ensuring various departments are represented and laying the foundation for building internal consensus. If you’re a decider considering a committee, bring them in as early as possible. Involve them in the agency interview and selection process. This gives each member a sense of ownership and determination right out of the gate. They’ll come into the branding process already familiar with the agency’s process and team.
Without a clear chain of command, committees tend to be driven by the most vociferous member and often end up being run by whoever catches the hot potato. This is worse than no committee at all — leaving former members discouraged and detached from the creative process.
Often a committee is in place for the agency selection and big branding initiatives, and the decider drives the day-to-day marketing efforts. As long as everyone knows their role and when they’re needed, this scenario works nicely.
The decider also can choose to go without a formal committee, engaging their team further along in the creative process, as we’ll detail below.

Punt the proxy

Branding is a contact sport. The decider can’t lead from the sidelines. While the decider can certainly work remotely, work is the operative word. Driving a brand by proxy is sure to run the creative process aground.
The most effective leaders with the most effective branding efforts either drive the boat for the entire journey or trust that the decider knows where to go and how to get there. Taking the wheel mid-journey is likely only to lead to a shipwreck.
A common scenario where the decider is derailed by proxy goes something like this: The creative process is going smoothly, the design and messaging is spot-on and exciting, the decider has decided and the branding initiative is ready to launch. Then someone — th
e CEO, the owner, a concerned citizen, the sales director who didn’t want to be involved at the beginning — steps in and says it’s got to be purple, or it’s got to have a dragon in it, or we can’t say this word. The decider and creative team are unified in their frustration, commiserate for a while and then figure out how much it’s going to cost to get a dragon in there.

The decider does not need to be the boss. The decider does, however, need to be empowered to drive the process and make critical decisions based on data, advice and intuition. The most effective deciders have the time, resources and passion to build a talented creative team and inspire them to do their best work.

2. Trust the talent

It’s true, your branding efforts will only be as good as the creatives involved, but it actually goes much deeper than that. A talented team does not always guarantee a beautifully effective branding effort. 

Finding the right creative partner is critical, but it’s equally important to build an environment where the creative team is informed, inspired and empowered to do their best work.

This is where the decider comes in: Ask potential creative partners about their process and tell them about your expectations. Tell them what you know, what you don’t know and what you’re worried about. If you’re the decider on every other piece of the brand identity but need to get the CEO’s sign off on the logo, let the creative team know early on. 

The care and feeding of a creative

To get the best from your creative team, they must be properly fed and cared for. Sure, pizza and beer have huge ROI, but I’m talking about a deeper level of engagement: emotional investment. Whether a part of our own team, client-side or third party collaborators, we’ve worked with creatives our entire professional lives and we know this to be true: If the creative’s heart is not in their work, the work suffers.  
Early in our career, we worked with a designer whose incredible talent was only matched by his intense frustration. Let’s call him Mitch, because that’s his name. Mitch always did beautiful work, but his work would often get watered down to the point where he no longer claimed ownership. Frustrated with how much worse the final piece was from the original concept, he’d throw up his hands and say, “Well, we do good comps.”
The creative team should feel ownership of and pride in the work throughout the brand development and implementation phases. That’s a good thing. When speaking with clients about their brands, we usually say “our brand,” “our clients,” “our product,” etc. — as we see ourselves and our firm having an ownership stake in the success of our clients’ brands.
We’re not suggesting it’s your responsibility to make your creative team happy. We are saying, however, that when the creative team’s heart is in it and they have a shared sense of ownership in the brand, you can be sure they’re doing their best work and you’re getting the best bang for your buck.

4. Don’t rock the vote

The most important distinction between inclusiveness and democracy is the value of the vote. Voting works for representative democracy but can have less than ideal results when driving your brand.

When you’re choosing between options presented by the creative team — whether it’s selecting a name, tag line, logo or web design — the natural instinct may be to send it out in a company-wide email or post it in the break room, encouraging everyone to pick their favorite.

This kind of democracy fails in two important ways:

A. Equal representation devalues expertise

When everyone in the company gets an equal vote, it devalues the work of the marketing committee and disables the decider. When the product engineer or the CFO or the junior sales associate votes on their favorite, they can’t help but do so from a less-informed perspective than the branding committee. An individual’s motivation to vote the way they did can be informed by any number of things — how they’re feeling that day, their general risk tolerance, their personal color preferences.
Nor should the committee be asked to cast deciding votes. Rather, the decider and committee should discuss what they feel works, what their concerns are and what they absolutely can and can not live with. Ideally, once all voices are heard, the committee should come to consensus on supporting the decider and embracing their decision. The committee should say their piece, but the decider needs to have the Lincoln vote.

B. Voting elects the safest candidate

Especially when choosing between more than two options, voting often results in the safest option being selected. Branding efforts need to be bold and brave in order to cut through the ever-increasing clutter of messages in the marketplace. Choosing the safest route is the most dangerous way to go.

 Solicit informed input instead of tallying votes

While you should not throw your logo options out for a company-wide vote, you also don’t need to spring a new logo on them unannounced.

Share the logo options, let the company know you want and value their input and that you’ll weigh it into your ultimate decision. This accomplishes the same sense of buy-in of a vote while respecting the input of your marketing committee and preserving the Lincoln vote of the decider.

5. Vacuums suck

When you develop your brand in a vacuum, you run the risk not only of the work sucking, but also of sucking out the internal brand equity you’ve built amongst your team.

A big, delicious brand right here in our backyard recently launched a packaging rebrand developed stealthily and unveiled to the surprise of much of the internal team. It hit the company and the industry like a buffalo fart: lots of impact upfront, but no staying power. We personally thought it was great-looking work and seemed poised to take the brand where it needed to go. However the brand quickly became disjointed — at least in part due to the fact it was developed in a vacuum — retaining some of the new identity here, reverting to the old identity there and going in entirely new directions elsewhere.

To be fair, there were likely mitigating circumstances that led them to working in a vacuum. Divisiveness, cultural inertia or making the hard decision to prioritize external brand identity over internal brand cohesion can all drive a company to feel they need to work in a vacuum.

Branding is powerful, but it’s not omnipotent. A great looking brand isn’t going to fix a disjointed company or repair all the damage done by a sub-par product. A branding effort should be an encapsulation and articulation of company-wide shared values and goals. A branding effort should not be an attempt fi
nd direction or bridge deep divides within a company.

A rogue branding initiative, undertaken without broad company support, is often the canary in the corporate cultural coal mine. An honest brand assessment prior to embarking on a full branding initiative can identify any lack of internal cohesion, cracks in company culture or unaddressed product needs.

6. Hijack the hijackers

Any expert on prison movies will tell you the first thing you need to do when you get to prison is walk up to the biggest guy and knock him out. The thinking is, you ultimately earn his respect and discourage anyone else who was considering testing your mettle.

A similar but much more safe-for-work approach should be taken with anyone who might be likely to hijack the brand development process at any stage.

We call these people the renegades. We encourage clients to identify and engage them right away — not by knocking them out, but by actively soliciting and genuinely valuing their opinions. 

When we meet with a client’s marketing team and ask who might be the renegade at their company, inevitably each team member identifies the same people — and those people are usually not at the table. That’s understandable. The renegades are typically the most vociferous and contrarian voices in the room, and it’s natural to think the process will go more smoothly without them. The opposite is often true.

Here is where the difference between inclusiveness and democracy really pays off. When you engage the renegades early on and they know the decider is ultimately in charge, the renegades will be more inclined to support — or at least not actively sabotage — the branding initiative. They’ll feel their rightful ownership stake and will usually be happy to be part of the process. More often than not, in our experience, when the renegades are engaged early — even if they are strongly opposed to the final design — they soon come around and start using their strong voices as powerful brand advocates.

7. Sell the team, sell the client

If your marketing efforts are going to sell potential clients, they first need to sell your team internally. The branding equivalent of “Will it play in Peoria?” is “Will the internal team buy it?”

The bulk of the work in building internal consensus for branding efforts is done long before a writer puts pen to paper or a designer pushes a pixel. The creative team should engage not only your marketing committee, but — as importantly — they should talk to sales, product development, the C-Suite, happy customers and unhappy customers.

When the creative team engages these broader groups, two important things happen: First, each group feels ownership of the brand development process — they feel like their voices have been heard and they’re able to influence the outcome. Second, the creative work will be informed by a broader range of perspectives, leading to better, more on-target and more effective branding efforts.

The branding equivalent of “Will it play in Peoria?” is Will the internal team buy it?”

Recently, when presenting creative to a client-side team, the head of product development chimed in: “I love it. I just need to make sure the product lives up to how you’re positioning it.” The product team was not only engaged, they were inspired by the creative to step up their game. That’s buy-in — and it’s much better than marketers making promises engineers can’t deliver on.

8. Decide, defend and don’t deviate

While branding employs a ton of science, it’s not a science itself. If John Wanamaker was right, half of it is going to work and half isn’t. Some marketing efforts can be quantified, some can’t — and that’s okay. The important thing is to make an informed decision, defend it and stick to it.

The decider gets to decide

The decider’s most powerful tool and most valuable asset is decisiveness.
We recently spent a week vacationing in Mexico City. It was a great trip, but it required some significant shifts in perspective. The Uber ride from the airport was crazy. The driver drove crazily. Everyone else drove crazily. Pedestrians even walked crazily. People on mopeds drove more crazily than the rest, disobeying all laws of traffic and common sense.

But the odd thing was, it all worked. After a few days, we realized what everyone had in common and why there weren’t non-stop crashes — it wasn’t craziness, it was decisiveness. Everyone drove with informed decisiveness. The most dangerous thing you could do is to be indecisive.

Recently we spoke with a friend who just launched the renaming and rebranding of her nonprofit organization. We asked what she thought they did right and what they would do differently. She replied that she was most proud that her team stuck to their guns and defended their position despite some very loud and public opposition to the new brand.

Establish a defensible position

Everyone’s got an opinion. Everyone’s opinion matters. But if you account for everyone’s opinion, the result is a brand that offends no one and inspires no one. 
A brand identity is the visual and verbal representation of your company. If people are passionate enough to tell you how much they hate your new name or logo, that’s a good thing. It means your brand is important to them, and they feel they own a piece of it. Change is hard. Not everyone will accept it as quickly as you’d like.
It would be great if everyone loved your branding efforts, but that’s not likely. What’s important is that the decider and the internal team embrace it, defend it and see it through to its fullest potential.
One of our favorite examples of the importance of making a creative decision and sticking to it is the story of the Beatles song Hey Jude. Regarded today as not only one of the best Beatles songs, but one of the best songs ever — upon release, Hey Jude was most noteworthy for its length, clocking in at 7 minutes and 11 seconds.
When Paul McCartney presented the song to Beatles’ producer George Martin, Martin’s response was something along the lines of: “It’s great, but hit singles don’t usually have four-and-a-half-minute endings.”

Paul’s response was: “This one does.”

Based on all available data and his immense knowledge of the music industry, Martin was right. But more importantly, McCartney was right. Hey Jude defied the data and became the lengthiest single to top the U.S. and British charts and held that record for 25 years (until it was unceremoniously usurped by Meatlo

The point here is, there is no fail-safe way to ensure the success of branding efforts. However, those efforts will have a much better chance of succeeding when the entire internal team feels ownership and can integrate the brand message into their day-to-day work.

Build some brand love

Driving brave branding initiatives is a critical piece of the success for any innovative tech company. It should be one of the most fruitful and fun initiatives you undertake. Branding is like playing an instrument or sport — if it’s painful, you’re doing it wrong.

The effective decider asks great questions, gathers all the information, assembles a talented team, trusts them, decides on a direction, establishes a defensible position and owns it.

A brand is a promise you make to customers, and when a branding effort truly resonates internally, it motivates your entire team to live up to that promise — building brand love and turning productive employees into powerful brand advocates.

About Toolbox Creative:

At Toolbox Creative, we’re dedicated to bridging the gap between the science of science and the art of selling it — building love connections between technology brands and the customers that love them.

Toolbox Creative offers a powerful engine to grow technology brands and take on the big players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increasing brand equity, boosting media buzz and making the most of marketing dollars.