Past client, Distill Research, was intrigued by the branding process that I led them through to create their overall brand strategy and visual identity. Seasoned blog writer and co-founder of Distill Research, Rich Jones, asked if he could interview me to get an insider perspective on the branding process, for them to post on their website’s blog.
Rich wanted to know about the research that went into the creation process between the brand audit interview, and converting the findings into visuals for the logo – shape, color, font, balance of elements, etc. He also asked what sort of insight I gathered from observing the team dynamic while conducting the interview. Advice was also requested from me for other start-ups going through the branding process and at what stage branding makes most sense.
The full text was posted in the form of two articles, which are included later in on this blog post. They were originally posted on the client's blog, but that was a while ago and their site is no longer live. But I'm sharing them here because I think his experience can help prospective clients get an idea for what the branding process is like.
Distill Research was founded by a handful of highly skilled and experienced market researchers with more than 50 years of combined research experience. Each founder brings their own unique skills and passions to Distill Research to build a company more valuable than the sum of its parts.
NOTE: Warren Z provided web development and HTML5 animation of the storyboard I designed for Distill Research’s homepage. At this point Distill Research is no longer in business and their website isn’t live any longer, so links point to elsewhere online and I’m including the full transcript of the blog article below instead of linking out to it.
Batch #103: “Not All Retorts Are Witty, Part 1”, June 26th, 2013
“I want to design a logo for you that you’ll love enough to get tattooed somewhere on your body.” For some of us, this was our first introduction to Alicia Nagel of Alicia Nagel Creative, the brand identity advisor for Distill Research. Alicia’s statement tells you a lot about her and why we enjoy working with her: she sets a lofty goal focused on client delight and creates designs expected to endure.
Prior to meeting with Alicia, we identified a small pool of local designers whose work we thought had a compelling look and narrowed the pool to 3. As luck would have it, a member of our team had worked with Alicia in the past and spoke enthusiastically of her and her work. That kind of reference was difficult to trump, especially when price and schedule aligned with expectations.
We began the process Alicia calls “archeology” in which she sets out to unearth truths about a company’s core services, mission, reason for being started, competitive environment, target audiences and personality. We had to provide 2 types of inputs: (1) a written homework assignment of 27 questions we were to answer, individually, before our first meeting with Alicia, and (2) a brand audit interview with the company’s principals. The questions covered the standards: Describe the typical person at a client organization who would be in a position to hire us and what motivates them. How does being in Portland strengthen Distill? And, if we were a breed of dog, what would it be? Alicia also interviewed each founder individually to ensure that all voices were heard.
We thought other start-ups might be curious about brand development, so we started asking her a few questions:
First, how did our timing compare to that of a typical, new client engagement?
In terms of when Distill Research decided to engage with me on branding, I’d say you are doing this at a really good time in the company’s life. You had already made a lot of business decisions about what sorts of services you’re going to offer, who’s on your team, etc. And this is pretty normal. I would say that typically if clients are coming to me for brand strategy, they are just starting their venture. Sometimes they are a start-up seeking funding and they want to show a unified, professional image to help them get investors. But other times they’ve been in business for as much as a few years and never really got their brand defined, but have been using some clipart logo they hate but never had time to re-do [it]. Wherever companies are at in their growth, it’s best if they have made some strategic business decisions before starting the branding process. These decisions might be outlined in an official business plan; but really, if it’s in their heads, that’s fine too―as long as the decisions have been well-thought-out and committed to.
To be continued. More from Alicia and the Distill Research team in the next batch from The Still.
Batch #103: “Not All Retorts Are Witty, Part 2”, July 3rd, 2013
We pick up our conversation with Distill Research’s brand identity advisor, Alicia Nagel.
What can you tell us about the research you did after our first meeting?
After the brand audit interview meeting, I started my research. I didn’t know anything about what the distillation process entailed or looked like. I learned what happens to alcohol at the molecular level during distillation, looking for inspiration and metaphor to enrich the story told by the logo. I presented five logo concepts and that each addressed key aspects of your brand, personality, service offering and the company’s name, metaphorically.
One of the initial logo concepts inspired by the distillation process included a visual representation of the molecules in whiskey lactone.
Distillation was also a key part of alchemy. That history and its imagery provided a second initial logo concept.
But the team was most enthusiastic about a logo inspired by the chemical distillation process that drew on the teardrop shape of a piece of glassware called a retort. The team liked that it told more than one story. In addition to a retort, the shape conveys the output of distillation, a droplet of liquid. Its shape is similar to a single quotation mark and to dialog balloons for comics (appealing to the comic book enthusiasts among the team); both convey communication. Tilting the retort shape gives it the appearance of a stylized lowercase “d.”
The brand colors were a very collaborative choice. We settled on orange and blue for their aesthetics as much as for their color theory associations, roughly summarized as bright and action-oriented (orange) and reliable and calm (blue). Balance is also a key brand attribute for Distill Research and is reinforced by the balance of warm and cool colors in the logo. Combining colors can be tricky, and I always spend some time researching color theory and photography to get the right hue of a color. I also familiarized myself with your competitors’ websites to get a feel for how companies in your industry express themselves and what the status quo is. It’s good to know the rules so you can choose whether or not to break them.
Aside from the questionnaire and the topics we talked about at our preliminary meeting, were there intangibles in the team dynamic that informed your process?
In addition to the meetings and interviews directly with the founders, I did pick up on intangible brand insights through the course of working with you…. For example, I would say the founding members all have a great balance of experience and number-loving vs. youthful playfulness. This balance informed the logo and website design. Also, Darrin has shown up for meetings with me unknowingly wearing the brand colors in a tie or shirt!
What advice do you have for small businesses or start-ups as they consider hiring a brand strategist, marketer and/or designer?
It’s ideal if the same person doing your strategy is involved in the design process. It’s like the right and left side of the brain―you want to make sure the designer truly gets what your brand is, who you are as a company, who you’re competing against, and who you’re trying to talk to. I tell business owners that if their designer or marketing person isn’t asking about the company’s target audience, they should be concerned. Look for a marketing or design person who understands businesses, and who will take the time to get to know your business. Design should not be created in a vacuum. If your visuals aren’t communicating your brand in a way that’s accessible and relevant to your target audience, then you just bought yourself some beautiful artwork, not good design. Good design has business in mind.
At the beginning of this interview I talked about how most of the branding process is unearthing already present truths, the archeology part of branding. This is something many company owners may be able to define for themselves, and sharing this with marketing professionals and designers will help create stronger, more effective communications.
Business owners should try to remove their personal aesthetic preferences from the equation as much as possible and evaluate proposed branding and design elements from their customers’ point of view. If your target audience would be turned off by pink, but the company owner’s wife loves pink, whose advice do you think is more relevant? Sound branding and marketing policy is: design for the client’s client.
And, finally, I love to talk brand strategy, marketing and design. So a last piece of advice: Any business owners who enjoyed this conversation, get in touch with me! Let’s continue the conversation over a pint.
While we may not have the logo tattooed anywhere yet, we are really happy with the results.