Strategic Beauty: Branding beyond the visual appeal

Strategic Beauty: Branding beyond the visual appeal

Leigh John Maslij

How to measure the effectiveness of design and translate creative work to connect with real humans

It’s safe to say that, as designers and creative people, we love beautifully designed things. But how can we ensure our hard work pushing pixels makes a lasting impact on the audience we’re designing for? And how do we know that design works in the real world? We could spend hours on creating a perfectly crafted, custom typeface, but is the time spent actually worth it? Do they actually care?

Luckily, there’s a tool to measure this before we even start designing: brand strategy.

What is brand strategy?

Brand strategy is the process of filtering out what the brand doesn’t represent, focusing on what it does represent, and then amplifying it so it’s undeniably clear to your audience. Brands that seem to attract the strongest advocacy make their focus point something unique, specific and relatable. If it doesn’t resonate with your audience at their core, it’s not done right.

Here are some classic examples;
  • Harley Davidson doesn’t sell motorbikes, they sell the sense of freedom
  • Apple doesn’t sell computers and devices, they sell thinking differently
  • Aesop doesn’t sell hand soaps, they sell neutral luxury
  • The Ordinary doesn’t sell skincare products, they sell aesthetic but educated
  • Red Bull doesn’t sell energy drinks, they sell living life to the full

Each of these brand's respective instagram accounts are very clear in displaying this. You won't see products being the primary and sole focus. With the exception being the Ordinary, but notice their scientific ingredients are clearly listed on their products in beautiful 3D mockups, diving home their message of aesthetic but educated.

Multiple images displaying each of the brands listed above.

The most important thing about these examples is that these feelings of freedom, thinking differently, or living life to the full aren’t just nice phrases, they are specific values which the brand’s audiences also hold close. People don’t advocate for the products, they advocate for the brands and what they stand for.

‍This is where the core of the company and the core of the consumer communicate through the language of design

Fake values

The concept of brand values is nothing new. But it’s all too common to see businesses jump on trends of the current buzz-words to keep up. However, if your proposed values aren’t who you are at the core, it will be obvious. These aren’t “marketing tactics” to trick consumers, they’re a discovery of searching inward to find something that clicks with other like-minded people. You can still be authentic while you hone your dialogue to be strategic towards your target audience.

I’ll also throw out there, it’s a good idea to stay away from overused terms. “Authenticity” likes to show it’s face constantly. If you think about it, this isn’t a great choice for a value because aren’t all brands meant to be authentic anyway? Find what makes you unique and be unique about the way you describe yourself.

What is the process of brand strategy?

The best branding studios have their unique process nailed so that it becomes an event. It should be engaging, rigorous, sometimes fun, and always thought-provoking. Most of the time, you should be asked questions you’ve never thought about for your business and you should come away with a greater understanding by the end of it.

Diagram of an iceberg. "Design" is on top of the water, while "Strategy" with several words relating to strategy surround it beneath the water.

Ask the right questions - It’s imperative to understand what your audience values and enjoys. A business that provides a practical solution to a problem can only last so long until a competitor does the same. The winner always comes out on top by creating an emotional connection with the audience. Find out what brings them happiness or pleasure.

It’s also important to understand your competitors and their values. Be aware of what space they’re playing in and how they position themselves.

Facilitate workshops with stakeholders - Workshops can be fun and rewarding. It’s a great way to get creative minds flowing and generate insights into different aspects of the business. Different teams will bring vastly different insights onto the table. Some teams may have more brutally honest conversations with customers, while others may provide enlightening analytical data. When these parties come together, we get the bigger picture of the end-to-end experience of the brand.

I think it’s important to keep these sessions using the creative side of the brain, meaning: to keep the analytical thoughts outside of it. If anyone presents a bad idea, it’s way faster to write it down and move on, than to describe why it doesn’t work. This then discourages further sharing and puts a halt to the creative flow. I’ve also found it’s much harder to jump from analytical thinking to creative thinking than vice-versa - so best to keep the momentum and to remember: “no idea is a dumb idea” (well, in this context at least).

Collate and showcase insights - I’ve been a part of projects both with and without a strategic process. The jobs without strategy tend to have multiple rounds of revisions and too many back-and-forward conversations trying to find the ambiguous element which makes it “pop”, which can be frustrating for both parties. Whereas the ones with strategy tend to hit very close to bullseye. The insights gathered from brand strategy become a North Star to the process and ensure a tunnel vision for every member working on the project. This in turn creates a strong future for the brand for years to come and sets the framework to create passionate brand advocates.

Translating into design - Design is a beautiful language. Good designers understand how to translate feelings directed from the brand strategy into colour, shapes and typography and form it into a clear, succinct message that’s both beautiful and useful. Though there may be multiple directions and a few revisions in the process, using the strategy as the guiding star is always going to see these results hit the mark. You’ll get far fewer opinions injecting aesthetic preference and more constructively lead thoughts towards the strategic insights.

Let’s create better brands

Strategy is imperative in the design process because, without careful consideration, you won’t make nearly enough of an impact. Sure, you can shoot in the dark if you know the industry, but sometimes key insights from siloed teams or honest customers can play a major role in understanding how your brand is perceived - because at the end of the day, perception is reality when it comes to your brand.


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