I hear this phrase a lot from creative people: “I have one ‘crazy’ direction. They [the client] probably won’t pick it.” I sometimes wonder what would happen if the client did pick it. Shouldn’t all directions you present be suitable for the client in one way or another? Of course, one direction can involve more risk, but it’s our responsibility as consultants to explain those risks, so our clients are never caught off guard.
This logic applies to more than creative work—it’s the same with brand strategy. Often times, we only hear about the boldest statements, most disruptive strategies, and case studies from Cannes as examples. In an effort to emulate this kind of work, we cook up words and ideas for our own clients, pursuing the boldest, bravest brand strategies. But, as Spiderman once famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
As a strategist, you need to be aware that the words you put down on paper will impact a brand’s behavior on a day-to-day basis. You need to hold your client accountable for that. You can’t just say “We are a transparent company …” and know deep inside that it won’t actually be like that. If that’s the case, then don’t let your client use those words.
I’ve been in a lot of situations where I felt the story wasn’t genuine. And maybe you’re thinking, “Hey man, get over it, it’s ‘marketing.'” Sure, but hey man, look around you: Which brands are growing faster than ever? It’s the brands that tell stories that feel genuine—stories that work. A lot of branding and messaging today tries to mimic that by also being bold, but without substance, without depth. And the customer will call BS on that, one day.
But there’s another reason to strive for genuineness, beyond customer loyalty and awareness; it’s so much easier if the brand fits the company’s ‘true’ vision and beliefs—if the brand really is understood by the employees. If it’s not a top-down consultant idea that people in the company don’t need to ‘understand’ because they’re not from the marketing department. If everyone is on board with the brand, it’s easy to communicate. It’s effortless. I often ask clients,”Would you let any of your staff members attend a press conference and explain the business?” If not, then maybe there’s a too much effort being put into force-fitting the ‘correct’ stories, almost like two criminals trying the stick to the agreed-upon story under interrogation.
I would argue that it goes even further: “With great strategy comes great execution.” If you present a brand strategy that takes the brand further than what everybody does in that space, great. But be aware that you are moving into a no-man’s land, a land where doubt, fear, and compromise reigns. Because while you—as the consultant—may have the creative vision and power, your client will one day be standing alone, unprotected, in the harsh light or reality, putting up that bold flag in the air and hoping people will understand him.
With great strategy comes great execution.”
So always put yourself in the client’s shoes. “Would I say that? Would I want to look like that?” This works in both ways: If you’re creating something you wouldn’t support, why? Be honest with yourself and your client. But if you are creating something that is maybe a bit ‘out there,’ be honest about that too.
Make your client realize that doing things differently, more boldly, more authentically, takes courage, time, resilience, and yes, money. The worst thing you can create is a muddied down brand. It’s like a big red sticker on top of your super minimalistic, classy layout, saying ‘DISCOUNT! BUY NOW!’ Because a half-hearted execution is all it takes to destroy the boldest strategies and creative work.
So, whenever you are working on something, whether it’s the brand personality or logo, try to be aware of the consequences of your work. Try to inform your client of the long-term benefits, but also the short-term pitfalls. Don’t just hope they will see the value in it—tell them it will take time. Tell them it will take effort.
Is this a plea for less bold brands? Fewer ‘crazy’ directions? On the contrary, it’s a plea for more, but outside the boardroom and presentations. It’s a plea for real bold brands that stick to their story and dare to take a stand. So the next time you have this ‘crazy’ idea, try to present it with responsibility. Do the work, make them realize the opportunity—the strengths—but also, the hard work it will take to succeed.
As co-founder of branding studio Ollie, Stef Hamerlinck has always been a passionate brand designer. After 10 years of experience in the field, he started Let’s talk branding, a podcast and online community. “My mission is help designers and creative entrepreneurs become more valuable and build better brands by guiding them through the field of branding, strategy, and design.”