By Fran Johnson
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The brick wall of brand strategy

Brand strategy is hugely important. It is often the stage of the branding process that ensures a brand has longevity and can be created with growth in mind. However, as designers, the jump between figuring out the brand strategy and creating the visual identity of a brand is a tricky one. It is a skill that you have to learn over time.

This blog post is a series of posts that I hope will help students who are learning to become experts in branding. I built and ran the branding pathway on the Graphic Communication and Illustration course at Loughborough University, and for the last 5 years have watched students navigate this process. Brand strategy is easy to teach. There are exercises you can set as a tutor (user journeys, personas, mission statements, etc) that are easily defined and as long as your students are methodical in the way they approach it, they’ll end up with decent results.

Then, comes the stage where the student had to create something. “Now, make something original, thought provoking and creative”. For some students, this isn’t a problem. But for others they feel overwhelmed, have creative block, and aren’t sure where to start. I call this ‘the brick wall of brand strategy’. The students have such a long list of do’s and don’ts in their mind’s eye, a massive tick list of all the things their brand needs to communicate. It’s very hard to design in that headspace.

In a different way, the same thing happens in industry. When a brand strategy exercise has been completed, all the stakeholders feel like they are on the same page. And often they are – verbally! But what tends to happen is expectations of what the brand can achieve – or more often, what the logo can achieve – have risen, and no one has yet to work out what ‘being on the same page’ visually, looks like. Brand strategy creates high expectations of the designer!

So, as designers, how do we navigate this jump? The answer is slowly. Which is why this blog post is aimed at creatives at the start of their journey. We can all agree that most parts of brand strategy are very important. It is good to know your why, to fully understand your target audience, creating empathy maps and user journeys can be incredibly useful. However, when you are starting out as a brand designer, I suggest you just need to keep it simple:

  1. Use 1 persona not 4!
  2. Find a few ‘brand words’ rather than create an entire mission statement
  3. Ulitise moodboards
  4. Remember to test!

I’ll unpack all these in more detail below.


Your brief is to create a branded campaign to encourage people to recycle. Your audience is female, between the ages of 18 – 40 and they live in the UK.

I don’t know about you, but my mind is pretty blank!

Now, let’s get more specific. Your audience are surfers, who spend a lot of time on beaches in North Cornwall. They finish work as close to 5pm as possible, and love to be sociable. They care about the planet already, but feel like they aren’t quite doing enough.

The more specific you are about your audience, the easier it will be to understand their current visual language. How they like to be spoken to, and which style of design might make them stop and think?

That is where personas come into play.

In an ideal world, with projects that have big budgets and lots of resource, you would use a market research company to explore who your audience is, what they need from your brand, and how they like to be spoken to. However, often student projects are 6 weeks or less, with zero budget!

Creating a persona means you have one person in mind when you are designing, rather than a large chunk of the population! Establishing a persona is a great way to steer your project, you will ensure that you are designing for somebody else, rather than yourself. You will be mindful of the messages you are trying to communicate, and your outcomes will be richer because of it.

How to create a persona

In industry, it is very rare for a brand to only be targeting one persona, however in a 6 week project, it might be wise to do so! Starting small will allow you the chance to learn how to effectively communicate without feeling overwhelmed. A piece of brand strategy that we wouldn’t do a project without!

Note. There are a lot of UX persona templates out there, which may be less effective than using a branding persona template.

Brand Words

Selecting 3 words to sum up your brand can be the perfect steer when thinking about tone of voice and visual language. Most brand strategies that run alongside ‘brand words’ need skilled copywriters to do it justice; mission, purpose, visual and value statements. Again, these are all extremely important and valuable within larger projects, but often contribute to the brick wall of brand strategy if the same person is doing the writing and the designing.

So, as a student selecting three adjectives that you want your project to aspire to is a great place to start. Think of these words as the words that sum up your brand’s personality. What will ensure you stand out from the crowd? I often prompt students to write their brand words on a post-it next to their monitor, or flick over 10 pages in their sketchbook and write them as a reminder.

We’ve created a tool, which is free to use, if you would like help in selecting those words.

Select three brand words

Note. Your brand words do not need to describe your product or service. McDonald’s wouldn’t have ‘food’ as one of their words – instead, they need to sum up the personality and experience. Fortnum and Mason may choose ‘luxury’ as one of theirs, for example.

McDonald's instagram brand values for your brand strategy
Fortnum and Mason instagram brand values for your brand strategy


An iterative process …

As a tutor, I think one of the most helpful things you can do for your students is to reduce that ‘blank page’ feeling. Reducing the amount of brand strategy taught at the beginning of a project is a useful place to start, but the other is to engage with visuals early.

Utilising mood boards is one of the most useful ways to ensure you don’t have that ‘blank page’ feeling. You’ve filled your head with useful brand strategy, now fill it with visuals that could work for both your persona and your brand words.

These examples do not have to be the same subject as your project – cast your net far and wide!

Mood board selection for Higher Holcombe

You need to be collecting a lot of examples of different brands and visual languages – if you only select a couple of examples it will be tricky not to copy. This exercise is to inspire and be a reference point if your project becomes derailed rather than giving you too much of a steer. I’ve been in many tutorials where the words ‘well, let’s go back to your mood boards’ have been spoken to help break a creative block!

It is also worth mentioning that it is useful to be collecting work that genuinely inspires you and that you would love to create, rather than sifting through Pinterest. Below is a list of branding and design agencies that will be a great place to start:

Once you are in the ideation stage of a brands identity, it could be useful to bring in more strategy to cover any blind spots. You might be developing a product that could benefit from a user map, a purpose driven brand that needs a mission statement or a campaign that requires a deep dive into a target audience. To my way of thinking, this is a great time to strengthen the strategic decisions of a project – but only once designs are starting to emerge!

Test, test, test!

One of the wonderful things about having a brand strategy is that you are able to establish if the project makes sense to others or not. Towards the end of a project, I would often ask the students to work in pairs. They would need to turn to a peer who hadn’t seen their work before and without explaining their project answer the following questions:

  • What is my message?
  • Who is my persona?
  • What are my brand words?

Whilst it is unlikely that the answers would completely correlate with the project intentions, it was enough for the student to work out if they had made wise decisions about tone of voice and visual language. And to go back to the drawing board if they weren’t happy with the answers!

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