Balancing Strategy & Design

Episode 38

Great strategy is a necessary foundation for great design—and great design brings great strategy to life.


Why would I spend my marketing budget working with a branding firm?

Tucker And what makes you guys any different than any of the other marketing-type firms across the country that work with golf clubs and sporting goods companies and professional sports teams?

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Tucker I think that this spurred the conversation today because not only am I interested in us telling that story a little bit, but also communicating the importance of the type of work that we do with the people that want to know. And so I want to get into the importance of branding a little bit. To just touch on it because it could be an hour-and-a-half-long conversation if we really wanted it to. I want to talk about the balance of strategy and design, and then I want to get into how that’s kind of made an impact for a lot of people in ways that we just didn’t see coming sometimes. 

Derek We won’t go into the history of our business at all, other than to say that we were born out of graphic design. We were a group of graphic designers that then evolved into a branding firm. So then the next question is, What do you mean? What’s the difference between branding and graphic design? And I think where we’ve evolved is away from thinking about the services that companies are looking for when they think of, What does a graphic designer do? What are graphic design services? They tend to be more on the tactical end and more on the execution end, and they often fall into ephemera. Think about your favorite album covers or your favorite beer bottle label designs or your favorite brands. There’s a graphic design element to all of them, but graphic design is a tool within the branding expertise. 

Tucker So you started 24 years ago now building out a graphic design firm saying, we can do that stuff. We can build beer bottle labels and we can do all of those graphical elements. But then over time, adjusting to say all that stuff isn’t as important if you don’t have strategy with it, if you don’t have an idea of the overarching brand and what that needs to do. And I think that this gets into the conversation about the difference in some people’s minds. Brand means logo for a lot of people. Brand means style for a lot of people. Whereas Brand is experience. Brand is all the different ways that you see, hear, and experience an organization, an entity, a product, all of those things. If we just did graphic design for anyone who walked through our door, then we don’t have the impact that we want to have. It’s coming back at them and saying, That’s great. We can design you a new logo or we can reimagine what your company looks like. But why? What is the importance there? What are we trying to accomplish? And how can we make sure that the money that you spend with us not only gets used to help you do things today but also helps you build upon it over time and you can grow on it? And it’s not just ephemera, it’s just this short-lived, trendy thing that can be changed now and you can modernize now, and then in three or four years are going to have to do it all again. Our goal is to say, let’s change that narrative. 

Derek The reason that we shifted over time to thinking of ourselves as a branding firm instead of as a graphic design firm was that we kept asking why. We were a group of trained designers and trained creatives for years. Nobody within our organization went to school for strategy or business, and we learned those things along the way. We kept saying, We need a new logo. Why? We need a new package for our product. Why? What’s working, what’s not working? And I think without realizing it, we started honing more and more in on strategic questions to help make sure that the problems that we were solving visually and in messaging lasted longer. We’ve always wanted to make sure that the work that we’re doing is incredibly authentic in telling the story or helping sell the product or advancing the marketing initiatives of an organization that we’re working for. But I was never interested in super short-term projects like a wedding invitation and doing somebody’s wedding event. To the couple that’s getting married, that’s an incredibly important lifelong memory. But that’s a day. And when we’re looking at building a brand for somebody, our goal and anybody who does the work that we do, their goal is for this brand to last for decades not just a weekend. 

Tucker A good example is that we work with sports organizations. We’ve worked with professional sports organizations, we’ve worked with all these different organizations. But we don’t do game day posters. That’s just not something we do. If a client asked us to do it because they absolutely needed us to do it, we can help them out. But we don’t go after that type of business because, to your point, it doesn’t excite us. Our team is long-term oriented. 

Derek That’s a different expertise. It’s a different business model and it’s a different service offering. A game day poster or an event trade show booth are all very important parts of a company’s overall marketing or branding or advertising initiative. That’s just not our focus. That’s not what we’re best at.

Tucker I think the overarching conversation today is balancing strategy and design. It’s important for us to have strategy because without strategy we struggle to understand the importance of the specific design. If you want us to design something, that’s great, but what is it supposed to look like? What is it supposed to feel like? And what is it supposed to communicate? That’s where the strategy really comes in. 

Derek Before we realize that any conversation with any potential client about what they’re building or starting or redoing, inevitably we get inspired. A designer will get inspired by that conversation and we’ll start to think about the visual way to tackle that. But what we found was we ended up throwing darts. We ended up throwing creative darts. We would do a bunch of designs. We might do three different options that we all thought looked great. And they did because, you know, we’re good at what we do. But they didn’t always resonate with the client. The client might say, Well, this looks cool, but why is this right for me? And why is this right for my customer? And sometimes we would get lucky. The dart would hit a good spot on the dart board and the visual component and even the messaging might have been really engaging and successful that way. But that success usually didn’t last very long. There was a sort of hollowness underneath. It was probably authentic, it was probably relevant, but there was some meat that was missing. And that’s why we kept looking into why that was and how do we make this more thoughtful and intentional and something that will last longer in helping this client with what they’re doing. 

Tucker The market moves so fast. So if we’re building for today, it doesn’t really help you in three years because the market will change so much. But to say our goal here is to build you a brand, to build you brand assets, and we can get into brand assets in a little bit, but to build you these assets that are flexible, that move with you. So maybe your organization’s growing. Then we need to build the assets that grow with your brand versus having your brand be held back by the assets that you do have today. For us, it’s really important that if you’re not utilizing the strategy, then the design is just art. It’s not anything that’s going to last long enough to actually make a commercial impact for you. 

Derek What you just described is the difference between fine art and commercial creative. We’re hired to tell somebody else’s story. And for the clients that we’re working with, we’re hired to do that to make a financial impact for them. 

Tucker And we work with them on their vision and their mission. People ask us, So why do you work within those core components of the company? And to us, that is because your brand is such a core component of your company. It’s outside the marketing bubble. It’s outside all these different lenses. So if you think of marketing, advertising, branding, some people would put branding in that marketing bubble. And I would say that it absolutely affects a lot of things in that marketing space but branding also affects your culture. It affects your HR. It affects the leadership and the directions that you take. It affects your product development, customer service, and all these other things. So for us, it’s unfair for a lot of people to take that and say, Well, your brand is just a part of your marketing strategy and that’s how it works. When we work with organizations, we don’t just talk to their marketing team. Most of our conversations are actually with the entire C Suite. We’re going to bring everybody in because we know that everyone’s going to have to execute this. So when we talk about your brand strategy and then the way it rolls out when we work on designing and writing and crafting experiences for an organization or a product, we don’t work with just the CMO. We work with the CMO and the CEO and maybe the CHRO on how this gets rolled out within core values internally and all these other components. To your point, 24 years ago, graphic design firm all the way. Fast forward to today – branding firm. The big differences are is it’s not all about design. Design is a great way to showcase all of these things. We were talking before we got on here today that it’s really about the design having to be able to communicate that story. If we’re not communicating it, it’s almost like it feels like all of it’s unauthentic. So if you go and work with a marketing communications company and they have a graphic designer on staff, but they are not really trained thoroughly in graphic design, they might be able to design you something, but it’s probably not going to tell that story in a really, really authentic, deep way. 

Derek That person’s probably trained in graphic design, but they’re not trained in branding. What you said, which is a critical part of what inspired us to have this conversation today, is brand strategy is not a marketing department role. The organizations that we work with that realize the most impact throughout the entire organization when it comes to their brand, include their brand in their business strategy, not just their marketing budget strategy. 

Tucker And when you take that and break it out, not only does it help you understand we’re working with something a little bit bigger than just the way our audience sees us now. It’s the way our employees see us. It’s the way that our leadership kind of believes in what we’re doing. When you break that out and you have a conversation with the whole company, it starts becoming more than just the way we look. And that’s where it becomes really impactful for what you do. So our brand is more than the way we look. And I think that if we can get that across in this conversation, then it’s done enough because there’s value in there to say, and we say it a lot to a lot of our clients, is that your brand is more than your logo. And I think that as we keep going, as it becomes more familiar, I think people understand that. But it’s more than just your logo. It’s more than even your tagline. It’s more than the way you sound. It’s the way you answer a phone call. It’s the way that you type out an email to somebody. It’s the way when somebody comes into your office and they haven’t been greeted yet but they see your wall, what did they see and how do they experience it? What is the smell of your office? If it smells terrible, then that’s going to give them a perception that is negative. And is that marketing? No, not really. But it is a part of your organization. So there’s this balance of how you build out a brand without having a ladder or a silo in your organization that’s owned for it. But everyone has to have ownership of it in order for it to be successful. 

Derek The debate of what’s more important, strategy or the creative, is always fascinating. When we sit around the table with our team and what comes first – well, I don’t think what comes first is the right question because we know what comes first. But what’s more important? Can you do one without the other? Or the client’s budget is limited. If we had to figure out how to help them, is there a way to scale back on one or the other? Those are great conversations from a design standpoint. We were coming back from a trip and I was on the airplane looking for a movie to watch and all I had was the three words of the title of the movie and a thumbnail picture of the movie and the visual, the poster of that movie, which was 90% of the deciding factor of whether I paused and clicked on it and then read the preview. The visual of the can of beer in the cooler at my local craft beer shop makes an incredible difference in what I decide to engage with. So the creative is incredibly important. You could have a killer brand strategy. You could have a great story. You could be unified internally with happy employees and have the best customer service in the world. But if nobody is aware of you, which might be more marketing or advertising, or if the way that you visually present yourself or if somebody’s impression of you, the colors, the look, the symbols, the graphics, the words that describe that organization fall flat, then you’re not going to attract the customers that you’re looking for. 

Tucker I’m thinking back to that beer example. You’re walking through a craft beer area at your local grocery store or liquor store and you’re looking at the labels and you see all this stuff and you see a label and it’s bright and colorful and you pick it and you’re like, Wow, this looks awesome. It says all these things like it’s creamy and tastes like vanilla and you go home and you open it and you take a sip and it’s a dark beer and you’re like, Whoa. 

Derek  Or it’s flat. 

Tucker I’m saying, it’s not fruity. Like the label looks colorful and it looks creamy and nice and you drink it and it’s not any of those things. And that is the detached feeling. I won. I got you to buy my product, but the chances you buy it again are extremely low. 

Derek Or tell anybody else about it in any positive way. 

Tucker And so for us, it’s to match those experiences. It’s to take all of those things to say what we are trying to get them to experience and how we are trying to get them to understand what we’re trying to do and then communicate that within design and communicate that within writing and keep moving forward in a positive direction. 

Derek You and I were just at a conference in Florida that caters to general managers, primarily of golf clubs, and we were showcasing a couple of projects that we’ve done recently where we’ve rebranded a couple of golf clubs. And one of the GMs who stopped by and was looking at some of the visuals that we did started asking us some really designerly questions. And one of them was, How did you land on the colors that you did? That sounds like a simple question. You could go, Well, we started with Roy G. Biv and we went down the color palette. Or why did you choose that symbol? He started asking very getting in the weeds designerly questions and the answers didn’t go into the technique, the software that we used, or the approach or the style or our internal process. It all went back to the story that we had uncovered when we dug into the brand strategy portion of figuring out the spirit and culture of this place. 

Tucker When we do color, we do it in a very intuitive but very meaningful way. It’s not like we pick the color because we like the color. You hate the color green. But we have plenty of brands who we work with that use green. 

Derek And they should. 

Tucker They should because it makes sense to them. 

Derek Think you’re wearing green. 

Tucker Yeah, because I like green. And when we talked to this client, we walked through this thing and we basically nailed the color right on the first round. And she came back and she said, I’ve never seen someone do color like this. I’ve done this for 30 years. I’ve worked with companies, I’ve done all these different things. I’ve never seen someone talk about color like that. And for us, it only makes sense. So if we’re going to do all this work, and that’s what bothers me about other people’s processes, if we’re going to do all the strategy, we’re going to walk you through what this all means and how this all used in different ways and the experience you’re trying to create in the story we’re trying to tell, that needs to be used in all different aspects. We had another client who said, You guys are like a Native American tribe with a buffalo. You use every single piece of it. So when we do a strategy, we pull it all apart. We use every single piece to try to inspire everything so that it makes sense. And then we give it to our clients to say, Now you guys inspire other things, to inspire the inspired, the experiences that you create, inspire the employees that you have in different ways. 

Derek And subjectively you might like green or not like green, but by the time we’ve gone through the process of understanding what you as an organization are about, what the goals are of this very specific initiative or project, by the time that gets to color, there’s a really intentional and purposeful reason and rationale as to why we’re presenting that color as an option. It’s not by accident. That doesn’t say that then the subjective nature will come in and we’ll have that conversation. It’s not scientific, but it’s not just done all by intuition and gut. There’s a blend of process and then meaningful telling of that story. We use the term purpose over preference, and I wish I could take credit for having come up with that slogan because now we use it every day. When we presented the color and the reasoning and even the names of the colors that we gave to each of the colors in their proposed color palette and we talked about why we did it, one of our clients sat back and went, So you’re picking colors on purpose instead of just based on personal preference. So purpose over preference. 

Tucker Yeah, that was Andrea Ponto. Shout out. 

Derek Shout out to Andrea. 

Tucker That was great. And it’s so true to say everything is done with purpose over preference. Tagline has to be a purpose over preference. I might not like this one word, but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand why we got there and why it makes a big difference. 

Derek I think some graphic designers that people listening to this podcast would work with will push back on the strategy. They’ll push back on the information and the direction of the creative brief because for some super artistic people that will feel limiting. But those tend to be the designers that lean to the more fine art side. Versus, if we asked our lead designer what it was like to design something for a company without any information other than just an initial conversation with a client, is it now easier and more impactful to design something with the story, the information, the direction, the brand essence defined? Which one makes it easier to choose the color? And it’s night and day. I’m thinking back to one of a couple of instances over the years where the creative that we presented failed, didn’t work, and didn’t resonate with the client. There is one case that to this day I think about when we keep asking, Why didn’t this work? What did we miss? And I believe that that project became a presentation only in a visual exploration because somewhere along the way I inadvertently skipped, missed, overlooked, or didn’t complete the strategy portion of the project. 

Tucker When we look back at projects, and we say this to clients too, they’re not surprising. They shouldn’t be surprising. At no point should you be shocked. When we walk through this, our process is a super simple, high-level run-through. We do discovery. We tell you what we heard, tell you what direction we’re going to go, write a strategy based on that direction, and then based on that right messaging and visual directions, design off of that. It’s built off of so many processes and checkpoints along the way with everybody that by the time we get down to it, it feels like we went on this journey together and we knew where we were going versus us going away for three months, coming back, and here you go, and you’re shocked in a good way or a bad way or indifferent. I think for us not to shock our clients is a great goal, but for them to understand where we’re coming from and understand that power. I think our hope is that they leave our engagement smarter about how they should be looking at their brand. We help clients do a lot of different things, but as long as we understand what they’re trying to accomplish and how they’re trying to move forward, then we can help them be successful. 

Derek Design’s not only defined by the graphic design or the person or the people who are actually creating things. Design is just being thoughtful and intentional about everything that you do in every way that your customers come in contact with the experience of you, your brand, and your products. Starbucks is my favorite example. Every component from the music, to the smell, to the words that the employees are trained to use when they greet you is a designed experience and incredibly thoughtful and intentional and consistent. 

Tucker And it’s for a specific person. You might not like Starbucks. That’s probably not because they did a bad job. It’s probably because it’s not for you. 

Derek It’s because they’re too expensive for a cup of coffee. 

Tucker Okay. Well, that’s not for you. There you go. I think you can see that across the board with a lot of different great brands – like Chick-Fil-A does a great job. There are people who love Chick-Fil-A. They’ll sit in lines around the building for Chick-Fil-A and they have a consistent brand experience. Whether or not you love that is totally a subjective thing, and you might not be their target audience. 

Derek But what Chick-Fil-A and other brands, any brand restaurant, store, any place that you frequent, that you love, that you tell your friends about because the experience was so great, started with establishing a strategy of what are we trying to do and why? And then the design. We could talk about whether or not the Chick-Fil-A logo and the color red are appropriate logos for that type of restaurant. I’m not talking about that kind of design. I’m talking about designing everything that’s in that experience. 

Tucker We have some people at these conferences that we go to that come up and they go, Hey, what do you think of this logo? And the and default answer is it depends on what their strategy is. I don’t know what they’re trying to go after so I can’t tell you. I don’t know enough about what they’re trying to accomplish to say whether they have accomplished it or not. So a good logo is dependent on if you are accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. So if you have a logo that doesn’t accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish, then yeah, it’s a bad logo. It didn’t do what you want it to do. And that’s where you start getting into these conversations of it’s hard. It’s hard for some people to justify if they have a good brand or a bad brand. If they have no strategy, then you have no idea. And so then you can default into, well, it’s probably not doing what it needs to be doing for you. All right. That’s a lot. I think this is a great conversation. I love talking. Well, I love talking about strategy and you like talking about design. So that’s a good jumping-off point. I think that from here, as we keep going forward and as people keep listening, start looking at your strategy, start looking at that and then be critical of your design. I think that there are not enough people who look at their design objectively. They look at it subjectively. If you’ve been there for ten years and you go, I’ve been here for ten years and this logo means this to me. Well, that’s different because you’ve been with it forever. Imagine someone coming off the street and seeing it for the first time – does it do what it needs to do? 

Derek If the design is falling flat or you look at it and it’s uninspiring or you’re bored by it, then ask yourself if it was built with the strategy and the meaning that it needed to be. On the other hand, if your creative is crushing it, then it’s probably because your strategy is crushing it too. So it’s not one or the other. It’s both. I don’t think you can have a great strategy without the great design to bring that strategy to life in those experiences. And I don’t think you can get to great design without a killer strategy first. 

Tucker Well said. All right. Until next time. 

Derek See you next time. 

Tucker Thanks. 

Derek Sussner is a branding firm specializing in helping companies make a meaningful mark, guiding marketing leaders who are working to make their brand communicate better, stand out and engage audiences to grow their business. For more on Sussner, visit sussner.com. 

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