If you’re in the creative or marketing services business, the one thing you can’t afford to ignore is your brand.
Besides your work, your brand is the only thing separating you from a sea of similar competitors.
In a field where every business offers the same services, how you look, sound and feel - your brand - is the only way to stand out.
In this post, I’ll discuss how the world’s leading creative agencies brand themselves, and how you can do the same.
Start With a Brand Audit
Regardless of the size or age of your agency, your clients, website visitors and social followers already have a perception of your brand.
Far too often, there is a mismatch between this client-side perception vs. how you see (or want to see) yourself.
Branding is essentially aligning this client perception with your self-perception.
Before you dive into a deeper brand resurrection, run a thorough brand audit. Analyze every aspect of your brand, its current perception, the state of individual elements and the cohesiveness of the brand as a whole.
Doing this will help you understand your current positioning and make changes for the future.
Here’s how you can run a brand audit:
1. Question Your Clients
Understanding how your clients, website visitors and social media followers see you as an important part of any brand audit.
There are multiple ways to go about this. You can:
- Create an online poll and offer it to all website visitors, email subscribers and social media followers.
- Interview clients to understand how they perceive you and your brand.
- Listen-in on social media conversations and track keywords to see how people describe you.
In terms of insight, interviews will give you the most data but are also the hardest to arrange. Online polls are easier to run but yield limited data.
A quick and dirty way to get insight is to use a social media monitoring tool to see how people are talking about your brand. Look for keywords that describe positive or negative brand experiences.
If you have a large number of followers, you can use a social listening tool such as SocialMention to see the sentiment and keywords people are using in relation to your brand.
If you take the interview/poll route, some questions you can ask are:
- Do our website or brand experience stand out from others?
- Do our values and philosophy come across clearly in our communication?
- Why did you decide to partner with us? What role did our brand play in this decision?
Track all responses in a separate spreadsheet. We'll come back to this later when we start building our brand.
2. Evaluate Your Competitors
Your clients will judge your brand in opposition to your competitors. Therefore, it makes sense to make competitor brand evaluation a part of your brand audit.
Start by listing your key competitors. Categorize them on the basis of:
- Location, i.e. whether they serve local or global clients
- Specialization, i.e. whether they are a full-service agency or focus on a niche.
- Age/revenue/client roster, i.e. whether they are an established or fledgling agency.
- Target market, i.e. what kind of clients they serve (established startups, Fortune 1000 companies, etc.).
From these, identify your direct and aspirational competitors.
Direct competitors are agencies that share your size, niche and target market.
Aspirational competitors are larger agencies that you aspire to emulate.
Evaluate how these competitors have branded themselves. Collect screenshots of their website, social media presence, and marketing collateral. Sign-up for their email lists, read their blogs and follow them on social media.
- What kind of copy do these agencies use? Are they funny, serious, quirky or professional?
- Is there consistency and cohesiveness in their brand messaging, copy and design?
- Does their brand image align with their target market and price point?
Although it is usually used for consumer goods, doing a Centrality-Distinctiveness (C-D) map for your competitors might help too. In this analysis, you chart competitors into four quadrants (Unconventional, Aspirational, Peripheral, Mainstream).
For example, here’s a C-D map of beer brands based on their price:
This HBR article has more details about running a C-D analysis.
Take copious notes from your competitor brand analysis. While it is great to be distinctive, sometimes the most effective branding strategy is to copy your competitors - at least in parts.
3. Analyze Your Existing Brand
The third step in the brand audit is to identify what you think of your own brand. Is this perception conveyed through your marketing collateral?
To answer this question, start by collecting every element of your brand. This should include:
- Logos, social media imagery, etc.
- Website design and copy
- Social media messaging
- Sales collateral such as brochures, rate sheets, etc.
- Marketing collateral such as eBooks, whitepapers, case studies, etc.
- Blogs and email newsletters
- Email signatures, style guides, communication plans, etc.
Essentially, any part of your agency that touches a client should be a part of your analysis.
Once you’ve collected all these elements, evaluate them on the following criteria:
- Consistency, i.e. whether you have uniformity and cohesiveness across all brand elements.
- Clarity, i.e. whether your positioning is conveyed through your brand elements.
- Expectations, i.e. whether your brand identity aligns with your client expectations.
Any element that isn’t consistent with the others or doesn’t convey your values breaks your brand experience.
Identify all such elements before you move on to the next step.
4. Identify Where You Are, Where You Want to Be, and Where You Should Be
The final part of the brand audit calls for introspection. Before you can create a new, revamped brand for yourself, you need to figure out what kind of agency you want to run.
This is neither an overnight exercise, nor can it be done in isolation. You’ll have to do some significant soul searching to pinpoint your values and vision (and conveying them through your brand). Involve your entire team and seek input from stakeholders outside of your agency (including investors and clients) as well.
The important thing here is to align what kind of agencies you want to run with the kind of agency you can run. A great agency is built when your interest matches with your expertise and market trends.
I can’t overstate the importance of incorporating market trends into your new brand identity. Latching onto a developing trend (VR, drones, mobile, social, etc.) can help you create a unique brand and stand out from competitors.
At the same time, also take stock of the expertise you currently have access to (both in-house and freelance). If you want to rebrand yourself into a niche, you need to ensure that you have the expertise for it.
This part of the brand audit doesn’t have much in the way of roadmaps. You’ll have to introspect and find answers on your own.
Once you’ve identified this, write down your values, mission and philosophy clearly.
Use this to guide your efforts as you move into the next section - actually building your agency brand.
Building Your Agency
In the first section, you undertook a brand audit to understand where you are and where you can be.
In this section, I’ll share actionable advice for crafting a brand, including examples from successful agencies.
1. Discover Your Brand
Regardless of what you call it - “philosophy”, “values”, or “vision” - your brand is essentially a distillation of how you approach your work.
This is also where you should start your brand building efforts.
If you've done the brand audit, you would already have an idea of what your brand is, and what you want it to be. This next step takes the process of discovery even further.
Start by evaluating the following:
- The kind of clients you've attracted so far
- The kind of clients you'd like to attract
- What do your employees have expertise in? What do they enjoy doing the most?
- Are there any gaps in the market you could serve? Any emerging technologies you could master?
- What do you - or your employees - hate doing the most. This is an oft-ignored question but is the foundation of a great agency - you can't build a business around something you don't love.
With this raw data, start sketching in your brand. A good way to do this is to create a short, punchy mission statement.
The mission statement can be something as simple as Barrett’s “be the best advertising agency in the world”:
The rest of your vision document will revolve around the mission statement. For example, Mighty expanded its mission statement - “Brand Greatness Through Creative Solutions” - into this broader vision statement:
Combined, the mission and vision statements are the what, why and how of your business.
2. Balance Explicit and Implicit Branding
Your brand is a combination of what you say and what you don’t say.
The former is your copy, your ‘about us’ page, your ‘vision’ page, etc. This is where you explicitly tell people what your brand is about.
Think in terms of keywords - bold, fun, youthful, vibrant, sophisticated, intelligent, etc. - something that prospective clients can scan through to get an idea of your brand.
For example, here’s DuncanChannon’s about page:
The copy makes it clear in no uncertain terms that the agency helps brands move on from their old ways and discover new identities.
Beyond this, there is an implicit component of branding as well.
This is your design, your list of clients, your work, your image selection, etc. - things that you don’t say.
Your goal should be make this implicit component align with your explicit brand statements. If you say that you are youthful but have a website stuck in the 2000s, you aren’t really doing your brand justice.
Taking the example from DuncanChannon further, this the image that greets you on their homepage:
This isn’t just any stock image; it’s a finely crafted picture of the agency’s staff in a unique setting. Everything from the clothes to the decor is old fashioned. Yet, the people - and what they are doing - is decidedly fresh and youthful.
In other words, this image implicitly conveys DuncanChannon’s explicit brand statements - to help brands discard the past and discover new identities.
Keep this balance in mind when you start crafting your brand identity.
3. Take Inspiration From Your Competitors
While you should strive to stand out, what if your competitors have found the perfect recipe to reel in your target clients?
Taking inspiration from competitors isn’t always a bad thing. This is particularly true in highly competitive industries where there is a lot of demand for a prospective client’s attention.
The theory - as this paper argues - is that standing out from similarly-matched competitors draws customers’ attention to previously ignored elements of the transaction. It also dilutes the customers’ attention across multiple variables - called the “dilution effect”.
As Yi Zhu and Anthony Dukes, writing in Harvard Business Review, note:
“Because in an information-rich world, consumers can be easily distracted; many competing marketing messages can dilute consumers’ attention and undermine perceived differentiation among competitors.”
Then there is also the fact that your successful competitors have likely already tested the best possible approach to their target market. If all data shows that large businesses equate the color blue and the Garamond font with a “professional” brand image, you aren’t going to get far by taking a contrary approach.
Study your competitors. Take special note of:
- What kind of clients they attract, and
- How they present themselves to these clients
Look for client-image alignment. If a competitor says that they worked with Disney to create a fresh, bold and youthful redesign, is there anything about their brand image that showcases these values? If yes, what colors, fonts, copy, and UX did they use to showcase these values?
Take these as inspiration for your own brand, especially if you want to attract the kind of clients your competitors have.
4. Ensure Consistency
Look at any of the world’s most powerful brands, and you’ll see a familiar refrain: they’re all remarkably consistent in their brand messaging.
Think of Coca Cola’s familiar logotype, Nike’s swoosh or Apple’s half-bitten apple. You can recognize these brands in an instant because of the sheer consistency of the brand presence.
As Kevin Keller of Tuck Business School writes:
“Maintaining a strong brand means striking the right balance between continuity in marketing activities and the kind of change needed to stay relevant.”
In real-world terms, consistency for an agency means three things:
- Consistency in design
- Consistency in copy
- Consistency in communication
Every element of your brand that touches a client should have a consistent and cohesive message. If your brand colors are green and blue, your blog, logo, Twitter cover image, and even email signatures should have the same colors. If you describe yourself as “bold and youthful”, your website copy, tweets and emails should echo this character.
Most importantly, you should have consistency in communication with all stakeholders. Come up with a communication plan with a clear style guide everyone on your team can follow. Any client-facing messages should follow this guide.
For inspiration, look at brand identity guidelines from respected brands. Here’s Apple’s identity guideline for starters.
5. Showcase Your People, Projects and Passions
In a business where your people are your product, showcasing them becomes a core part of your brand.
There are two facets to this:
- Showcasing the creative output of your people, i.e. your work
- Showcasing the culture, knowledge and expertise that makes the above possible
In the context of creative agencies, #2 becomes even more important since creative thinking often springs from a culture that fosters it.
So how do you showcase your culture and make it a part of your brand image?
One solution is to embrace social media. Make your social presence, especially all visual-heavy channels such as Instagram, a part of your brand identity.
Use these channels to showcase client projects, side-projects, company culture, and anything that shows your interests, ambitions and beliefs.
For example, UsTwo shares pictures of its team activities on its Instagram page:
WolffOlins has a regular feature called #woweekly where it shares interesting art projects:
And MotherLondon shares pictures that underpin its socially conscious positioning:
You’re essentially giving clients a glimpse of what your people are actually like - what interests them? How do they unwind? What are their (and by proxy, yours) passion projects?
Social media is a fantastic vehicle for doing this.
Of course, you’ll want to have your standard “Work” and “Culture” pages on your website as well. But social media gives you a chance to show, not just tell.
There is a lot more to building a strong creative agency brand. These tips, along with a comprehensive brand audit, will give you a strong grounding in creating your brand.
From there, you can adapt, evolve and craft a brand that encapsulates your vision.
How did you go about creating your agency brand? We’d love to hear your thoughts and insights in the comments below!