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There are misconceptions about how important branding it is to success, how much work it takes, and the best ways to approach it. But every company, from a fresh-faced tech-startup to Apple, knows good branding can make a product or service.

Branding is how you present your company — your name, imagery, reputation — to the world through logos, ads, marketing materials, websites, apps, and social media. Left-brained business types may see it as simple graphic design, like choosing a logo color, or as a mysterious art. But experts know successful branding is hard and the best results are based on research, facts, and a well thought-out road-map.

We talked to Chris Mayfield, head of the Austin-based company Crispy Design, about how companies of all sizes can get the most out of working with branding professionals. Here are his guidelines for success:

Do your research

The most important work for successful branding takes place before a designer or agency is even hired: research, planning, introspection, and difficult decision making by the client. The worst thing a company can do is go to a design agency without having collected key pieces of information and expect the designers to fill in the blanks.

First, decide exactly what you want to communicate and who you want to communicate to — who is most likely to buy your product? Then, break down what your company does and identify its strengths and weaknesses so you can develop an approach that promotes its former and diminishes its latter.

If you don’t have this level of understanding of your own company, you won’t be able to engage with the agency enough to have their work be beneficial.

Pick a specific goal

Once you’ve done the advanced research, settle on a specific, actionable goal. Instead of saying, “We want to make more money,” try “We want to increase our market share with rural females between 18- and 25-years-old.” A scattershot approach will be less effective than a tightly focused strategy and will make it harder for you to gauge your success.

You can ask your branding agency to suggest a direction, but Mayfield says this is ill-advised. The third-party team you’ve hired to work on branding has only known your company for a short period of time, but you’ve been living and breathing it for years. You have the best understanding of your company and what it is trying to accomplish.

Communicate to your agency exactly what you’re trying to do over the next six months or a year. That way it can completely optimize what it’s trying to do for you.

Don’t be a copycat

A common first instinct it to replicate what a successful company, like Apple, has already done, which is short-sighted and not to anyone’s benefit. Blindly imitating another company’s branding strategy never works out.

“Many small and medium business think it’s like divinity if it was done before,” said Mayfield. “They think Facebook was built by Moses and was without fault.” Just because another company has already “perfected” an approach, doesn’t mean doing the same thing will work again for a different product or service.

Just as ill-advised as copying the big companies is emulating your competitors. Mayfield says this is the antithesis of branding. You want to set yourself apart from competitors. Branding should explain, in tone and visuals, how you’re different from them, not how you’re similar. This is a hard leap for many people.

“For small companies, a risk is exactly what they have to take,” said Mayfield. “This is generally their one chance to do something incredible.”

Embrace technology

Today, there’s no limit to how you can promote a product or service. Technology offers companies incredible opportunities to do things in a whole new way, such as using Facebook to target a very specific demographic. But you must understand the technology (or hire an agency that does) and be willing to go in unexpected directions.

Traditionally, ad agencies just want to make print ads and TV spots, and marketers want to put logos on frisbees and swag. But the landscape is changing; interactive and social media agencies are being added to the mix, and everyone is starting to use technology creatively to reach potential customers.

Take Sweat Leaf Tea. The company believed two things: that anyone who tried its iced tea would try it again, and that people are more likely to want a nice cold drink when it’s hot out. The agencies working on the project decided to geolocate people using an IP sniffer, and cross-reference that info with the average temperature where they were located. If it was above a certain degree, they would offer them free tea.

Social media is the technology that gets all the attention, and while it is an incredibly important part of branding, it’s also not the most complicated. The key to social media is putting in the work and being active in a space. The best social media plans are often the domain of content directors, as they’re the best at promoting their company’s own intellectual prowess.

Keep it simple

Vacuum-company Dyson explains a complicated product clearly. As technologically innovative as the company is, it’s able to communicate quickly and succinctly what its products can do. That simplicity is the cornerstone of a good brand, but can also be applied to the branding process itself.

It’s possible to overwork brands. Take logo design: a smartly designed logo doesn’t try to convey every aspect of a company, just give an impression. Attractive design should come ahead of cramming in literal representations of what the product does, or hunting for the perfect color to make someone want to spend money.

“Colors communicate things like fear, hunger, cold, and danger. They don’t communicate something like trust,” says Mayfield. Symbolism is another equally over-thought element of logo design. Sometimes it works, like when banks try to communicate stability with Grecian pillars. But don’t believe an agency that shows you a shiny object and tells you it communicates synergy. They are just trying to sell you on their design, and that’s a disservice to your company. The focus should be on making the design look contemporary.

Step back and let the agency do its work

If you have done all of the research and strategy work, step back and let the people at the design agency do what you have hired them to do. Don’t try to micro-manage the process. If they don’t do a good job, don’t hire them again. But if you’re constantly derailing their work, you’ll never get the best out of them or the experience.

Image via rishibando/Flickr

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