Brand Identity: Asking Questions and the Art of Storytelling

Roll Up Your Sleeves Series
January 9, 2021

I was the type of kid who thrived on asking questions. Lots of questions. In the opinion of some—for instance, my Hebrew school instructor who kicked me out for asking too many questions—my curiosity was an inconvenience. Fortunately, my parents and certain educators were far more gentle and respectful. They would thoughtfully respond to my questions by treating me as an intellectual equal, instead of scolding me for unending curiosity. Why does that man sleep on the corner? How does an avalanche start? Why are people unkind? are some of the ones my mother recalls, laughing, when she remembers this habit.

An older, more enlightened version of myself wishes I could go back, vindicated, and tell my nasty Hebrew school instructor that asking questions paid off; that interrogating the world is precisely what makes me a writer. Pettiness aside, I truly believe that asking questions with genuine curiosity and an open mind is at the core of good storytelling, and knowing this fact alone gives me peace of mind.

Any reputable journalist who attempts to profile someone doesn’t just interview the subject, they interview the subject’s family, friends, co-workers, arch get the picture. They interview a diverse array of people in hopes of accurately portraying the subject and adequately capturing their complexities.

Articulating a brand is no different. Bill Cutting, a TWIO founder and former Director of Brand Strategy, lays out a summation that is helpful to understand the importance of a brand, especially in the digital age. “The sole purpose of a brand,” he says, “is to serve as a tool for distinguishing or differentiating a product, a service, a company, or an individual from other, similar entities, thus improving its competitive position and (ideally) enabling a premium price or a premium position. Or both. The brand does this,” he concludes, “by acting as a stand-in or a shorthand for superior features, proprietary technology, history, philosophy, innovation, and personality that comprise the entity the brand is designed to represent.” 

So ultimately, our subject, whether a company or organization, is made up of people. Therefore, the objective must be to authentically capture the brand’s identity as an amalgam of personalities. Here at TWIO, we employ an approach to verbal and visual brand-building that is both rigorously academic yet remarkably practical.. The academic piece draws from textbooks, models, theories and experience. But the practical piece must include a discovery phase that relies on a combination of direct conversations, surveys, group feedback, and a host of other research methods. We conduct this so-called primary research with key stakeholders, individuals who literally know the company inside and out, and who can provide insights into the brand that are both comprehensive and authentic. 

What I’m saying derives from a relatively simple premise: If you seek truth, you must ask questions and actively listen. Companies and organizations are complex and multi-dimensional. If you approach the brand process without preconceptions, with genuine curiosity and an appreciation for nuance, you’ve made a good start. At TWIO, that model of discovery is core to what we do. This process serves as the foundation of each verbal brand we create and ultimately enables us to craft a brand narrative that will resonate with the correct audiences.

After we interview both external and internal constituents at a company or organization, we take the insights we’ve gathered through our primary research, combine it with secondary research into the market space and the competitive set, analyze and argue over how it all fits together, then proceed to write a verbal brand report. Essentially, this is a comprehensive story that verbalizes the language, lays out options for differentiation, and suggests design elements that will best represent the brand.

Once we have established a report that articulates a verbal narrative of the brand’s essence, we turn to the visual components. Aside from catchy taglines or memorable slogans, the symbols, shapes, typography, and mascots are the brand elements consumers are most likely to recognize and recall. At the same time, it is essential to understand that the visual brand is the outward manifestation of the verbal foundation and, as such, must proceed from rigorous and thorough verbal brand analysis. In the end, while a brand’s verbal and visual identities are intrinsically linked, the visual components sit firmly on the verbal brand foundation.

When we are translating a verbal brand report into its visual counterpart, the brand storybook, there are many new factors to consider. However, one thing stays constant: the importance of asking the right questions and listening attentively to answers.

Much like the verbal process, the TWIO visual ID development process takes on an academic approach. It begins with discovery, which involves internal research and interviews, an audit of competitive marketplace identities, and examining like-minded examples. From there, mood boarding begins. This involves pulling images, typography, colors, patterns, and textures that resonate with the brand.

After these first two steps, the team begins to define a more focused creative direction. Our creatives decipher who the audience is, what the project goals are, and what traits, tone, and voice are applicable. Establishing creative direction from the outset helps guide visual strategies and keep them on track.

Next comes typography, mark, and color exploration. This involves aggregating examples to share with the team and client. These “application examples” provide perspective and create a spark or connection, giving rise to the brand’s new identity. Through this creative process, our team is able to visually capture a brand’s story and personality, and the brand’s visual identity is born.

Bill Cutting concludes by saying, “A brand is a comprehensive, dynamic, and strategically important mix of factors that stretch from a boardroom to the living room. A brand is–or should be–the manifestation of a competitive strategy that theoretically influences every step in a value chain until it reaches the end user.” 

TWIO’s processes are in depth and comprehensive. It would take much more than the length of one blog post to convey the elements that render this process successful. The bottom line is this: being inquisitive is the key to storytelling, and storytelling is the key to humanizing a brand identity that is authentic and resonant with the correct audiences.