When organizations consider a rebrand, visual elements like the logo, color palette, and typography are all clear areas of focus. But to ensure all that work makes the greatest impact on your organization and its connection to members, you can’t neglect your brand messaging.
Your messaging system is the backbone of your brand. It constitutes the suite of words, statements and attributes chosen to reflect and support your organization’s identity. Your website copy, how you greet members at events, and every social media caption are all products of a messaging system.
When your messaging is in alignment, it’s a powerful tool for your organization. However, if your messaging isn’t cohesive, your current and prospective members and internal teams will lose trust in your organization because there’s no clarity or consistency in how you express who you are.
I recently had a discussion with one of our messaging experts, Catherine Warmerdam, on the most important way you can communicate the value of your brand. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
Phil Tretheway: I was preparing for a branding presentation with a group of outside partners for a client, and was surprised to find that the heart of what I really wanted to present was the messaging.
Being a classically trained designer, it’s not natural for me to skip over the visual part. Do you feel much pressure with your work building the core of an organization’s brand?
Catherine Warmerdam: Yes! That initial attempt to distill a company or an organization into just a few memorable words or sentences is deceivingly difficult. For me, balancing brevity and complexity is the hardest part. That’s when it becomes so important to be precise with one’s words, because those words have to support an entire brand.
I’m curious how the strength of the messaging affects your visual approach. Is it hard to design around a weak or uninspiring message?
PT: The worst thing is to work on a visual identity with no messaging, because that’s just decorating and making things pretty. To do our best work, the design needs to solve a problem and achieve a goal. It needs to say something. Hence the need for messaging.
When we develop a brand for a client it starts with three things: who they are, who they serve, and their message platform. Nobody should start on a project without a clear understanding of the organization, the demographics of the audience they’re trying to serve, and a message to communicate.
I love building a brand that has a well-defined character, tone, style, and core messaging (what, why, purpose). When do you start defining an organization’s messaging system?
CW: Pretty much immediately. But first I want to build a really thorough understanding of what they have in place already — and I want to know the ‘why’ behind everything. So there are lots of questions in the beginning.
That initial dialogue also yields other useful information. For example, if a client is clinging to a ‘we’ve-always-done-it-that-way’ approach — even if it’s not working for them — that’s sometimes a signal that they’re looking for an easy fix. Or it could mean that the person who brought you in is looking to make a change, but maybe their boss isn’t convinced it’s necessary.
Have you encountered that before? How did you handle it?
PT: I was recently reading “The Global Identity of Cities” by Brookings, which was a fascinating report on best practices for branding a city or region. Spoiler alert: the report’s findings and process are highly applicable to branding organizations. One of the early points they make is that for a project to be successful, your stakeholders must embrace the need for change. I think this is critical.
Most executives I’ve worked with have been on board with the branding projects, though as we work through the process, they gain an even deeper appreciation for what we’re doing. Once we get into the discovery questions and past talking points, and really dive into their goals and vision, they realize that we’re not just making a logo and color palette. We’re here to understand at a deep level who they are, what they do, and where they’re going. Then, we translate that into words and visuals.
Once they start to feel heard, they see the potential for how much we can help them with their job. I really love this phase of the project. What questions do you like to ask as part of your discovery?
CW: For messaging, I like to first ask about the audience, because it all begins and ends with who you’re trying to reach. I want to know as much as I can about them. From there, I ask the client, ‘What do you want that audience to know? And what do you want them to do?’ Just those couple of questions can yield a lot of helpful information from which I can begin to build some messaging elements.
What questions do you ask to kick off a project?
PT: I ask very similar, basic core questions. At least that’s where I start. After those beginning questions it’s a conversation, and asking the right questions to pull out deeper truths is an art form we have become good at over the years.
These initial conversations are one of my favorite parts of a project. Sometimes I feel like an annoying 4-year-old who is asking why again and again. Other times I feel like a therapist, guiding the client through a progressively deeper conversation about why they do what they do and who they do it for.
CW: In the end, I feel it’s all about getting clarity on who you are, what you offer, and who you serve and translating that into the language of your audience.
Your messaging is like the invisible glue that holds your brand together. If it’s not strong and durable, the brand doesn’t hold together like it should.
Why Your Branding Project Begins With Messaging
Messaging isn’t just a component of your branding initiative. It’s the foundation of every element that expresses your organization’s value to its most important audience.
But beyond messaging, you need to ensure your organization gains a complete brand system to support its goals. With these tools in place, you don’t just provide your organization with a clearer means of forming a connection with current and future members. You create a greater sense of belonging and ownership within your internal teams that builds confidence for the future.
If your brand is falling short of communicating all your organization does for members, let’s talk. We can help your organization get where it needs to be.