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DIFFERENTIATE OR DIE

How we used brand strategy to create our new identity

Business is good, why rock the boat?

From the days of scrabbling round for any job that came my way to working with global brands. Even designing for an event at Buckingham Palace with the Queen personally receiving my design work. Today, it’s a far cry from the inception of ikon as a business.

But like most business owners, we don’t get into business for money, it’s a passion and the ‘why’ you do it, drives that passion. There was no real need to go back and challenge everything, but we did and it was invaluable personally and professionally.

So even though the article is about myself and ikon, hopefully the lessons learnt will give you valuable insight into how you can apply principles to improve your business branding.

No time for complacency

I was uninspired by all the articles out there telling us how we should create a brand strategy with very few showing how they implemented one and why it’s so important for your business.

As a branding agency owner I put my money where my mouth is and with my team, went back to the start to discover what we stand for to re-position ourselves for the future.

The list of businesses that get complacent, take their eye off the ball and are nowhere to be heard of are endless. Why? Because it's much harder to maintain success than achieve it in the first place. Just look at the music industry and it’s full of one-hit wonders. You should be aspiring to be the next Oasis, Rolling Stones or the Beatles….not Hanson or Chumbawamba.

It Began in Afrika….well maybe not, more like India

In the midst of the 2008 recession, with not many job opportunities and being dis-engaged as a Graphic Designer and an employee, I requested a sabbatical. Either way I was leaving approval or not. Amazingly it was and that acted as a safety net after an epic 9 month journey through Mongolia, China, Pakistan & India with my now wife to be. It turned out to be a blessing and shortly after my return, I was made redundant and replaced with a cheaper model. This was the opportunity with time and a nice payout to go it alone.

Five years prior, I traveled solo through Asia and found a special place called Gokarna in the Indian state of Karnataka. Another visit ensued second time round and with the addition of the letter ‘r’, Karnatarka was born. The alias to my business as a freelance graphic designer. It remained the company name before changing to ikon in 2014.

Lesson learnt. It’s nice to have a company name that is special to you personally but if people have trouble saying it or spelling it, it’s time for a change.

In my head the name was phonetic – ‘Karna’ followed by ‘Tarka’ seemed easy to say broken in two syllables but it was far from true in reality. A lot of people commented on the unique nature of the name and wanted to understand the reason behind it but when you heard the ridiculous pronunciations down the phone, it quickly became obvious I had dropped the ball.

Since studying art and design in college, I was always interested in creating meaning in my work from understanding the thinking being artists such as Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin. I was also fascinated with other companies that had created a name from a phrase, I remember seeing a company called Adestra with a hidden meaning ‘All Design Transparent’ but it felt too forced into a motto and the phrase lacks any real substance.

Creating meaning with words

Experimenting with a lot of word play is essential when naming a business and in the process the saying ‘Design Knows No Boundary’ resonated. From this spelt the word ‘ikon’. Taking the ‘i’ from Design, the ‘k’ from Knows, the ‘o’ from No and the ’n’ from Boundary.

Not only was ikon, short and memorable, it was inline with the nature of the business of branding and creating an icon as a brand mark, it formed an ethos to live by. Push the boundaries and show people what is possible through the power of design.

More importantly this time round, we conducted market research and it was a resounding defeat for Karnatarka.

Built on Reputation

Since the inception of ikon, we have attracted big name brands like Westfield, Porsche, F1 and Oakley and more commonly worked projects with up to 8 creatives delivering an agency experience. But in the process I was too busy with my head down to look up and think about where I was going as a creative and as a business which sounds like a common business problem.

Time to reset and think of a new strategy

Yet again, I escaped on a mini-sabbatical, shutting up shop for a 6 week break. This time with my wife and two young boys. The reason? A digital detox, an opportunity of a lifetime for my children to experience a completely new culture and lastly, a break from the monotony of daily life for a bit of reflection. I always refer to one of my favourite films, Into the Wild and the writer Jon Krakauer when I travel:

“Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

The break was a big turning point. With time to think and reflect on 10 years of running a business, it was clear we were advising our clients on how to be strategic with their branding but we weren’t being as strategic in ours.

Vishen Lakhani, an entrepreneur who built MindValley who are on a mission to promote a message that learning is a lifelong adventure continually takes long breaks away from his business regularly:

“Navigation is the compass to tell you where to go. Acceleration is the rocket fuel that gets you there. So I have to oscillate between navigation and acceleration. If you only work on acceleration - you fail to see new opportunities, to innovate or to learn from your mistakes. You’re so busy hustling, you forget to tune in and ask yourself if what you’re doing matters anyway.”

Most have a short-term view. I can’t take time out now as it will set me back.

But what if that time out helps you become more focused and more profitable when you return? It’s the same with brand strategy, it’s difficult and costly to take the time out upfront but the future rewards pale in insignificance.

A frustration with the design industry

Unfortunately a lot of brand identity work is judged purely on aesthetics or trends. In web design, sites are designed with complex effects and rollovers and animations when the fundamental aspect of getting their messaging right is sometimes not even considered. It may win some awards but you then have a site that complicates and slows down the user experience and does nothing for SEO to actually get the site found.

This is the main reason and a responsibility that ikon should be delivering high quality creative work but in a strategic way which aligns with a brand strategy, whether that’s implementing one or working with a marketing team to ensure the visual identity is matching the strategy in place.

A lot of businesses are the reaction to a product or service where some form of frustration is experienced and then people set out to change it. It was similar with ikon, we could clearly see and still see businesses being short-sighted and going for the quick wins, trying to plug holes in a leaky bucket. No brand strategy and spending a fortune on marketing that isn’t connecting with the right audiences. Or if it was the right audience, not delivering the right message and doing so inconsistently.

Chris Do, the CEO and Executive Creative Director of Blind discusses their re-positioning and how similar to ikon, they are bridging the gap between strategy and design:

“A brand strategy design consultancy is a hybrid between what is offered by two traditionally different types of companies — business management consultancy and design firm. Strategists tend to be big picture thinkers, but don’t have the creativity and attention to detail of designers. We refer to this as the strategic divide that exists between concept and realization – where good ideas go to die.”

We not only wanted to be more responsible for the work we are creating, we are doing it with a relatively new model.

Filling the branding agency gap

To understand our position in the agency market, we had to get to the core of why I do what I do and how that relates to ikon. We used our framework to understand the core marketing messages and how that translates to developing a mission statement, core values, strapline, tone of voice and key differentiators.

This can be applied to businesses with a strategy in place to ensure their visual identity is saying what it should and for businesses who skipped the strategy and need to create one for future growth.

After extensive research of branding agencies and freelance graphic designers, we sit in the gap of being more skilled as a collective than a freelancer and more agile with lower overheads than a traditional bricks and mortar agency. The benefit of this approach is teams are built to projects not an agency roster so it’s very personalised and bespoke to each client.

Knowing how and why you differentiate is key. Even the advice of agency owners have echoed if they were to set up again, they would go down the remote working route. I was always wary of being too vocal about we set up not to alienate clients but the world has changed and there are many companies building big things with teams all over the world - At least mine are in the same city and our meetings can end with a beer.

The ikon brand identity

One thing was clear, there are too many agencies relying on their ‘award-winning’, look at me model as a differentiator. Maybe it worked years ago but when most of the industry tells you they are award-winning it loses its meaning pretty quickly.

Another glaringly obvious visual cue was the amount of agencies relying on a sans-serif logo and the type set in the same font. I get the argument the work should do the talking but are agencies not practising what they preach?

There has also been more of a trend towards one font for a website and sometimes two. The challenge was to use three not only to demonstrate a level of skill to do it in a way that compliments each other but also purposefully to give flexibility when styling articles that have been planned for a content marketing strategy where breaking up blocks of text is key to keep a reader engaged.

So what is core to ikon?

On the most basic level of what we do as an agency, we help people stand out.

This is where we developed the message ‘Rise above the noise’. We help you stand out over and above the poor design that is being pumped out all over the internet.

Why do we do it? Our mission is ‘To inspire and encourage people to embrace the power of design and create their own future.’

On a human level, I want to inspire and encourage anyone I meet to make the most out of life as you never know what’s around the corner. I traveled with an Irish fella fresh out of uni, went to pretty much the same places, same jungle, same countries, same mosquitos.

He died in a hospital in Thailand mis-diagnosed with Dengue Fever. Remember work is important, but living life is more important.

Onto embracing the power of design. I have always been fascinated by how design can change the world. In its broadest sense, any invention has been designed and it has the power to have a profound effect on society. In a graphical sense, it can deliver powerful messages commercially and even politically.

One designer I have always admired is Jonathan Barnbrook for his ability to stand out commercially, produce political work and remain ethical in the way he works. He reportedly turned down working with Coca-Cola on these grounds.

The ‘create your own future’ aspect is also important. I wanted to run a business to dictate my own future, I can imagine similar to most business owners. Like myself, I want to work with inspiring people who are creating their business to be successful and I want to help them on that journey.

This doesn’t only apply in business, to inspire my team and people who come into contact with me to design their own life and challenge conventional thinking.

People and companies say how different they are. But are they really?

You can’t just say you are different, you have to prove you think different. It’s why branding is so important and why brands are successful, they make you feel like you belong and they live up to what they say they believe. You just can’t fake it.

Personally, take going on honeymoon before the wedding. Or delaying my son a year from school as I think he was too young. Shutting down for 6 weeks to travel with my family. Traveling through Mongolia & Pakistan. I'm saying I am so far out and different to most but I take risks and put myself in situations that are not the norm. That rebellious side has been in me since school.

Rebellion from the familiar is what is going to help you cut through the noise, like many a successful entrepreneur does with an idea so making up some values for a strategy that you don’t live by is like a loan shark saying he’s ethical. People see through it.

Professionally, I don’t think I am anywhere near being bold enough yet but the new ikon strategy is making it even clearer how bold my clients need to be so the right personality fit is essential. The ikon style typically suits particular markets but instead of going for niche markets, we adopt an approach to attract the right people as a collaborative approach with the right people produces great work.

And our brand values are…

Think like entrepreneurs not employees - With passion, a spirit of adventure, and a willingness to embrace the unconventional.

We commonly work with freelancers before they become regular creatives as they understand what it’s like to think like they own a business. You have to have passion and they often do and that’s why they are some of the best. Adventure stems from a natural curiosity with the world as inspiration comes from experiencing life and a willingness to explore and go against the grain.

All of this is underpinned by a trust in people to create a sense of autonomy and ownership, not hand-holding. We create, we discuss and then we refine.

When creating or refining your values, don’t join most of the businesses of the planet by listing integrity as your core value. You would expect most businesses to be integral, trustworthy and reliable. They won’t stand for much.

Is it time to address what you stand for?

If you are a business owner, is it time for a break to work out where you are headed or do you know where you want to go but need the right strategy to get you there?

I hope you have found my journey insightful and it would be great to hear your thoughts...

This article is written by Alex Colley, Creative Director of ikon | We are a boutique branding agency – but not in the traditional sense. We hand-pick a team from our experienced creatives to suit each project, delivering a personal and bespoke service. Alex is always the lead contact every step of the way and our clients include the likes of Westfield, Porsche, Oakley & F1.
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