What do branding firms actually do?

Branding firms are a bit like hookers: the services on offer aren't always clear. The very word 'branding' is probably the most misused term in marketing, and a flurry of jargon ('consumer-centric,' 'multichannel communications,' 'experiential influences') can muddy an already abstract and intangible area.
To help clear the waters, we checked in with two companies near opposite ends of the branding spectrum. Interbrand Tudhope is the Toronto cog in an international branding machine, boasting 26 offices all over the world. Vancouver-based dossiercreative is a home-grown package-design-firm-recently-turned-branding-company (the company's name was changed from M5 to reflect the new focus).
Both bill themselves as branding experts, but each comes to the table with a very different history, staff and structure. From billing practices, to project management styles, the two case studies below highlight the differences and similarities between the two most common branding agency models.

Branding firms are a bit like hookers: the services on offer aren’t always clear. The very word ‘branding’ is probably the most misused term in marketing, and a flurry of jargon (‘consumer-centric,’ ‘multichannel communications,’ ‘experiential influences’) can muddy an already abstract and intangible area.

To help clear the waters, we checked in with two companies near opposite ends of the branding spectrum. Interbrand Tudhope is the Toronto cog in an international branding machine, boasting 26 offices all over the world. Vancouver-based dossiercreative is a home-grown package-design-firm-recently-turned-branding-company (the company’s name was changed from M5 to reflect the new focus).

Both bill themselves as branding experts, but each comes to the table with a very different history, staff and structure. From billing practices, to project management styles, the two case studies below highlight the differences and similarities between the two most common branding agency models.

Branding like mama used to do it

dossiercreative tackles a line of homestyle baked goods

About 18 months ago, Vancouver-based Olafson’s Baking approached dossiercreative with a two-part project: The first part was to develop a branding program for its existing baked goods line, which meant designing new packaging for a formidable 68-SKU line. The second goal was to develop a branding program – including design and packaging services – for Olafson’s first entry into the sliced bread market. For dossiercreative, it was familiar territory since packaged goods companies account for an estimated 60% of its clientele.

The project began with Olafson’s existing offerings: a baked goods line available in Western Canada and parts of the U.S. that includes pitas, buns, focaccia, cheese sticks and other non-sliced bread products. The line was already organized by locale – New York, Greece, Mexico and Italy – a concept dossiercreative later tapped into to inspire the package designs.

To start the ball rolling, Don Chisholm, dossiercreative’s president and creative director, sat down with Olafson’s president Dean Francis, his marketing department, and John Bell, an ex-CEO of Nabob Foods who now works as a marketing consultant. (Bell was hired before dossiercreative to help establish and develop the brands.) Working as a team, the group came up with ‘World Authentic Bakers,’ a unique selling/positioning line designed to set its products apart on the bread shelves. The line would apply to each SKU.

With the positioning on the front, the back of the package was designed to further enhance the regional feel with a recipe. ‘So if you’re using a Mexican tortilla for example, the recipe on the back of the package would have to be an authentic Mexican recipe, so the whole unique selling proposition really comes alive,’ says Chisholm.

The next project was to give a face to a new ‘Healthy Way’ product line, a sliced bread line with six SKUs including Sesame Soy, Whole Wheat, Bran and others. The products were low in fat and made with organic ingredients; it was a growing bread market that Olafson’s wanted to break into early.

From this line, a sub-brand emerged: ‘Healthy Way Sprouted Grain,’ an additive-free line made of, well, sprouted grains. At this point, dossiercreative’s design skills came into play: it developed the main character, a sunburst, along with recognition icons for each different flavour (squiggly grains for the Sprouted Grain brand; a wheat germ for the Wheat Germ brand), which were used as textural background. The overall look was designed to appeal to the more affluent, health conscious consumer.

Finally, the team turned to Olafson’s most recent product, the first sliced bread product sold under Olafson’s brand name.

First up, the group set about coming up with a name. Brainstorming sessions with the collective marketing group and the company’s baker eventually focused on ‘double-rise,’ an old-style method of making bread – it would rise, then the baker punched it back down and then let it rise again.

The name was born.

Olafson isn’t the only company to make bread this way, ‘but never has anyone called their bread ‘Double Rise,” says Chisholm. ‘It’s just been that that’s how you traditionally make bread.’ To help hit the concept home with consumers, dossiercreative introduced a double bag to package it (which also had a practical use in that it helps extend the product’s shelf life).

On each product, Francis says dossiercreative’s responsibilities involved about 80% design and graphics work and about 20% marketing positioning work. Name development and positioning also involved Bell, and even Francis himself.

‘I wouldn’t be giving our internal marketing enough credit to say that [dossiercreative] came up with all this stuff and we nodded and said that all made sense,’ he says. ‘We did a significant amount ourselves, but we don’t do graphic design work.’

For this and every other project, dossier says it organizes the work into a five-step ‘Creative Intelligence’ process. It starts with investigation (gathering information and data); then exploration (analyzing the information and tracking emotional links to the product); envisioning (transforming the ideas into words and visual treatments); defining (evaluating and critically judging the treatments); and, finally, implementation (carrying the project through to specifications).

In this case, the graphic design had to work really hard, as there was little in the way of an advertising budget to promote the products. Along with packaging design, dossiercreative produced numerous P-O-P materials, such as shelf-talkers, pricing cards, signage and floor graphics, including walk signage in the store that led to the products. ‘It was a brand that had to really jump on shelf,’ says Chisholm.

For Francis, much of the appeal of working with dossier was the design firm’s size. ‘What I liked about them was that they’re a small- to medium-sized company, and I was personally interacting with Don when it came to the creative,’ he says, noting that he’s worked with other packaging firms that, as they grew, weren’t as hands-on with his projects. ‘For me, that made a big difference. It was a good relationship and they did great work.’

For Chisholm, the project was a good fit for dossier because there were emotional links that could be made with the consumer (‘Double Rise,’ for instance, hints at how bread is traditionally made).

‘Branding, to me, becomes a live entity that lives and breathes with the consumer. A branding exercise is understanding the consumer – whether it’s a business-to-business model or consumer-based model, it’s understanding the motivator,’ says Chisholm. ‘If the brand is something obscure, such as a mining company that has no consumer relevance, the branding is really on an IPO or shareholder level – you can call that branding but I wouldn’t go that far. To me, it’s more corporate information.’

When it comes to fee structure, according to Chisholm, projects are typically budgeted in three phases: ‘brand innovation,’ which covers the first three steps of the Creative Intelligence process; ‘brand definition,’ in which designs and concepts are refined; and ‘design implementation,’ which covers the actual application of the design.

Now that the project is complete, dossier will remain on call until the next project – which could come soon, as Francis estimates that his company launches a new product on a trial basis roughly every 60 days. But should an ad budget free up, dossier won’t be handling that kind of work.

Instead, the company would pass the baton: ‘We’d do a download briefing session with the agency, a brand DNA program for them,’ Chisholm says.

What’s in a name?

Interbrand helps financial offspring be its own bank

Thank goodness for friends. It was Ian Tudhope and his Toronto-based branding firm, Interbrand Tudhope, that pulled Martin Kent and his company, NB Capital Partners, out of a jam.

It was late October and NB Capital Partners was being spun out from National Bank Financial. A restructuring had left the private capital managers as an independent, with 70% of the ownership in its employees’ hands. And since, under the Bank Act of Canada, the firm was no longer a National Bank subsidiary, it had to come up with a new name and, thus, a new identity.

So Kent, a partner with NB, called Interbrand co-chief executive officer Tudhope, who he knew socially, and pleaded his case with a bit of a hitch – if Interbrand were to take the business-to-business project on, they’d have under three months to do it including the Christmas holidays.

‘We needed a name, a brand, a logo, positioning, business cards, stationery, signage, a Web site, brochures, mailers, presentation covers and a launch event,’ says Kent.

Despite the tight timing, Interbrand bit, and the two firms embarked on the project under the guidance of Tudhope, Interbrand’s director strategic planning Janet Palmer, Kent, and the other partners at NB.

‘We spent a fair bit of time up front discussing what made us who we were, what made us unique, and what were our key selling propositions that differentiated us from the other private capital managers out there,’ says Kent.

Through these brand platform development discussions, it emerged that the firm wanted to be perceived as entrepreneurial, smart and aggressive, yet with integrity.

About 250 names were produced to reflect this new personality, and that list was quickly whittled down to 15. Interbrand took the shortlist and began preliminary trademark and dot.com searches, and individual identities were applied through logos and word marks. That let the client see how each identity would roll out in various forms, be it in signage or on business cards. They eventually settled on EdgeStone Capital.

‘It was the concept of capital moxie,’ says Kent. ‘A juxtaposition of capital, being a stable, secure source of wealth, and moxie, being more streetwise, aggressive, cutting edge and forward thinking.’

Once the name and identity were pinned down, the agency moved in rapid deployment mode to immortalize them via letterhead, envelopes and business cards.

Meanwhile, Interbrand worked on a quick-reference capabilities brochure which would announce the firm’s name change and introduce the new look and identity to its varied audience.

‘There were challenges in doing a piece like this because there are many audiences to whom they speak,’ says Palmer. ‘There were the investors, but also the companies that apply to them for capital – and the co-investors and strategic partners.’

At the same time, Interbrand was developing a ‘brand movie’ – a 90-second high energy piece that would introduce EdgeStone not only to the outside world, but clarify its new positioning to internal employees. As part of the agreement, the piece was shot largely in-house to save on both time and financial resources, and some of the footage was put to multiple uses, including appearing both in the brochures and on the Web site Interbrand was developing. The movie would also be a key part of the Toronto launch event.

As the early February unveiling date neared, Interbrand developed launch newspaper advertising introducing the new name, to run in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Montreal Gazette and La Presse. After all, with NB’s second office in Montreal, the city would be home to a launch event of its own.

The events, which collectively attracted some 400 attendees, were part of the package, so Interbrand handled the invitations, multimedia staging, signage and catering.

The project’s fee was broken down per deliverable – so production costs were applied to each type of communication, from letterhead to signage – and then an additional fee was added to cover concept design.

Social connections aside, Kent says he chose a large, integrated branding firm like Interbrand for its experience working with large corporations and the expertise it offered beyond basic design and implementation.

‘Often what you find are firms that are good design shops, but they don’t have a great business understanding. So they produce very good logos, and they’re good graphic artists, but they don’t understand our business.’

Kent also appreciated the copywriting services offered by larger branding firms. ‘The ability to actually write the business content is often lacking in regular design shops,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to have the people to help you with the content. Because once you get the brand positioning down, you want to start putting your business proposition to work.’

And the project doesn’t end here. It’s expected that Interbrand’s role will now evolve into an AOR-like position, where it handles future advertising, tentatively slated for when EdgeStone rolls out new funds. The financial firm will also continue to use Tudhope to produce an expanded capabilities brochure, and enhance the company Web site.