To an expert like Scott Nash, “What is branding?” isn’t a question, it is a conversation.

Scott has enjoyed a long and diverse creative career. As a founding partner of BIG BLUE DOT, Corey McPherson Nash, and NASHBOX agencies, Scott has provided branding and creative development for the entertainment, consumer product, and publishing worlds. In addition to designing identities for Nickelodeon, PBS, ABC, Comedy Central, and FX, Scott’s design clients include American Girl, Disney, Harvard University, Mattel, and The Boston Pops. He has also illustrated over fifty children’s books, including Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp! and the Flat Stanley series by Jeff Brown.

Gradient recently sat down with Scott to discuss branding. We asked Scott everything from “What is branding?” to “How do you know when your brand needs a refresh.” Here’s what he said.

Q: What is branding?

A: Branding is a creative process that works toward creating consensus about the story surrounding a company and its core values.

The process starts with brainstorming and lots of research. Hopefully, your research leads to the discovery of a uniquely compelling narrative. Then you begin to write the story. Next, with the decision-makers within the organization, you agree to the story. And finally, you develop the graphics and communication elements that support it. The story is your starting place for everything else.

All of the rest is tactics. Don’t get me wrong, I love graphic design. I love designing logos...but you need to commit to the creative process of writing the story before you do anything else.

Q. Can you give us a brief example of what a brand story might be comprised of?

A. So, if the five components of story structure are characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution, the six components of a brand story are The brand’s name, target audience, personality, product, benefit, and support (or promise). My brand work begins with a positioning story that is built around these ideas. 

Q. What is the right way to create a brand?

A. I really am skeptical of the idea that there is a strict methodology to branding. Branding is not a science. It is a process, one in which you really need to listen (to the client, the customer, the vendors, and staff) and consider thoughtfully the myriad opinions about the overall perceptions of the company. You really do need to digest this information and be open to discoveries that may change your mind! It’s good to have a divergent sensibility, so you can pull together a lot of different ideas. And it’s an ongoing conversation. Even positioning and mission statements can't just sit. They need to be revisited periodically. Especially as you're building the brand.

Q. Who should participate in the branding process? 

A. The most successful brands are developed by bringing the stakeholders to consensus.

Designers and creative directors can be very helpful in the development of a brand—especially if they're willing to speak the truth and act like the kind critic and arbiter in the process.  But ultimately, stakeholder consensus is vitally important. If you don't have an agreement with key people within the company, I don't think the brand you create is going to be as vital as it could be.

A good example is the Nickelodeon brand, which I had the privilege of working on. One of the main reasons the Nickelodeon brand was so successful was that everybody involved was really engaged in the process.  A lot of people out there in the world lay claim to contributing to the development of the Nickelodeon brand. And all of those claims are somewhat true. We were all completely engaged in the process, immersed in an ongoing conversation about what the brand and its core values could be.

Q. What is involved in brand research?

A. Your research should include soliciting input from within the organization. This will show where you are with the brand internally, and will also help staff -the face of the company - continue to feel engaged. I think it's fundamentally important to find ways to engage employees and keep them loving the core principles of your company and thus, your brand. Research doesn’t have to be expensive; thoughtful questions put to staff, customers...really, as wide a cohort of people that are connected to the brand as possible will reveal important information for the process.

Q. What type of research do you recommend?

A. We always develop a list of questions that are based on the specific company, but if it was say, a restaurant, you would, of course, want to ask people about their meals. But you also want to ask about the other strengths of the restaurant. What is your opinion of the experience, what makes it special? What is the “story” that comes to mind? Along with those questions, you have to ask about the negatives. “What are the things that aren't quite working?”  Sometimes, it's hard to convince a client to ask those questions, but I think it's vitally important to talk those things through as well. More often than not, there will be surprising answers that will be very helpful and can lead to positive branding decisions.

Q. A lot of brands have nothing to do with the reality of the company. Can a brand be entirely made up or must it have some truth to it? 

A. Whether the brand you're developing is invented or not, I would argue that there needs to be some truth in the story you’re telling. Even if it is fictional, it needs to be believable. Otherwise, you can’t sustain it.

It’s like when we talk about how good writing enables the reader to suspend their disbelief. Even a brand story that is made up has to feel authentic.

For instance, in the 1990s, Nickelodeon said it was a TV “By kids, for kids.” That wasn't literally true, kids weren’t producing the shows. But it was true that Nickelodeon was committed to connecting with kids, engaging with them, and developing programming with them. That is what gave Nickelodeon a distinctive flavor. They would find ways to get real input from their audience and pay attention to it. Their programming had a sort of an edge to it, a kid’s voice, but it came with a sense of authenticity. The starting place for many new initiatives at Nick was to first talk to kids.

Q. How do you know you need to rebrand?

A. I can't tell you how many times I have talked to a client who comes to me and says, “We want to rebrand.” And when I ask, “What do you mean by rebranding?” their answer is, “We need a new logo.” I follow up with, “Why do you need a new logo?” I'm not being confrontational, it’s a valid question. It’s a conversation that you really need to have when there is equity to your existing brand. If your challenge is a lack of morale or culture, a new logo or brand probably won’t solve your problem.

Author's Bio: 

Jennifer Hahn Masterson is a Senior Content Strategist at Spread the Word Solutions, holding an MA degree in business communication. She is always doing her best to help her clients find their place in the ever-so-competitive business arena, insisting on long-term sustainability rather than on some questionable get-rich-fast scheme.