When you’re a start-up or an SME, knowing how to position your brand can be difficult. Often you’re pulled in different directions by investors, colleagues and your own intuition; there are so many questions and it can be hard to know whose advice to follow.

In truth, even the biggest businesses need a helping hand when it comes to defining their identity and studying the evolution of large, successful brands can be a good starting point for SMEs looking to launch or maximise their brand potential.

Take Formula 1. At the time of its inception in the early 1980s the F1 brand mark we delivered was sufficient, used as an endorsement on cars and simple on-track branding. But with the advancement of sponsorship deals, TV rights, full branding of venues and social media coverage, brands now have many more channels in which they require a presence.

As such, F1 has recently undergone a dramatic rebrand, taking it from a single logo to a fully flexible and comprehensive brand identity. There’s an assumption among many SMEs that having a strong name and logo is enough to ensure the longevity of a brand. But as recently demonstrated by F1, this is no longer the case.

Design does not come first

It’s easy to focus solely on visual assets but a modern brand goes far beyond this, hitting every touchpoint. It’s the customer’s first impression when they interact with a company over the phone or in person, how products are packaged and delivered, and how a brand expresses itself on social media. This even extends to audio brand elements, such as Intel’s instantly-recognisable chimes. And none of this can be defined without first considering the underpinning purpose of the brand.

Many young companies feel the need to rush through the early stages of brand planning so that they can launch their product or service, bringing in revenue and additional funding. In these cases, companies often undergo an intensive refresh or complete rebrand within the first couple of years as the brand outgrows its original identity.

The crucial point here is that design does not come first. Vision, story and purpose are the building blocks to any successful brand – this will inform the visual identity, not the other way around. Ask yourself what the ethos of the company is and allow this to guide what the brand looks and feels like.

Play the long game

This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s often overlooked. Consider where you want to be in five years and craft your brand accordingly, otherwise it won’t flex and grow with the business. Successful brands spend time considering these strategic planning points to set the foundations for a more stable brand identity. It’s easier – and cheaper – to set a solid base than to retrofit later.

To achieve longevity a brand has to say something. It needs to be unique. And it needs to be led by an individual or core team that truly believes in it. At F1 it was Bernie Ecclestone who saw the intellectual idea behind the logo and understood the strength it gave the organisation both in the moment and for years to come. It was only when Liberty Media Group took over in 2017 that the brand took a new direction.

People want to feel part of something and in today’s heavily-branded culture, a long-standing brand gives consumers a sense of belonging. Whether it’s an emotionally-driven sport like F1, a lifestyle brand such as Apple, or a personal brand like the Beckhams, a carefully-curated identity creates a connection.

Do your research – and be unique

There are quite literally millions of visual identities in existence so creating something original can be challenging for a new business. What’s important is to let the brand story guide the visual assets.

The F1 logo worked because it was unique – and it could only be for Formula 1. Directional lines represented the speed of the sport and the number one took the unusual form of negative space. Like the bear in the Toblerone mountain or the smile in the A-Z Amazon mark, people continued to find these hidden elements over time, and each discovery circled back to the heart of the brand.

On a practical level, there are steps that you will need to go through to avoid any copyright infringements, from searches of the Intellectual Property Office website during first stage creative to engaging a copyright lawyer prior to launch.

They will be able to advise on more complex trademark searches, how to handle a situation where a similar brandmark already exists, and the steps you can take to protect your work. Yes, it’s an expense, but weigh this against potential claims if you accidentally infringe on another brand’s trademark.

It’s not cost, it’s investment

When you’re an SME, each financial decision has an impact on the business and very often smaller companies approach local design agencies to keep costs low. This is understandable of course, however in our experience partnering with a higher value agency gives you access to a wider pool of knowledge.

These design teams will draw on their experience working with larger, successful brands to help refine your identity and set it on the path for future growth, offering advice beyond the limits of a standard design project. They’re also not as intimidating as people think!

Whether you’re working with a small agency, a high value studio or going it alone, take the time to consider the brands that have already made it and what you can learn from them.

For F1, this was a unique and powerful logo that connected with audiences around the world; longevity through simplicity of graphics and an intellectual idea that perfectly fit the brand ethos; and consistency of visual assets and messaging over many years. While the logo may not be enough to meet the demands of a modern brand, the identity that formed it has laid a solid foundation for what’s to come.

Sarah Turner is managing director of Carter Wong.

Further reading on rebranding

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