The Creative Process

When I taught introductory philosophy courses as a teaching fellow, I tried to emphasize that philosophy was about asking questions, as cliche as that seems. There were sleepy-eyed freshmen staring at me and waiting for me to tell them why philosophy matters – and that’s one of the things I had to offer them.

I wanted to impart the wisdom that someone had once given me: though you might not find a definitive answer to your/life’s major questions, at least you’re eliminating some of the things that won’t work as an answer. So, you’re getting closer! In theory.

In the brand identity process as written by Wheeler, I see a similar endeavor. In Phase 1, Wheeler uses a quote from Michael Cronan that relates to my point and my “teachings:” “Answering questions is relatively easy. Asking the right question is more difficult.” It depends on the question, I would say for the former part of this quote, but for the latter, I completely agree.

Phase one of the brand identity process is critical. The questions asked for baseline information about a business or company, and the questions behind research done for audits and usability testing, set up information essential to the next four phases. These questions need to be the “right” questions. Here, I use the word “right” to mean “most useful, and most pertinent to the objectives and goals of the business in creating a brand identity.”

Some of my favorite questions that Wheeler curates in discussing insight include:

“Why do we exist?”

“What will we become?”

-Keith Yamashita, Chairman, SYPartners

“If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”

“What is your idea of perfect happiness?”

-Marcel Proust

Though these questions might not seem specific, Wheeler also emphasizes that it’s important to ask bigger questions that can lead to profound changes for brands. The bigger questions end up digging at the heart of a business or company. The heart becomes the brand identity.

The next phase of the brand identity process is also a philosophical endeavor. It could’ve come right out of my Introduction to Philosophy syllabus, as I asked my students to “discuss what philosophizing means to them.”

An answer I wish I’d had at the start of 2016 when I began teaching is the Phase 2 overview:

“It is about analysis, discovery, synthesis, simplicity, and clarity.” And Wheeler nails what it takes to be a young philosopher and brand identity genius. She also describes designers as those who work at the “intersection of strategic imagination, intuition, design, excellence, and experience.”

All this to say: the brand identity process is a creative process. The branding part of communication requires creativity and a deeper level of thinking than what is required of someone to properly edit a manual or design a flyer. In embarking on the process of branding and creating representations of one’s business or company, one must first examine what it’s going to be. And if it’s the case, re-examine what already exists. From there, begin making, thinking, throwing out, clarifying, and all of the things that are necessary in a creative, philosophical process in creating one’s brand identity.

Know Thyself

In beginning Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler, I searched for where content strategy would pop up. Where in the process are we talking content strategy here? I found familiar concepts from content strategy integrated into brand basics, as Wheeler weaves content strategy ideas (knowingly? Unknowingly?) into the reference guide useful for content strategists and marketing people alike.

These familiar concepts are:

  • Know thyself
  • Use what you know
  • Maintain what you’ve created

Wheeler mixes in wise words from various sources, those experienced in the field as well as long-dead philosophers.

She quotes Chris Grams from The Ad-Free Brand, “Brand mantras are poetry. And they are powerful tools, not just for building brands, but for building organizations.” Here, Grams is referring to the brand tagline as a mantra – a phrase that captures a company’s brand essence, and also invokes action and elicits recognition. The birth of a tagline comes from an intensive strategic and creative process, a process that familiarizes the creator with a brand’s personality and positioning, making it its own entity.

In pages following, she uses Plato to drive home the importance of authenticity as a brand ideal, quoting “Know thyself.” Supporting Grams’ mantra quote, knowing oneself leads into building a brand and ultimately building an organization. Core messages, targeted messages, visuals such as look and feel and a logo, stem from an organization knowing who they are and what they stand for. (Now where did it come from, and where is it going?)

I’m hooked. It’s realizing the essence of the self but applied to a non-human entity.

It seems that in studying both content strategy and brand identity, one recurring goal is highlighted as essential to succeeding in your objectives. This goal is having a content strategy statement, carefully selected word-for-word, and having a tagline, also carefully selected word-for-word, both meant to represent a project or brand going forward. The weight of each word and phrase is enormous, and much thought needs to go into choosing the verbs and nouns used in content strategy statements and taglines. If you know who you are and what you stand for, you should be able to develop a content strategy statement or tagline much more easily than if you didn’t.

One manifestation of knowing your brand is the development of characters to represent in a familiar form (usually an animal, if not a human being) the brand. Historically, these characters hold a lot of weight. They became and have become cultural icons that children and customers both cherish. If you stop to think about their significance in the time period in which they were born, these characters might also (if they were real) have a lot to say about the world and things like war, capitalism, etc.

I’m referring to Uncle Sam, aiding in the sale of war bonds, who actually became a character because of the consumers, rather than the company coming up with the idea first. I’m talking about Aunt Jemima, affiliated with pancake mix and syrup, but also with an awful part of American history. I have to give the nonhuman characters some recognition as well: consider Elsie the Cow, beloved amongst all whole milk drinkers who helped revitalize Borden Dairy during a pricing war with its competitors, and the Energizer Bunny, power source of children’s toys and household useful things all over the world.

These brand characters have a place in history, almost as much as the human designers behind them do. That’s monumental. They’re fictional, and they’re made up, but they made it into the memories and lives of generations. This is how branding is powerful and permeating.