branding: why defining before designing is so crucial

In digital marketing you will meet clients at all stages of development: some need branding from the ground up, others just need some SEO added to their web presence. Regardless of where they fall on this spectrum, we always ask— do you have brand guidelines?

 so, what are brand guidelines?

Brand guidelines are simply-put, a handbook of who your company is. It can include colors, type fonts, messaging examples, and even help to define how you hope customers perceive you. It’s your company— just add water.

It’s a tedious process to outline these objectives, and often times it can be intimidating to truly define who you are as a company from now until eternity. It can feel like you’re putting yourself in a box. We like to remind our clients that a good brand has an established starting point and evolves over time— so, think of it as more of a road map and less of a box.

It’s crucial to have this map when jumping into business, especially when it comes to all things digital. A website or social media strategy becomes disjointed limbs when they’re not rooted in a company’s true brand. My designer friend Leanne put it best, “Building a website without creating brand guidelines is like painting the outside of a house before renovating it.” And it’s so true. You wouldn’t paint your home before deciding if you wanted to build on or tear things down. The exterior paint is the final touch. It’s how you present yourself, or your home, to the world. Likewise, all digital marketing components are just that: a vessel for you to yell loud and proud who you are as a company.

On a basic level, before you jump into the va-va voom stuff, you have to outline what makes your brand tick. They say it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

 4 questions to ask in order to define your brand

 1. how do we relate to our customers?

At Astute, we use the 12 Jungian archetypes to help illustrate these answers.

  • magician

  • sage

  • jester

  • innocent

  • rebel

  • lover

  • explorer

  • hero

  • caregiver

  • ruler

  • everyman

  • creator

Each of these personas promises their customers something and espouse to a life motto. We define what each archetype is like at their best and their worst. Defining how you relate to your customers is crucial to how your target messaging will read. It will drive your goals and help to steer you in the right direction when it comes to design.

 2. what words and feelings do we want people to have when they experience our brand?

This is often where we stump people. Often times we work with high-level medical companies or data-driven environmental brands and the concept of integrating feeling into their marketing is foreign. And we get it. Feelings are elusive and ever-changing, but it’s important to also recognize that they are instrumental in customers’ decisions. Branding is all about being in control of those feelings and working to evoke positive and enticing emotions that result in a sale.

 3. do we have a role model brand or a company whose brand, messaging, and overall image we like or want to align with?

What are good role models for other than paving the way? Having a company that you look at and say, I’d like to be in their league, that’s who I want people to associate us with, is really about getting deeper to the heart of who your company is. When it comes to marketing, copy-catting is a no-go, but often times being in the weeds of your own brand can make you a little blind to its strengths and weakness. We find it’s easier for companies to identify what they like or dislike about other brands, and we can move from there.

 4. who is our ideal customer?

This speaks to the heart of your audience. Who are they aside from their age, gender, race, socioeconomic status? Do they value religion? Do they have children? Do they desire convenience or an in-depth customer service experience? Are they more likely to respond to numbers and statistics or emotional-driven content? Are they looking for a long-term company relationship or a one-off solution? These questions inform not only what you say, but how you say it. It can be easy to be hyper-focused on who you are as a company without even stopping to think who it is you’re asking to trust you with their money, time, etc.


Now don’t get us wrong, beautiful websites and stellar user-experiences are crucial to making noise and making sales, but those things are built on robust brand guidelines. Pump the breaks on the design front and really decide who you are as a company. Your customers (and designer) will thank you.