Thumbroll is a Los Angeles-based medical education startup. The app allows medical students to learn critical techniques and procedures at their own pace through a proprietary scrolling functionality. The iconic mark represents forward motion while resembling a shifting pause button, thereby combining the two key points of the user’s brand experience. The identity design further alludes to the relationship between medical procedure and the medical student and uses contrasting blue tones that fit into the vertical while resonating with the next generation of students.
This innovative new BioTech venture approached FINIEN with a desire to create a brand strategy and overarching brand identity that represented its collaborative and layered approach to developing comprehensive and integrated data insight solutions for its clients. The Onramp identity was crafted to appeal to both BioTech & IT executives as well as the leadership in forward-thinking businesses by communicating trustworthiness, innovation, and collaboration.
FINIEN created the brand for a remodeled hotel in beautiful Lake Tahoe. Within the simple, yet highly adaptable mark, we focused on the elements of the lake as well as the mountains: the key attractions that draw visitors to this area every year. The brand image was carried through all Brand Atmosphere Touch Points.
When I was 8 years old I started ‘a publishing house’. I named it Buttersemmelweich Verlag. A real memorable name, right? It translates to ButterBreadSoft Publishing Co. It only published a single magazine, but over the course of several years. It was called SNOOPY. Go here for a stunning visual I dug out from the family archives just for you. Please note the Nike logos on Snoopy’s shoes, a sign of innocence lost and a hint of my future in branding. Perhaps the Charles M. Schulz Museum (which I can highly recommend a visit to) will sue me for the 6 issues I sold – yes, the young entrepreneur that I was I actually asked my family members to pay for my work. Just like a retainer, each issue I drew and wrote was copied 6 times (by my mum) and always sold out (to my mum Etc). As I grew a year older the name of the magazine was changed to JoeCool, an obvious transition, and I brought on ‘a partner’ as one ought to do, especially since I could not use the typewriter yet. My fascination with magazines grew over the years. As a young communication designer I felt the need to be on the forefront of pop culture, to be informed about as many topics as I possibly could in a swift and constant manner, while being surrounded by the freshest fonts and layouts. Since the internet has not quite been as giving back then as it is today, buying as many magazine subscriptions as possible was my goal. I have since adjusted my subscriptions, but have not kicked the habit. Needless to say, I have seen (and over the years also professionally designed) plenty of magazines.
As I descended into the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek a couple of evenings ago, I was shocked before I could even flip to Page 2. The cover was bad. It was so bad that it was actually appalling to me. Judge for yourself:
I was shocked, not a bit intrigued, only shocked, and a little sad as Bloomberg Businessweek has been pushing its design steadily after its acquisition in 2009. Conceptual, socially challenging and often shocking cover designs were part of their re-branding. But this cover is just shockingly bad.
How did it happen and why would you care?
Bloomberg Businessweek shares the story on how the covers were conceived in each issue, on Page 2, right next to the index, a prime location for any magazine. So here it goes:
Yes, indeed they talk about ripping off MC Escher – and may I add that the original design (above) also has a touch of Spy vs Spy ‘borrowing.’ Alright, I registered that as a bizarre strategy statement, but going from a solid conceptual and surely intriguing (yet copied) design to a horrendous – ‘at least it’s got big colorful letters’ – solution makes it obvious that the chosen design option only made it to the cover in a rush to meet print-deadlines (imagine how long the Escher illustration must have taken to create?).
As the reader, a consumer, the target audience, do you see the problem? Sharing both designs and the decision criteria is a very bad brand decision. If the cover design is genius, Bloomberg Businessweek’s story on how it was made is only killing the magic. No room left for imagination. Even worse, we can see how bad the other cover design option was, making the amazing design option that much less great as we want to feel designs go from good to better to great. If the design is really bad (as it is in the current issue) and the option that did not make it would have been significantly better (as was the case in the current issue), the reader is upset and disappointed by Bloomberg Businessweek’s choice. This is obviously not good for a brand and I see this as an open letter to Bloomberg Businessweek to change its strategy and to use this Page 2 real estate for something that works for, instead of against, its brand.
As an entrepreneur, never share your design options with your audience at large. It’s tempting as they are the ones that will need to buy (into) it. If you really don’t trust your brand or design consultants, have a small and narrow focus group, if you must, but do not share design options with your entire audience. Not during, and definitely not once they have been made. Most everyone who did not go through design college tends to screw this up big time. Look at Marissa Mayer’s big fail when introducing the public to Yahoo!’s logo re-design last year. Everyone got excited, everyone had their favorites, and then…a universally disappointing final choice.
The habit of sharing creative options is one of over sharing, or TMI as one would text. Don’t fall into this invitingly open trap as your audience’s TMI feeling would very quickly morph into an OMG and a WTF (Excuse my language) expression on your end. Spare yourself, and your brand that pain.
I am not sure about you, but I can not stand leaf blowers. The concept does not work for me in any way.
Now if you live outside the US, or in a region that has sane laws restricting or prohibiting the use of such evil devices, you may not know what I am referring to. The concept is simple: Leaf blowers use high pressure air, like a fan or hairdryer on steroids, to move leaves from one area to another, most often this means your gardeners blow them to your neighbors, or onto the street. Problem solved? Not quite. Either your neighbor hates you now (even a bit more), or the wind blows them back to you, eventually. Solution? Have the leaf blowers come by more often.
Now that I filled you in, let’s do this again:
Leaf blowers postpone an issue, while displeasing everyone who gets in touch with them. It stinks up the neighborhood, is annoyingly noisy and pushes a problem from one place to another. Bingo! Out of sight – out of mind. Now that was quick and cheap. Consider those massive amounts of leaves handled.
On my way to our office last week, my thoughts deeply entrenched in the world of branding (as you’d expect), leaf blowers pushed their leaves smack onto a busy street during rush hour traffic. As I passed them I saw those leaves go absolutely everywhere; mostly right back to where they came from. It made me think of all these startups saving money bootstrapping (Hint: ’99 Designs Dot Com’) – now read these two words carefully – their identity by crowd sourcing it to strangers to create cool designs. They will not arrive at a solution easily, so they get more leaf blowers to work faster and more often creating vast amounts of different logo designs, spending hours over hours discussing the designs they receive in their Inbox until they need to just pick the one they ‘like’ best.
A couple months later early brand adopters gather and success hits. The wind has changed, the leaves are coming back. This is the point in which they realize that the logo is not their real identity. It does not connect. It is missing meaning. It does not have nor create a story. They need to re-brand, even though they just spent all that time and energy, and by now even a sizable expense. And this time it is going to be much more costly then had they done it right from the get-go. They have to re-educate their customers, hire a specialist whom they pay professional fees like they do with their other consultants. They need to re-create all touch points from the web site via all the collateral to perhaps even the signage. It stinks.
If you ask successful startups what they would have done differently in retrospect, many say they wish they had not cut costs on their initial branding or web site efforts. The wind changes, the leaves come back, but at that point the neighbors already like you that much less and making up is hard to do, a much lengthier process that involves other ‘leaf-behinds’ (sorry, I just had to!).
I recall my parents picking up leaves in batches in our garden and carrying them to the compost to get rid of them. Now that makes a whole lot of sense. It definitely was a time investment, but only a one-time investment. It even had a romantic part to it. It showed they cared and that the seasons were changing.
Pick up the pieces, make sense of them, do it with love, and it will show. Just remember, it’s your startups identity.
For a consultancy that has a clear focus on brand creation, you might have wondered at some point why we did not create a stunning icon or a splashy in-your-face logo for our own company. Are we not following our own rules, are we lazy, or is there a different strategy at play? Ask no more, the myths will be busted today.
I decided early on, even with my former company, Geyrhalter & Co, that designing a logo in its truest form for a business that is in the business of designing logos would not be the right path – it could only back fire. It might be too ornamental, too colorful, too round, too square, too bold, too…anything really that does not fit our prospects’ bill of decorative wishes and likes. We do not want to attract clients based on a graphic style, nor would we want to scare them away using a specific style. We are in the business of creating your brand, ours should remain in the background.
In other words, it’s a bit like the design of a logo for an exclusive car seller that focuses on the newest and most luxurious models. He decides to have a visual representation of a Tesla turn into the logo. It represents a true cutting edge car while surely representing luxury. To him. And only today. A dumbed down comparison, I know, but you get the point. A brand identity design (through its 3 components) should describe what you are in business for, it should show your brand’s personality, touch on differentiators and your brand’s core values, but it does not need to, and most of the time should not show the actual product.
Our brand design needed to lead, it had to be professional and sophisticated, but simple, clean, and most important non-invasive. Below screenshot of my former brand agency’s Facebook page header shows how our simple logotype was floating above the work we did for our clients, making a clear statement of who was responsible for the brand visuals, yet distancing ourselves from all the colors and graphic shapes of our work.
When working on our brand identity design we took many paths before arriving at our current logo, which portrays innovation and disruption through sheer use of a bright and unusual poppy color, while the simple custom typography signifies openness and professionalism. When we launched FINIEN, it looked like an established company from day one, yet a disruptor with an open mind. It had fulfilled its purpose, matching strategic goals with final design. It has treated us well, even if it does not have a cool icon or splashy design, actually, because it does not have it.
Steven Balaban is the founder and CIO of Mink Capital. He has read over seventy business books in the last six years and has recently launched the site Best Business Books To Read to share his knowledge.
“I am fascinated by the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch. I first learned about the watch through a social media campaign that focused on a video that shows characters in TV shows, such as The Jetsons and Star Trek, using futuristic watches. The campaign claims that “The Next Big Thing is Here” and the video definitely gives that impression!
I remember the days when I was backpacking around Europe with my old camera and eight rolls of film. Now, I can travel with a 1.9 megapixel digital camera around my wrist. Am I really that old?”
Although launched only about 3 months ago, in the cell phone and gadget market, the Galaxy Note 3 is by now light years away from being a ‘new brand.’ Steven selected a truly innovative product, one I was curious about for a while and one that makes it hard to do our job; discussing the name, identity and digital brand atmosphere. We like to be challenged:
Cell phones fall into the category Fax and Copy machines once fell into. The inaugural product name (The iPhone, The Galaxy) sound sexy and/or inspirational, and at the time the iPhone 5c and the Galaxy Note 3 launch, they turn into fax machine names. More troublesome for Samsung though is the naming strategy behind the truly innovative part, the introduction of its Smartwatch. It has been degraded to ‘Gear’. Verbatim: The Samsung Galaxy Gear. Representing the only such ‘gear’ (there is only the watch), the choice is baffling to myself and confusing to the consumer, when all they want to call it is ‘the watch’.
The name is the first step to defining a brand’s identity, and with a 4-part name the brand identity design is quite a train wreck that is as hard on the eyes as it is on your tongue. You won’t fall in love with the name, nor the logotype, so what to do? Throw in Robin Thicke, add a hashtag (#DesignYourLife) and let’s not bring up ‘Samsung Galaxy Note 3 + Gear’ too often. Nor the Jetsons, Thicke replaced you and Knight Rider as of now.
Seems as though the majority of the budget was spent on the highly produced Robin Thicke commercials, hence they occupy the landing page in its entirety. A bold move, one that leaves the user ‘interacting’ with the brand and ‘exploring’ the site, but truthfully, it means that they are lost looking for details on what the SGN3+G (Forgive me for not spelling out the full name) can really do for them. We soon learn that the site itself has been overproduced as well, taking advantage of many bells and whistles of today’s web design yet leaving functionality and plain product info, features and calls to action behind. The web site is the number one informational source for gadgets, being so cumbersome to navigate, it leaves me thinking that the SGN3+G might offer the same clunky experience.
From a brand experience perspective I might leave the ‘gear’ behind and wait for a ‘smartwatch’ after all, as there will be many to chose from shortly. For now I, and perhaps Steven, will hold off on Robin Thicke and wait patiently to live the Jetsons’ life instead.
A couple of weeks ago, Bob Garlick, host of Business Book Talk (poking through below), contacted me to schedule an interview about our book ‘How to Launch a Brand.’ With Bob sitting in Vancouver and myself in Los Angeles, I was immediately taken by surprise as there was no script that he shared with me, no canned answers to prep, no warmup chatter and no edits were made to our conversation.
The result is an honest and stimulating conversation between two individuals with a keen interest in design, branding and entrepreneurship, which I’d like to share with you. Below audio not only gives you a peek into our book, but also covers topics such as misconceptions of branding, brand strategy, how brands need to be different than 15 years ago and how to connect with your customers through branding:
(Can’t see above audio player in your E-Mail? Please listen to the audio via our site)
Now that I crossed the bridge by posting audio (how adventurous), I might as well share a quick video in which I further define ‘brand’ specifically for startups, filmed at a mentoring session (how advantageous) at the Founder Institute in San Diego two weeks ago.
‘Is branding the key for a successful start-up?‘ is the topic for a speech I was asked to give at Internet Hungary this week. I could make it a 5 second speech and say ‘Yes, it is one of the most important factors,’ but lucky for me the topic is broader and will go deeper into the keys of creating a successful brand. Let me use this opportunity though to dive knee deep into this question as some brand elements are more important to certain types of companies at time of launch than to others:
No one shall skip the Brand Platform creation at the onset of a new venture, unless you want to compete on price, be boring and unattractive to work for, and are not keen on acquiring the right target audience at time of launch. You tackle the Brand Platform right after you draft your business plan (from fully fleshed out to napkin version – all are acceptable forms of business plans at this stage, depending on your own comfort level).
Launching with a meaningful and unique Name and Brand Identity Design seems like a no-brainer, a must for all entrepreneurs. If for whatever logical reason (budget not being part of that logic) you feel forced to launch with a sub-par name and logo, knowing you will have to go through a (more costly) re-naming and re-branding exercise upon showing first successes, it is the easiest to do for a tech startup or B2B venture that requires solely test users or relies on a very small niche audience, which will make it easier to educate them on this big and disruptive brand change down the road. Some Tech Startups (especially apps) are prototyping until the day of launch, making it an easy excuse to skip this essential step, whereas it is much more advisable to work on a prototype whilst formulating the brand platform, that way you are educating yourself about the target audience while you see them use the actual product, enabling you to create a meaningful brand that will not have to be rebuild soon thereafter. A win – win.
Needs for Brand Atmosphere Touch Points vary in importance and specifics from company to company with retail and other mainly offline B2C companies leading the list, E-Commerce and Tech Startups surviving off some basic, consistent touch points bundled with heavy E-Marketing template creations, while most B2B brands fall anywhere in-between, depending on their structure and audience. If bootstrap is your motto, these can be rolled out over time, making it essentially more pricey, but allowing you to spread the cost.
It only makes sense that ventures leading with digital need to make UI/UX Design part of their strategic brand implementation. Most companies – B2C/Retail and B2B – rely heavily on brand-centric (responsive) web sites to attract and convert leads of different types. For Online Retailers and Tech Startups where the web site also is the product, the prototyping should be addressed in parallel with the Brand Platform creation as it will educate the branding process as a whole. Some companies are able to save on development costs using existing WordPress templates (and such), but brand will still be key at launch.
To conclude, whenever a startup founder tells me (and they tell me all the time) “I can not afford branding at this early stage of my company formation” I reply with “No, you cannot afford not to brand at this early stage of your company formation. Unless you think a strong brand is worth less at time of sale or IPO than an ugly yet functional prototype.‘ This often marks the end of our conversation, until they call a few weeks later to get started with branding their new venture.