If there is one piece of advice I can give about branding, it’s to focus. To create a successful brand, don’t lose sight of who you are and what you stand for, who your ideal clients are, and how you want them to feel when they come across your work.
At its core, branding is about connection. The real power of your brand lies in the deeper layers of your work that exist beyond the visual elements. Branding is about tapping into the emotional experience of your audience. It includes the message you seek to share, the language and tone you use to voice your values, knowing your clients’ needs, and what helps you connect with others in the most intangible and magical of ways.
Ideally, how you choose to use your brand and what you communicate through it will match up with how it all lands on your audience. That’s brand integrity.
When I was a child my family used to vacation in London for the summer. We did this several years in a row. One of my favourite things to do whenever we made it to London was to go to what I knew then as the hugest toy store to exist: Hamleys!
It was (and still is) seven storeys of glorious chaos. Toys lining the walls from floor to ceiling, many activities and demonstrations happening all around. Children and adults alike running about, and a constant din in which you could barely hear yourself think. It was unlike any place I knew.
My favourite floor was the fourth because it was where my favourite toys were found: miniature cars. Every year, it was the first stop I made to see what new cars were released that I did not already have in my growing collection. They came in all sorts of shapes and colours, including fluorescents and metallics. Some had moving parts, others had tiny accessories. Vintage cars, muscle cars, sports cars, monster trucks, and tanks. Boats and planes too, but I didn’t much care for those. I loved each one of my cars. I played with them by myself for hours and took pride in how I kept them in their special briefcase that we had somehow retrofitted for their storage. They were kept in London year long and to this day I’m not quite sure why I never took them back home with me when the summers ended. Didn’t I miss them during the rest of the year? I can’t say. But I do know this: we arrived at our London apartment one summer and they were nowhere to be found. They were lost and I was utterly devastated.
Shortly after, we stopped going to London in the summertime and I never saw them again. I also never forgot about them.
Fast forward 20+ years to when I decided to Google something along the lines of “tiny toy cars 90s” and there they were! Available through eBay. I wept…and sobbed. The joy they brought me as a six, seven, eight year old child washed over me. I couldn’t believe it. I had found them! Well, not my cars exactly, but ones just like them, perhaps previously owned by other children for whom they brought the same kind of delight (or toy collectors). Of course, I immediately purchased a bunch of them, and a few of my childhood favourites now sit in front of me on my desk.
What does all of this have to do with branding and strategy? Everything. We are made of stories and so are our businesses, and I believe that in the best of cases, our most enduring personal stories work as building blocks for our work. The why of my business is about helping others step out of hiding, owning their truth, and tapping into the rich resource that is their personal narrative to get clarity and achieve alignment in their branding. The happiness those cars brought me is vital to how I approach my work with new clients: with an openness to play and explore their stories together, and a curiosity for what insights may be found.
Think back to what you enjoyed doing as a child. What are some of your earliest memories? What excited you? And what about it was the exciting part? How we play is just as telling as what we play. Did you like to take things apart and put them back together? Did you make believe? Were you cautious in your play or did you go all in? Were you the main star or did you prefer to play the supportive role?
Our childhood play activities can help us gain insight into how we can better align our branding with why and how we work. Can you connect any of your personal stories to the core mission of your business? I’d love to hear about it!
On a little step stool, I stood at the bathroom sink looking up at the mirror hanging above it. Taking a deep breath, with visions of Demi Moore, Sigourney Weaver, and Robin Tunney flickering through my head, I stretched my right thumb and flipped up the ‘on’ button.
The trimmer I was holding started buzzing loudly, sending little shivers across my palm and down my arm, the vibrations surely reaching my heart as it was beating rapidly. I felt exhilarated. I was ready.
Another deep breath.
Then, reaching over to my forehead, I ran the clipper up into my hair for the first time. There was no going back. Every hair on my body was raised as the thrill of what I was doing rolled through every cell of me. My ears tickled. I kept going. One line after another. Then, leaning forward into the sink, I awkwardly reached towards the back of my head, starting at my neck and moving upwards. One pass after another. Then again sideways from ear to ear.
I stood up again, looking at myself in the mirror, bits of fallen hair clinging to my neck and shoulders. It was done. A sudden bit of doubt crept into my thoughts but just as quickly dissipated. I smiled with elated disbelief at what I had just done. My hair was gone.
I was 13 years old.
This act was fuelled by a deep desire to liberate and express myself. Ellen Ripley and Jordan O’Neill were powerful and beautiful without their hair…and so was I. But my belief was contrary to what I constantly heard around me. The messages were clear: a woman’s worth lies in her appearance, and her hair is her crowning glory. This was not something I believed in or understood, and I had been feeling an increasing need to do something about it…not for others, but for myself.
Interestingly, save for my immediate family, nobody could tell what I had done. You see, I used to wear a headscarf (hijab) at the time. So, it wasn’t a loud or attention-grabbing thing to have done. It wasn’t about showing off or causing a stir. It wasn’t about wanting people to see how cool or wild I was. It was about me, validating my individuality and freedom.
It was a quiet rebellion. The act of shaving my hair off at that age was simply and intimately mine.
I wasn’t popular as a kid, nor was I a shy loner. I was generally unassuming and determined to do things my way. I don’t think I realized at the time just how special that was among my peers. Whatever statements I made, I made them quietly, without expecting any attention for them…in fact, I hated the attention, because I just wanted to be myself without it turning into a ‘thing’. My one or two friends who knew and accepted me for myself were all I needed.
And today, things aren’t any different. When it seems like success is reliant upon being noticed by others for approval, I get a little defiant. When culturally conditioned thoughts find their way into my consciousness, of needing to put myself further ‘out there’ and be this way, behave that way, do this, and say that, in order to find connection, to market my business, to find success, I recall my quiet act of self-love.
I believe that we can carve out our own path on our own time, one that feels right for us. You had a purpose long before anyone had opinions about your path and how you should walk it. We don’t have to prove anything to anyone. We can take the road less travelled. Kindred spirits walk there too, and though it may take some time, we will most certainly cross paths. It’s not necessarily the road of the admired and marketable masses, but deep within, it’s the more fulfilling one.
What have you quietly rebelled against? In what area have you felt strongly the need to carve your own path? I’d love to know.
During my social work graduate program, I had a professor, Dr. Schneider, who on the very first day of our social policy course said to us: “If I teach you nothing else over the next two years but this, I’ll have done my job: Always ask, ‘But, why?’”
It’s now 13 years later and I have forgotten pretty much everything about that course except for those two words. This was before I went to design school, where asking why and showing our thought and design processes were an essential part of our course work. No, back then it was the first time someone had said those words so directly, and they resonated with me deeply at the time, hitting at something that I’ve always naturally leaned towards. I am still so curious about ‘why’.
Why is a powerful word. It can uncover wonders! Yes, it can be frustrating at times to answer…but ask it anyway. It can lead you down roads you’re afraid to walk…ask it anyway. You may never be able to answer it fully, ask it anyway.
You’ll now likely ask, “But, why?”
Because when it comes to branding and the running of your business, asking why is at the heart of everything. How you answer the question every step of the way determines the quality of what you put out into the world. Branding is all about intentional effort and consistency in your messaging. When you put thought into your branding and the processes of your work, it shows…and more importantly, it is felt. The journey can feel intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. It may take time to develop and find the answers that resonate, and that’s okay. Life is an ever-evolving experiment, it’s all about moving from one discovery to the next.
Asking why is at the centre of determining who we are. The more genuine the desire to seek answers, the more committed we are to our growth and development. When we forget to ask why, we begin to lose touch with all that drives and defines us. Wisdom lies in asking the right questions, not necessarily in answering them, because, funnily enough, the answers can change over time. You’ll naturally adjust course as long as you keep asking the right questions and revising your answers when needed. In the end, you’ll undoubtedly reach where you’re meant to end up.
Over the past year, I’ve spent a great deal of time asking big questions regarding the future of my business. Who do I want to work with? What do I want to keep offering and what services do I wish to discard? How do I want to shape my business? How do I want to define success? The list goes on. Though some questions were easier to answer than others, it has taken me all year to get the clarity I was after (and the answers are still forming). But there is one foundational question that I kept going back to: Why am I doing this work in the first place?
Being someone who generally places a lot of pressure on herself and setting very high standards (too high, I am willing to admit), I kept disregarding my answers to that question as “not good enough”. Not good enough compared to what exactly, I can’t say. I thought my answer had to be some grand ambitious reason and I kept getting stuck because I don’t have any grand ambitious reason. All I have is a memory reel running through my head showing me a specific narrative.
I kept seeing a girl around five or six years old. She was playful, loving, observant, adventurous, quiet, and caring. As children, we have no sense of judgment or shame around how we express our thoughts and interests, there’s no second guessing ourselves. It’s pure innocence and self-expression leading the way, and this girl had a way of expressing herself through her unique fashion sense.
She had a suit that she loved to wear and it made her feel amazing. She would outfit herself in her black suit coupled with a plaid Santa Claus patterned shirt and a striped red and black tie. It didn’t matter to her whether or not things matched, she knew she had style.
How we remember, what we remember, and why we remember form the most personal map of our individuality.
In 1990 when Dick Tracy came out, this six-year-old girl was awestruck by the colourful suits, ties, vests, hats, and strange characters. She was too young to understand anything going on in the film but she rewatched it countless times. She was utterly in love with everything about the aesthetic of the era portrayed.
It didn’t matter whether it was just another day at home or a special occasion for which she had to dress up, she would wear her suit, and in her suspenders and ties she could do and be anything. She was unstoppable, sure of herself…put simply, a badass (as evidenced by her poses in the photos below).
But then things changed. The little girl started to hide when she began to notice that the people around her didn’t really care about her because she was too different. They cared about people who looked and thought like them. Her inquisitive and thoughtful nature wasn’t welcomed. It wasn’t safe to voice opinions or behave in ways contrary to the status quo. She started to learn that if she wanted to be accepted and seen, and above all, remain safe, she had to get with the program and join in following and mimicking what everyone else was doing.
So she did. She blended in.
The sad thing is that it didn’t lead to being accepted. All it did was ensure that she wasn’t seen at all. This went on for many years, further cementing her fears, the risk of visibility becoming too great. It was safest to keep her observations and questions to herself.
So, why do I do what I do? Because who we are in the world matters. Because our experiences matter. Because our unique points of view matter. Because to me, branding is about belonging and connection, and the path to connecting with others starts with connecting with our own stories and values. At the heart of it, brand strategy is deeply observant, reflective, and introspective. That’s what my work is about. It involves my clients and me collaboratively asking big questions and jointly embarking on the journey to finding the answers within and without. It’s about helping them discover and craft their own story that they perhaps didn’t even know they had in them, so they may, in turn, inspire and connect with others. And of course, having some fun along the way!
It’s time to come out of hiding and share your individual voice. The world could surely use it.
That girl, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is me. Little Fin. I see her clearly now and I miss her spirit and special confidence. She used to be mine and I want her back. She’s at the heart of my story and my ‘why’.
I watched the original Star Trek television show regularly growing up. Then one day, perhaps when I was ten years old, we got a VHS box set of the original movie series that were filmed throughout the 80s. As a kid, that was one of my first memories of seeing something beautifully packaged and knowing it.
I loved that set. It felt special. The box was an odd shape: a parallelogram, wrapped in silver and debossed in gold…and that was just the outside. I remember being intrigued upon lifting the lid of the box at the way the spines of the tapes lined up to form one larger image. They belong together! Looking back, I think that was when I started noticing and appreciating good design and the power it can have.
Fast forward a decade later when I came across Star Trek: Voyager. I had at that point forgotten the details of the Star Trek Universe, but my love for the franchise was quickly revived upon discovering three strong and complex female characters in this one show. Three. All with high-ranking positions! One of whom was Seven of Nine, a human long ago assimilated by the Borg.
I’ll keep things short and simply explain, for those unfamiliar with their kind, that the Borg are a cyborg race with one ultimate goal: to achieve perfection. They work towards that goal by transforming other species they encounter into Borg drones (worker bees) linked through a hive mind, and ruled by their Borg queen.
Fascinating creatures, the Borg. I found myself greatly interested in their qualities as a species and saw an overlap with the design principles I use, and was taught, as being exemplary of good design.
Those qualities include, but are not limited to:
“We are the Borg. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.”
The Borg advance their capabilities and survive by invading other species and absorbing their knowledge into their ecosystem. However, they assimilate only what serves them. That’s what distinguishes them from other predatorial species. As a designer I was taught to be particular and intentional about what I include in my design work, only incorporating what will ultimately serve the project’s objectives.
The Borg are methodical. They are efficient and direct. They waste no time or energy on anything that doesn’t involve the task at hand and, by extension, the larger mission. They do not give weight to irrelevancies. If it is irrelevant, it is discarded. Good design doesn’t confuse with unnecessary information. It is clear and straightforward. It aims to solve design problems in the most direct way possible.
The Borg operate as a hive. They are a collective, always acting as one entity. Branding, in the larger sense of the word, is about systemic cohesion. No matter the complexity of the individual components, they all operate to serve the greater purpose of expressing a singular brand personality. When designing visual identities, care is taken to ensure that everything comes together beautifully in a cooperative and united manner.
Of course, I am not saying good design employs only the above qualities. What makes good design is a matter subject to debate and differing opinions. In my view, great design is guided by the rules mentioned above and knows exactly when to break them in order to embody the magically human qualities that can be so hard to talk about, capture, and replicate. Great design can be pragmatic and emotional, logical and spiritual. It can be functional and romantic, messy and structured all the same. Difficult to define, it is human in the best sense of the word. And while the Borg operate in a beautiful system of intelligent order…human they are not.