Concepting: What the heck is it and why should anybody pay for it?

When we describe the process for developing communications for our clients, they sometimes ask, what’s that concepting thing? Here’s an explanation of what it is, and why it’s important.

Concepting is an activity—but it doesn’t always seem like one. The participants are typically sitting—perhaps with their feet propped on a conference room table. At times, they talk. At other times, they seem to be studying the fascinating pattern of pockmarks in the acoustic ceiling tiles—possibly dreaming up new constellations. (“If you squint you can see a bunny rabbit.”)

Is this really necessary? Also, isn’t the term “concepting” hugely pretentious?

Yes and yes. Starting with the second question and moving backwards (just because), the term “concepting” has an unfortunate air of snootiness. (If a client wanted to know what concepting is, we could just show them a desktop-sized reproduction of Rodin’s The Thinker and win gold in the World Insufferable Poser Championship.) We could possibly use “brainstorming,” a term most are familiar with, but a brainstorming meeting, while similar, is not precisely the same thing. It typically involves more people, often from many disciplines within the organization, and it’s a bit more of a free-for-all. A concepting session usually involves two or three people whose primary job is conceiving and executing ideas for strategically planned content. (“Content” is another unfortunate word, but I’m going to stay on task here.)

Why do we need a concepting meeting?

Most projects sound deceptively simple. Our client PrimeSouth Bank once asked us for an ad that would convey the bank’s long history in four south Georgia communities. It wouldn’t have taken us long to bang out an ad that said something like “Serving your communities since 1891.” But our writer/designer team came up with something much more engaging. They proposed a photo of a couple and their daughter, with copy that promised to serve the couple today and the daughter down the road—just as PrimeSouth has been doing for generations. What really gave the ad emotional resonance, though, was its playful reference to a college rivalry everybody in the area is familiar with. It’s the kind of gesture a big national bank would never do—and it’s proof that PrimeSouth truly understands its customers. That kind of idea only comes out of a concepting session. Our team had to come up with—and kill—many lesser ideas before they were inspired to create this one.

concept-design

The first thing we do is review the creative brief.

Actually, that happens before we even go into a concepting meeting. It’s impossible to have a productive concepting meeting without the brief information not only on hand, but in mind. The creative brief informs the direction of our thinking. It tells us why we’re taking on the project, its aims, its audiences, and how we can measure its success, among other things. In short, it takes a good creative brief to bring about good creative.

Next, we get all obvious ideas out of the way.

Whatever ideas first come to our minds, the things we’ve seen before and are most familiar with, we immediately get that out of our system. If a client tasks us with selling a breath mint, we write every Tic Tac® association we can imagine on the whiteboard, then make every attempt to work outside of those listed associations. This is key to ensure your project is not some reheated version of a competitor’s. Nobody is truly excited about a microwave-ready meal.

Then, we chase down lines of thought.

It’s a game of “What if we did this,” in which a charade ensues and we try to quickly sell our counterpart on the notion. If something clicks, we go down that rabbit hole. If not, we wait for the next one, and pitch it twice as hard.
Each resource—that’s what we call copywriters, designers, illustrators, etc.—functions as a sort of check to the other’s ideas. If all works according to plan, an idea arises in which neither party can poke a hole; the idea floats despite the copywriter’s darts and the designer’s blades. We generally aim to have two, often three of these buoyant concepts before exposing them to a more abrasive rigor.

That next test? Strategy and sandpaper.

Now we ask ourselves: how difficult would it be to produce ideas A, B, and C, respectively? How expensive is each likely to be? Assuming a budget of X and a timeline of Y, we can easily rid ourselves of option B, and so on. If we’re lucky, we’ve got two ideas left standing. We’ll then take those to our Creative Director—the one here to remind us that whole lemons can still float.

We also bring in the Strategic Account Director. (This person doesn’t suddenly appear at this point in the process, but rather, early and often.) Strategic Account Directors understand the client and their target audience better than anyone, so they stand by to confirm that the creative remains in line with the brief, the client’s needs, and most importantly with the brand and its buyers.

We have lift-off.

Eventually, an idea passes our gauntlet, and it’s time to make a mock-up that we can show to our internal team and the client. The mock-up goes to the Creative Director, who puts a smiley-face sticker on it (sometimes right away, other times after some adjustment), and then it goes on to the Strategic Account Director. She has her own set of stickers and once she has applied one, the mock-up is ready for client eyes.

After all that, when the concept is out in the world and proving its worth, we might think back to the time spent bouncing ideas around and remember that this is why we love our jobs. It’s hard to come up with an idea, fall in love with it, and then push it aside when it doesn’t measure up. It’s hard but it’s also the most fun thing ever. And when it solves a problem for an appreciative client, we’re ecstatic.

Two Faces for Facebook?

When is it appropriate to show multiple brand personalities in social media?

A client had an interesting question. Their events management business, based at a beautiful, unique location, hosts all kinds of events, from weddings to corporate meetings. They wanted to know, with these very different audiences, should they use one Facebook page to build the brand, or two separate pages which might not be as brand-centric, but would better serve the target audiences?

Opinions from digital marketing and brand marketing professionals varied. They generally had an immediate response, as though the answer were obvious, but their answers differed. Some said it should be one page, others said two.

The one-page argument pointed out that it puts everything in one place, is easier to manage for a team with limited time and budget to keep the page updated, and it would be easier to ensure optimal SEO. All practical considerations, especially for a small business. They also pointed out that if the brand were broken into two pages, it could cause people to pigeonhole them as only a wedding venue, or only a business events venue. Viewers would miss the complete story.

The two-page advocates admitted that it added management complications and would demand additional, precious man-hours to keep the content fresh. That’s especially challenging in a small business where people already wear multiple hats. They weren’t as concerned that people would only get half of the brand offerings if they only saw one page or the other. They pointed out that each page should reference the other with fresh updates for both.

Back to fundamentals: know your audience and speak their language.

The more complicated marketing gets, the more important it is to practice the fundamentals. In this case, that meant putting the target audiences first, and asking, “What’s important to our clients?”

An excited bride-to-be, searching for her dream wedding location, is not going to be inspired by a Facebook page that shows updates with pictures of pinstripe suited executives. Likewise, a business meeting planner will not be comfortable recommending a potential location to his boss if it looks like bridal bouquets will be flying through the air. Because these target audiences are so different, they demand a dedicated page for each segment.

Yes, this means more staff time invested in social media. But here’s the thing with social: it’s, well, social. Social settings demand certain appearances and behaviors. Most of us dress and talk differently in an important business meeting than we do for a Saturday evening cookout with the neighbors. Likewise, companies participating in social media, especially a personal channel like Facebook (as opposed to a professional channel like LinkedIn), need to consider the situation and participate accordingly.

Just as in real life, be socially appropriate for the situation.

Like real life, there is no perfect answer. Weigh your options, make a decision, and then monitor and measure. Remember, too, that you can always change it and try a different way. The beauty of online content is that you can test different tactics to learn what works best.

What’s On Your Whiteboard?

What’s On Your Whiteboard?

Every desk at RLM has at least three screens and often more on display: multiple computer monitors, smart phones, and tablets. But our favorite brainstorming and puzzle solving tool is the good old whiteboard. Our main conference room has a 14 foot whiteboard that inspires team members and clients alike to bigger thinking. Every desk has at least one within arm’s reach, and you never know what you’ll see on them.

Research has shown that our brains are more active when we stand, move around, and physically write things down rather than typing into a keyboard. If our whiteboards could talk, they would have many a tale to tell of coding puzzles solved, site maps brainstormed, and headlines rewritten. In the spirit of sharing the chaotic processes of our creative and strategic minds, we thought to put our brains on display – well, our boards (less invasive).

20151001_140106-OlafHere you see the rare inner-workings of German design. This is the board of our Lead Designer, Olaf. Don’t ask us what any of this means. And don’t ask Olaf either. He’s concentrating.

20151001_140148-JonathanOrDesignerOpposite Olaf’s musings you’ll see the board between Garrett, another member of the design team. He can tailor a page like a fine suit, but don’t look toward the top right –it looks like he struggles with analog clocks.

Olaf

We don’t know what Olaf is doing here, but it looks important. Plotting the shortest way to getting his Costco shopping done, perhaps.

Nerf!-20151002-08White board strategy was the key to our Nerf War Victory over our sister company, Dynamic Quest. Here, Marcy plots hallway ambush tactics.

whiteboard-20151002-15-SeanSean always has some sort of strategy plotted out on his white board. And by the way, he is a doting daddy, can you tell?

20151001_140341This board hangs in the office of our creative director, Mike. On this particular occasion the board features a sketch of a print ad; a to-do list, without which Mike would be rudderless; a new floor plan for our office; a rudimentary Gantt chart and a couple of photos of his grandkids. Somehow, he failed to include a sketch of a kitchen sink.

whiteboard-20151002-14-Kitchen

We even keep a whiteboard in the breakroom that rotates subjects every few days. If someone has an idea, they throw it up there and wait for retorts as we swim in and out for coffee, tea, and (on Fridays) our front-end developer Scott’s biscuits. This board is from last fall, when the Carolinas saw unprecedented rainfall.

Some of our clients like to have meetings at our place rather than theirs, just so they can write on our giant white board. But we can’t show those.

Thanks for stopping by!

Why We Sent a Perfectly Good Logo to the Great Style Guide in the Sky

For our four-year anniversary, we bought ourselves a new logo.

And yes, “bought” is the correct verb. We’re paying for this in both man hours and legal tender—so it is not an idle decision we made on the spur of our third flute of anniversary champagne.

Was there something seriously wrong with our old logo?

Heavens no! I’m surprised you even asked—although to be fair, it was me who asked, not you. At the launch of Red Letter, our logo possessed all the qualities we value in a corporate mark.

Take a gander. It’s still a beauty:

Why We Sent Perfectly Good Logo | Red Letter Marketing
That logo embodies the classic simplicity that stands the test of time. We strive to design logos that are beyond mere trendiness, and this one is the polar opposite of “flavor of the month.” The mark is elegant but maybe also impertinent, with that cheeky reversed “R.” We like the timeless perfection of the square, and the ease with which that part of the logo can be used by itself, without the logotype. Just the red mark in the upper left of a page declares itself quietly but confidently.

So why change it? Again with the questions. While there were no serious problems with our logo—which, by the way, looked great in frosting form on the cakes we give to new clients—there was one small thing that kept our esteemed president, Kelly Gomez, in a state of cognitive dissonance.

It was the absence of the letter “M.”

Among Kelly’s talents is a prodigious ability in the area of mathematics. She astutely noted that our name is composed of three words: 1) Red; 2) Letter; 3) Marketing. The mark had but two initials: 1) R; 2) L.

Kelly knows—better than most!—that 3 ≠ 2.

All of us—including Kelly—are aware that a logo design is not an SAT exam. The rules of arithmetic can be loosened in the service of art. Also, our love for the design overrode any numerical quibbles. And yet . . . .

A few wondered whether perception of the mark might be complicated by an uninvited association with Ralph Lauren.

Objections such as these arise during the design of any logo. If you ponder a design long enough, you will conceive possible objections. One of our most valuable services to clients is using our experience to clarify the distinction between valid concerns and the infinite number of micro-quibbles that should be filed away in the “overthink” folder.

On the other hand, if you’re still mulling your so-called micro-quibble four years later, maybe it’s time to upgrade it to macro.

Our lead designer, Olaf, took up the challenge of redesigning our mark. He retired to his design cave to sketch out some ideas. Here are a few he explored:

 

Why We Sent Perfectly Good Logo | Red Letter Marketing

 

While we all liked these logos, Olaf would not take yes for an answer. Before we could sit down to decide which we wanted to choose for further development, Olaf disappeared in a cloud of cartoon smoke. Back to the design cave!

 

When he emerged, he presented us with this:

 

Why We Sent Perfectly Good Logo | Red Letter Marketing

 

I think I’ve said enough. The logo itself is more eloquent.

A Great Brand Gone Bad

The first rule of branding: Do no harm.

Volkswagen managed to seriously damage over 50 years of brand credibility with their stupid “diesel dupe” software scandal. Share value has fallen over 30% since news of the debacle broke. Trust will take years to rebuild. And who knows how many “Was going to buy a VW but now I will not” missed sales are out there.

A quick perusal of the VW corporate site reveals no brand purpose, mission or vision statement. The only overarching corporate mission is growth. That’s not to say the brand elements don’t exist. But when an organization does not clearly proclaim them internally and externally, it leads to suspicion that they don’t take them too seriously.

When your business focus lacks the foundational grounding of purpose, mission, values and character, employees will take whatever route expediently delivers on the business goals, not what’s good for the long term prosperity of the brand.

As Berthold HuberDeputy Chairman of the Volkswagen Supervisory Board, said: “The test manipulations are a moral and political disaster for Volkswagen. …We can only apologize and ask our customers, the public, the authorities and our investors to give us a chance to make amends.” That chance he’s asking for is going to be very, very expensive.

For the sake of poor brand management, billions have been lost. “We will review all planned investments, and what isn’t absolutely vital will be canceled or delayed,” Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller told workers at Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany. “And that’s why we will readjust our efficiency program. I will be completely clear: this won’t be painless.”

The Bottom Line:

Branding is first and foremost a risk management tool. Had VW been paying more attention to it, the creation of emissions-cheating software would have gotten no further than a tasteless joke in a lower management meeting. Thousands of customers have been cheated. An asset decades in the making is seriously weakened. Branding is serious risk management for your business. Ignore it at your own peril.

Interested in learning more about brand strategy as a risk management tool? Let’s talk.

What is Branding?

What is Branding?

It’s remarkable how blurred the language and understanding is for branding, considering it’s a discipline that demands clarity and focus. Smart, well-educated business people interchange terms like branding, marketing and advertising as if it were all the same thing.
Branding is the ongoing activity that creates experiences and strengthens the bonds between people and a company. In other words, it’s taking a brand and making something positive happen with it. It’s a verb. So the deeper question becomes, what’s a brand? What’s this thing we’re going to “ing”?

What is a Brand?

A brand is a mental experience or expectation that is created from a company’s personality, values, character and actions.

When you think about Apple, your mental experience is very different than when you think about Microsoft. The two are radically different in their root brand elements. That’s why they can create products that may serve the same purpose, yet are vastly different from each other.

A brand is not:

  • A logo
  • A tagline
  • An advertisement

Those are representations of brands, but they are not the brand itself. In the 1900’s, those items were considered to be the brand, and branding was the process of plastering them wherever possible. In more recent years the strategy of creating “customer brand experiences” became the big buzz. But today branding is far more complicated and more fundamental to business success. It has moved out of the marketing department and is a key strategy to compete and thrive, a cornerstone of company structure.

Branding is a Critical Business Process

Why has this happened? The competitive dynamics and the number of choices for customers have exploded. The information revolution, coupled with the ongoing technology revolution, has empowered customers and employees to publicly call out companies that are not authentic to their brand promise.

If the sales department is bragging to customers about the great service their company provides, but the service technician posts a comment on Facebook telling how the company cuts corners on replacement parts quality, the brand credibility is damaged. Whereas word-of-mouth once meant telling a dozen or so people about your brand experience, now it means telling thousands or millions with online reviews.

That same information revolution mentioned above has flooded us with too much content to process. Our brains are structured to filter information without us being consciously aware of it. So we use brands as neural shorthand to quickly filter and categorize: important or not important, dangerous or safe, valuable or worthless. A weak brand is not likely to penetrate those filters. (Or at least, you’ll need some really smart marketing to do so, but that’s another blog.)

The Bottom Line

Branding is a fundamental, strategic discipline that is not just for the marketing department. It’s an enterprise-wide initiative that must be created and driven from the top. The companies that employ it effectively will gain significant competitive advantages and enjoy greater profitability.

If you are wondering how your company can build a powerful brand that drives growth, perhaps a conversation with us will help. Let’s talk.