Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Lessons in Brand Improvisation

Roy Hargrove at Aalener, Germany Jazz Fest. Wikimedia Commons.

At the conclusion of an assignment to revitalize a client’s brand, I will often deliver a set of guidelines. Brand guides serve as a reference – a map – to help internal staff maintain the consistency and integrity of all marketing and communications.

In addition to documenting the various logo configurations, colors, and typography, there is usually a section that highlights what not to do. It simultaneously illustrates and warns against the most common pitfalls of the do-it-yourselfer, while also serving as a plea from the designer: “Please don’t f*** up all our hard work!”

Setting and maintaining standards is a good idea. They serve as a valuable foundation and establish a level of expectation: “Our marketing should always be this good.”

But, as my mom used to say: “Always is a long time.”

Setting the floor

If brand implementation receives ongoing support and attention – with an organization’s leaders making it a clear priority – then brand guidelines can help extend and elevate this work. The quality and consistency should improve immediately, and remain a cut above with careful cultivation.

Similarly, the growth and popularity of easy-to-use website templates points to the desire to make a good impression online. Why reinvent the wheel when I can just choose from a limited menu of options and build something that works?

In essence, both brand guidelines and off-the-shelf websites ensure a level of professional competence. They set the floor.

The best-laid plans

Be prepared, the Cub Scout motto implores. There is wisdom in planning for success.

I was thinking about the value of planning last week as I listened to Cautionary Tales, a podcast that tells true stories about mistakes and what we should learn from them. One episode focuses on the art of public speaking, contrasting the preparation and performance of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gerald Ratner, a successful British businessman.

King was known for his meticulous preparation and practice, refining his sermons for hours before preaching from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church. And yet, at the March on Washington, Dr. King abandoned his prepared remarks and improvised the words that became famous – his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Ratner, who turned a small retailer into a multimillion-dollar business, sunk his entire empire with his off-the-cuff remarks as a guest speaker in front of an audience of colleagues and journalists.

So the fateful question is: When should you stick to the script, and when should you improvise?

Reading the room

Martin Luther King was well-prepared on that day in 1963, but as he began to speak he could feel that the words were not meeting the moment. He felt his audience needed something more, and he deviated from his script.

Gerald Ratner, who came from a working class background, was considered something of an outsider by those in his audience. He was well-prepared as well, but tried to ingratiate himself to his high-powered audience by making jokes at his low-brow customers’ expense.

The first lesson of improvising is understanding the audience – from its engagement, response, and other contextual clues. Can you read the room, the thinking, and the mood of those for whom – and with whom – you are playing?

Miles Davis once explained his approach to jazz improv as creating the “freedom and space to hear things.” That phrase is instructive. It’s about listening to what the other instruments are doing, and how the audience is responding in the moment – as in a conversation.

Raising the ceiling

Maybe a high-floor, low-ceiling brand execution is the best you can hope to sustain. You could do much worse (and many do). Guidelines provide the solid foundation for a brand, and you really need to understand the rules before you can break them.

In order to soar beyond the ordinary, take some advice from Miles Davis:

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”

Sheet music is like the guidelines for a song. It allows others to understand what notes are used in what order and at what tempo. But it’s a starting point.

The best brands allow for interpretation – variations on a theme. No one wants to hear a one-note song. Guidelines establish parameters, but also provide brand managers the tools and room to play, which extends the life and success of the brand.

“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”

Like getting a new haircut or rearranging the furniture in your home, a brand launch provides a jolt of energy. Even if you love it immediately, it will become more refined and more comfortable as you live with it. Building brand equity – and the skills to manage a brand – takes time. Consider both a work in progress.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

Nobody is perfect and, thankfully, few mistakes are fatal. If you give yourself permission to make lots of small bets, to try new things, you and your brand will continue to grow.

Experience and practice helps create the space to hear and see opportunities – to engage your audience, to pivot as needed, to evolve and try new things. If you want a brand that really swings, keep improvising.