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Q&A: Alina Wheeler – Designing Brand Identity

The following Q&A first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Storyboard magazine.

Alina Wheeler is one of America’s leading brand identity consultants. Her book, Designing Brand Identity,” is an essential guide for anyone building a brand. It offers a proven five-phase process for creating and implementing effective brand identity, along with case studies, tools and examples.

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The book is currently in its 4th edition. What have you changed over the years and what’s stayed the same?

My goal has always been to map a process that helps the whole branding team achieve remarkable results. I also want to spotlight strategic, sustainable and original best practices. I am about to write the 5th edition—both the process and the brand fundamentals will stay the same. The tools, however, have changed with each edition—apps are now trumping websites, smartphones are replacing desktops. Even the tiniest business can be global and the sharing economy is birthing great brands.

My definition of branding is still the same: Branding is a disciplined process that helps organizations answer these questions: Who are you? Who needs to know? How will they find out? Why should they care?

How do the best designers go about building trust with clients?

Listen a lot before you speak. Make it easy for clients to understand the process. Remember that it’s their brand, not your design. Clarify why research is important. Build trust and a common understanding of the strategy before you design. Show them that you understand their competitive marketplace. Connect design with their vision and strategy. Demonstrate that you understand their customer. Never, ever show something you don’t believe in. (Read my book!)

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What advice do you have for organizations building brands in different media spaces—print, television, Web, and now social?

Breathe. Understand that there is no one-size-fits-all media mix—budget allocations are shifting all of the time. First and foremost, remain customer centric in decision making. Pay attention to the relationship between real and virtual customer experiences. Create an integrated system that is coherent across media. Anticipate the future and be prepared.

What are the commonalities in organizations doing a good job of growing their brands?

The best organizations view their brand as their most valuable asset. They understand who they are and what they stand for. They invest in their culture and value their people. They ensure that their people understand, and can articulate, the brand. Their decisions are customer centric. They have courage to imagine what others can’t see, and they have the tenacity to deliver value and stay relevant. They demonstrate, across touchpoints, why they should be the brand of choice. They make it easy for the customer to understand and buy, they make it easy for the sales force to sell, and they do everything to build brand equity.

You’re passionate about brand identity. What led to that passion?

Through my professional experience, I have seen how powerful the branding process can be for leaders and their organizations. Brilliant MBAs wrote about strategy, our design heroes showed how strategy could be designed and experienced, but no one was focusing on the process. Too many projects had failed because the right people were not asked to participate and didn’t have a clear roadmap to follow.

The global marketplace is getting more crowded. Is this a good time to be working on identity design or has it become much more challenging?

Being dramatically different in an over-saturated marketplace is harder than ever. Everyone wants your customers, your business and your share of wallet. Good designers are needed to help organizations express their unique advantage. As attention spans shrink, and the smartphone reigns, we all have less time and less space to tell our stories. The best designers know how to synthesize and simplify. It’s a critical skill.

Your father was a sea captain. What was that like when you were growing up?

When my father would return from seafaring, he would captivate me with stories and presents from faraway cultures. I still have the gold and tangerine sari from India and my geisha doll from Japan that I received when I was 10. He wasn’t good at staying in one place—he was always off to sea and we would see him between voyages. What lingers are his unspoken mantras, which were, “Keep moving no matter what,” “Keep them on the edge of their seat with a good story,” and “Beauty is enchanting.” He introduced me to the power of storytelling and the quest for adventure.

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Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.

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