Andy Cooke

Design & direction across brand identity, screen and print

Developing a global brand identity

Things to consider before going gung-ho into the global branding process

  1. 2,650 words
  2. 11 minute read

Before joining the Global Creative team at EF Education First, I’d worked on a few brand identity projects that had an international reach. For instance, with Relentless Energy Drink, which had presence in Ireland, Germany and the USA, along with the UK. Pelé Sports, with a global audience between Europe, Australia and South America. I was no stranger to working across such diverse cultures and markets and channeling their needs and wants through a consistent brand identity look, feel, positioning and tone of voice.

But for some reason (well, a set of solid reasons that make perfect sense, actually) none of the others compare to EF even a little bit. It’s a different beast. A complex one too, one that “takes a year to fully understand, then another year to un-understand what you thought you understood”, according to Worldwide Creative Officer, Joel Hladecek. Which makes sense—with 15+ different business units across the entire company all with different marketplaces, business goals and agendas and over 50,000 employees in 116 countries (or so), there is a lot to figure out from a central brand perspective. There is a lot of necessary input from important figureheads around the company and a lot of opinion in there for good measure. Not to mention a newly formed creative team at the centre of it all, brimming with concepts and initiatives all driving toward change.

How do we create a brand identity that allows for all of that?

Release then refine

At the end of 2017, Eminem released Revival, four years after Marshall Mathers LP II in 2013. In the history of the genre he is arguably the most talented and important artist to rise up to the mainstream. His releases are always highly anticipated, criticised, and the overall reception to Revival was… disappointing. To be honest, the album really was. Like a shadow of his former self in and around the millennium. He spent four years crafting, refining and perfecting an album that in the end, wasn’t so great (sorry Em, you’re still my favourite rapper).

In response to the critics, Eminem then released Kamikaze just eight months later in 2018, which has been critically acclaimed as a return to form. It put him firmly back to the top of the all-time greats list. Any doubts were erased (only the fickle had doubts, anyway). Why? In my view, because he didn’t tinker too much. He just got on with it. He went with his gut and released another album less than a year that one that had panned (Revival still broke a ton of records, mind).

In the Global Creative team at EF, we create the master brand identity and its various layers of output centrally, then distribute it out to the company via scheduled release, continuing to refine after internal feedback from live usage. And in many ways — whilst the master brand identity is the one that takes the most thinking, refining and perfecting — in theory it’s the easiest one to get out the door to the 300+ creatives around the different corners of EF. That’s because we’re the authority on the master brand, so we get to set the direction, pace and ultimately, tone of the conversation. We call it the GUD (Grand Unified Design). And GUD is God (which it literally is in Swedish, and being a Swedish company… it’s kinda perfect).

Yet it’s really, really easy to keep refining. Constant adjustments to perfect, for whatever that ‘it’ is to be ready for designer usage and then ultimately, customer consumption. It’s really easy to doubt that it’ll ever be ready for the marketplace at all, and we are quick to convince ourselves that after few more turns on the knobs it’ll definitely be ready… so let’s just wait. And tweak. Yeah?

No. Get it done, get it out.

Much like the ‘ship then iterate’ method employed for many digital products and services, the reality is that this is the only way for any brand identity — that is required to evolve on a global scale — to actually live and breath. The feedback we get at EF from stakeholders around the company is imperative, and without it we’d be creating in a vacuum on designs that could likely be on the incorrect trajectory for where the brand identity actually needs to be. Furthermore, without the reactions and insight from the array of customers across EF’s products, we’d likely be deciding on design directions that actually conflict with the zeitgeist rather than being at the cutting edge of it. We have to feed off of these insights and use them to inform our work.

And, much like digital products, we have to remember that brand identities are never, ever ‘done’. They finish their existence when the company ceases trading. So to aid the avoidance of that circumstance, the brand across every touch point must be nurtured, policed, fed and watered. We must curb its behaviour so it doesn’t get too unruly. It has to have big laws and little rules to follow. Our brand is our baby, and all of our designers at EF are its godparents.

You can’t please everybody

Rarely, everybody agrees on everything. What to have for dinner, what music is best played in the studio. Brexit. I’ve been in perhaps two or three rooms in my career where all parties have unanimously agreed on the design directions presented. It’s a great feeling when it does happen, so it should be celebrated and reveled in.

However, compromise is the more likely path. I’m a true optimist (with optimism tattooed on my hands and all), however the Realist Yin to my Optimistic Yang is leading the topic chatter on this point. As a designer, being open to compromise is key. And for stakeholders to be open to it too, you must have them on-side from the beginning, where their respective egos have to be suitably massaged by being called in as important cogs in the process-machine (more on those guys below).

Everybody believes their opinion is the correct one. Every experience and decision in their lives has led to the choice they are making right in front of you at that point in time. And why wouldn’t they think that? It’s totally fair.

Whether the opinion is that they actually don’t have a strong one either way — that’s the fence they chose to sit on and it’ll always take some persuading to get them to jump down to one side or the other. And when they’re on the opposite side to you, it’s your job to convince them actually—they should join you over here. The grass is greener. The cider is sweeter. And that can take some doing, especially with those higher up the pecking order who have a duty to their peers and subordinates to have informed opinions and be involved in making decisions. It’s what they get paid for. And they have to seen doing it.

Compromise is more easily achieved however, when there has been dialogue from the start (and then throughout the process). Every person in the room has been down the path together, has experienced the highs and lows and understood what it’s taken to get there. It’s all bonding, communication and relationship building.

And even if they still have opposing opinions further down the path than anticipated, they will be more open to defect to greener grass and sweeter cider if you’re adamant it’s the right way to go — because of that bond.

Welcome to the party, pal

As I mentioned, we’re largely a new team. Currently standing at around twenty people, when I joined midway through 2017 we were just over half that. We have people from over ten different nations working together, and a lot of the briefs we tackle are brand new initiatives that we are responsible for picking up from nothing, and really driving forward to make happen.

The only major legacy design asset we work with is Paul Rand’s logo. So picture a new team, all excited to push through with a collective vision, bursting with energy, without (too many) limits on what we can conceive as the most optimal solutions for the brand identity and its various products around the world. Sounds great, right?

It’s just, those stakeholders sitting along the top portion within EF’s product hierarchy have often been at this point before—involved in a brand identity refresh—a whole bunch of times. Whether on a broad, global EF scale or at an individual product level. A lot of key people at EF are loyal to the company, have been here for a while and have moved around within it too.

It’s fair to say it’s probably not their first rodeo, and I’m definitely not the first fresh faced cow-person to come slinging and swinging through the door, pistols in hand, ready to fire up a refreshed visual identity. We have to be sensitive to the fact that actually—previous efforts may not have been successful (which by some accounts, they haven’t been). Then suddenly, there’s another guy sitting in from of them saying the same thing as the last guy said. Pfft. Already, the trust battery is starting to drain. I’m just one more person on a carousel vying for their attention and thoughts in an area they don’t necessarily specialise in. Or, on the contrary, they actually do specialise in brand identity and they’re usually the one on the other side of the table, enquiring away. Cue a procession of doubt and judgment (from them) combined with worry and anxiety (from me). Who’d want to be in that room?

Gosh golly, but why such a Negative Nelly? Well, there’s a right thing to do to actually make positive steps forward. It’s all about acknowledgement and understanding. Yes they’ve been here before, they just don’t know I know they have, so a good place to start is just to communicate that. We have to let them know why we’re here (again), why this time will be better and why it’s happening all over again. People like to be acknowledged for their past efforts, and really, just empathising with them along with an absolute chug load of humility to get beyond the initial cynical stares, closed off body language and probing questions does the world of good.

Get the buy-in

Which leads me here. Stakeholders, am I right? At the top, at the bottom and all the way through in the middle. Stakeholders, everywhere. All with different needs, wants, opinions and perspectives. Intimidating, really.

As well as the master EF brand identity, we also work alongside our creative kith inside their individual product silos. From marketing through to design, and each area in between, we have to get the buy-in with those we work with. Often, we are tasked to start a brand identity effort in isolation. Taking the necessary immersive and strategic steps before the point of creation is where we must start to play ball with our stakeholders. Right from the off, this first time buy-in is integral. Every designer wants to actually be the author of the assets they have to work with each day and every VP of Marketing wants to believe in the message they’re peddling, confident that the brand identity supports that message too. The last thing any of them wants is an alien design team from half way around the world to burst in the door and dictate what their work has to look like, sound like and sell like.

After all the back and forth of research and engagement at the start, they must then be convinced that our vision for the work is the best possible move forward, and get them on board as allies before the creative doing actually begins. Otherwise, it could end up in a whole lot of wasted time. As Jesse Weaver notes in ‘What is storytelling in design’, “If you can’t get your stakeholders on board with your vision, your design skills mean very little.”

There has to be a sense of ownership. The best way for them to feel own it and then love the work they do with it, is for them to be part of the creative process right from the start, in the middle and at the end. So, we have to gain insights throughout the process. They know the product better than we ever will, so we have to consult them on strategic thinking—they will know if a strategy proposal realistic or not; and they need to be part of designing the thing at the end—they are the ones putting it into practice at the end of the day. Really, it’s not even a sense of ownership. It is true ownership.

Much of the time, their prior experience in this exact same area or process can save a lot of time and yield more accurate results. These stakeholders can often quickly provide accurate and justified guidance on whether, say, concepts have been successful or not in the past, thus allowing us to then navigate through a now avoidable series of stumbling blocks. It’s crucial for us to be open to that knowledge in case we pull an Eddie Smith.

However, it’s not just about box ticking and stroking egos. Dismissing stakeholders input as only peripheral or procedural would be folly. These people are amongst the most valuable resources as part of any branding process. We shouldn’t see them as blockers — as potential disruptors to our i*ngenious *ideas generation and pixel perfect layouts. Instead, we should see them as the key integral part of the process who actually inform ideas generation in the first place, and act as legitimate temperature checks further down the road. Embrace the stakeholder, and they’ll embrace the work.

Throw out what you think you know

Research > Strategise > Design > Launch. Largely, the refreshing of brand identities undertakes a relatively linear process where one foot follows the other, nice and orderly. It zooms in, then out, then in again (rinse and repeat as necessary). It’s released out into the world and the identity put in place works, because everything is done in a prompt manner through a time-honoured system. It’s then nurtured and evolves when and where appropriate. That’s the general approach that is successful, and for most brand identity projects, it’s an approach that does pretty well without much need for deviation — unless there are extenuating circumstances.

It’s just, creating a brand identity for a global operation of EF’s huge size is one giant extenuating circumstance. Any traditional process simply cannot be applied to it. By no means in a negative sense—just in a different sense. In a sense that makes any creative, one not unlike myself, grow in a direction that wasn’t immediately evident as a required skill. So, it’s only a good thing. And here’s why.

We are all creatures of habit. We get tied up in what’s comfortable, and confident in knowing what we know and we get used to following formulas that have worked for us a bunch of times before. Nothing wrong with any of that. Until we try to apply those formulas to everything. It’s a classic, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Diversifying your approach and then stretching it to allow room for a truly flexible process that can take in a project on such a global scale is something I still haven’t achieved. To be honest, I don’t think anybody in the Global Creative team has. But every day, we’re working on it.

And that’s okay. Because of the all the points I mentioned before in this article, and more. A bit of humility and an admission of not knowing it all is absolutely okay.

Because if we already knew how to do it, then it really wouldn’t be much fun at all.