By Matt Steel
07 March 2021
It’s 7:30 am on a Thursday. You’re in a Hilton dining room, at a quarterly breakfast with fifty business leaders, and you’re trying to look more awake than you feel. “These early meetings are tough – thank God the coffee is decent,” you mutter to your coworker. You peer over the rim of your mug as someone takes the mic onstage. They ask the room, “When you think of brand identity, what immediately comes to mind?” Several hands go up. “A slogan,” says a woman near the front. “The Nike logo,” says another. A brewer chimes in: “beer packaging.” “The environment in an Apple store,” says a thirty-something architect, whose phone dings as if on cue. “The emperor’s new clothes,” grumps the news veteran at your left.
What pops into your mind? National Geographic’s yellow frame? Waze’s friendly bubble-on-wheels? “The World on Time”? I hope they have more waffles?
All of these answers are true, for better or worse, minus the interjection from your stomach. Yes, a brand identity is a logo, color scheme, tagline, packaging. It’s also imagery, and typography from headlines to articles and legalese. Sounds, even smells can enter the picture. In short, it’s the tangibles that people associate with your brand. But before any of those things, brand identity starts with strategy and narrative. Long-range words and ideas that identify, position, connect. And without real substance in those words, a shimmering imperial outfit is the only possible result.
If you can offer research-backed and carefully crafted answers to the following eight questions, you’ve got brand messaging in the bag – the beginning of a long and beautiful strategy.
Some of these answers can be summarized as short, pithy headlines or taglines. Some are what I call compactitudes, flexible sentences that can be stacked and reordered to fit multiple narratives. Other answers benefit from several paragraphs.
Much of the answers to questions 4–6 are meant for internal guidance, whether it’s the core values that will shape your culture and steer important decisions or the tonal dials a copywriter uses to communicate with multiple audiences. Everything else can and should be used for public communication and business development. Even your values can be publicly visible if they’re written like an ethical contract with your ideal customers.1
Here’s how Jon and I answered these questions for ourselves.
I enlisted a frequent collaborator, Seth Rowden, to support us in a language workshop. Seth is a brilliant brand writer based near London, and since 2018 we’ve co-authored six brand messaging projects. We’ve sharpened each other as writers and became close friends along the way. Seth knows me and my process very well, and he offered just enough of an outsider perspective to keep us objective and mindful of blind spots.
Ideally, these workshops take place around a whiteboard with everyone in the same room. But Zoom and Google Docs work just fine in a pinch or a pandemic.
Here’s what we discussed and created in five intensive modules.
Audience & Promises
Using research and personal experience, we made loose bios for our ideal clients by writing down characteristics, motivations and pain points. We then thought about the promises we can make that will solve their problems and generate a return on their investment.
This module touched on interpersonal dynamics as well as brand personality. What can the Enneagram tell us about our two types’ benefits and potential pitfalls as we run a business together? Moving towards a brand perspective, we listed qualities that Enneagram Fours and Eights embody on their best days, with particular attention given to the overlaps. We settled on six attributes that will shape our brand’s voice and tonal range.
Everyone has values. Few bring them up to the level of consciousness and fewer use them to make decisions. Beginning with survey answers, we then listed all of the values that skillful Fours and Eights live by, followed by corrective virtues that will help us care for our clients and ourselves. Jon and I then voted on six values that we felt were worth cultivating in ourselves and anyone we hire at Steel Brothers.
As another writer succinctly described it to Seth, the point of this module is to “find the benefit we’re really selling beyond our otherwise boring business.” Purple cow is a term coined by another Seth (Godin) as a memorable way to think about a business’s unique value proposition. Say you’re in the car and you pass a field of black and white cows (businesses). One cow is purple, which makes it stand out from the herd. So the point of this module was to pick up where research left off in determining what purples our particular cow.
We began with an inside-out approach – strong opinions we have about what’s wrong with the creative industry. This helped us articulate what we stand against. Then, we flipped the lens and looked outside-in from a client’s perspective. What do they get after working with us? We listed everything we do that’s unique and translated each action or method into a benefit. This list helped us generate rough ideas about our value proposition.
Purpose Mad Libs
I stole this exercise from a business coach in 2017, renamed it and adapted it to my needs. Purpose Mad Libs has since become one of my favorite workshop modules. It’s an interactive way to generate answers to the most important question any venture can ask of itself: why it exists.
Why is this question so consequential? I like Simon Sinek’s often-quoted answer. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
Unless you live off the grid, chances are you’re inundated by brands and voices vying for your attention. Most of those messages are shallow and insincere, which is why authenticity and integrity matter more than ever. You can’t be authentic without meaning, and to be meaningful, you need a purpose. Businesses need purpose for precisely the same reason you and I need it. Purpose is deeply human. Without it, we’re psychophysical animals groping for purchase in the dark, cut off from our higher selves, each other and the One who animates and inspirits us. In a word, we’re lost.
When it comes to the bottom line, purpose can help you move the needle.2 Purpose makes it possible for people to do hard things, venture into the unknown, try until they succeed. Purpose is a motivational life force that no one can take away from you. And it’s infectious. People smell what you’re cooking and want to warm themselves by your fire.
Writing a purpose statement can feel like a daunting task, and that’s why I always make a collaborative start with clients. Atop a real or virtual whiteboard, we’ll write the start of a sentence: We exist to / because. These variations allow us to explore essential action (we exist to) and essential belief (we exist because). There are three sections below. At the left, we write lists of purpose-related verbs and descriptive phrases. At the far right, we list nouns and adjectives. In the middle, we write rough purpose statements from words in both banks.
As in client workshops, our goal was to write rapidly, no filters and no edits. I’ll often tell clients we’re there to gather grist for the mill, and I actually want them to give me bad ideas. As we collaborate, one person’s trash can turn into everyone’s treasure.
This module takes an hour. Any longer, and people run out of steam. Sometimes we jot down ideas that don’t make their way into a purpose statement but find a different home as a tagline or in a positioning statement. Occasionally, we hit on what turns out to be the final purpose statement.
Here’s what we made for ourselves, slightly dressed up because tables in Google Docs are gross.
These workshops are intense, fun and fruitful. Everyone’s drained afterward and needs to put their brains on ice. For those of us tasked with the next steps of distilling and writing, we crack a beer, get a good night’s sleep and lock ourselves away until a semi-coherent story emerges.
In “North,” one of my favorite poems by Seamus Heaney, an ancient voice speaks in the last three stanzas, admonishing the poet to work with what he knows, hold temperate expectations, and all the while to write with clear intent.
It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’
After burrowing the coil and gleam of my brain in the word-hoard for a couple of weeks, and after a few reviews with Seth, I think we found aurora borealis. So without further ado, here’s our brand strategy and messaging, along with explanations in italics.
This section is purely for internal guidance, especially when we hire a full-time writer who will need to assimilate our brand’s voice and tonal range.
The Wild Prophet, aka The Messenger. One locust shy of John the Baptist. Primarily based on Matt’s Enneagram type Four, the Intense Creative, with a dominant attraction instinct. Energized and made more direct by dialing up the Eight, Seven and adaptive components that Jon brings. Balancing the Poet and the Soldier.
Attributes & Tonal Dials
A straightforward yet distinctive description with a dash of purpose. Meant for external communications on our website and social media profiles.
Steel Brothers is a brandworks and design practice for people who think fitting in is overrated. We help brands communicate in a world that won’t stop yelling.
How we’re turning our vision into reality and what clients can expect. Useful for public-facing copy that follows our profile and for internal clarity about our services.
Traction Follows Attraction.
We begin with ignorance, assuming nothing and exploring everything. We gather the parts and pieces of where you’ve been, who you are and where you stand. Most importantly, we discover why your business exists and why it matters. We then weave words and images around your purpose to create brands and experiences that people love.
Magnetism is what we sell. Brand strategy and design – that’s just what we do.
The principles that define our practice and how we show up. Useful for our About page and as an internal compass for making decisions and managing our culture. Think of these values and the supporting copy as our behavioral contract with clients and ourselves.
You love what you do. We love what we do. Kinship is, quite literally, in our dna. We cook up brand names over breakfast and fall asleep thinking about typography. When you hire us, you hire a plot of mental real estate in our brains until the job’s finished.
Love propels us toward the unobtainable ideal. Love ensures symphonic order at the 5,000-foot level, and love drives craftsmanship in the subtlest of details. Now you see it, now you don’t – but it’s always there, always felt by your audience.
Blending in is useful when you’re a lone antelope and a hungry lion catches your scent. In business, camouflage is insanity. You need bold, uncommon ideas to secure a foothold in your market. You don’t need safe. Predictable is forgettable. Boilerplate is fine for contracts, awful for brands.
We started our studio with a strong desire for creative and personal freedom, and our independent spirit infuses every project. We dream with clients in tightly structured workshops, and then we execute alone. Because we take time to build a creative vision with you, when we deliver the work it’s never a big scary reveal – it’s a big of course.
Were you the kind of kid who always asked why? Same here. We grew up peeking under rocks, exploring hidden nooks, imagining what we might find around the bend or over the ridge, hunting the origin of everything that captured our attention. Looking for Narnia. We never outgrew that curiosity, and we never will.
We’ve spent our entire lives questing for deeper meaning. We break through the surface crust of appearances to find the essence of your brand. And we bring that essence back up to daylight, where it lights minds on fire and sparks action.
The best output in any field comes from people who’ve lived through tight spots and long nights. Who came back stronger and somehow more whole. When you work with Steel Brothers, you get a poet and a soldier in your corner. Two flavors of courage.
We stick to our beliefs and fulfill our promises. When we make a mistake, we own up and make it right. Above all, we’re here to help Wayfounders find their way. That takes creative leadership, and it takes grit born of experience and hope.
Pretending to be someone else is just too much work unless you’re impersonating Gollum arguing with Sméagol. At Steel Brothers, we aren’t slick or tame. We reject fakery and fluff. We talk straight and practice vulnerability. We accept our imperfections and follow the grain of our design rather than grinding against it.
We encourage others to be themselves, too. We help clients say what they mean by using real, warm-blooded language. You won’t find robot words like actionable, disruptor, moving forward and synergy in the copy we write. That kind of nonsense comes straight from the mouth of Bezuckerbub and we gleefully flick it back to the pit from whence it came.
Brands that say just enough get heard more. The end.
The purple cow, the value proposition. The reason we stand out and the perspective from which we operate. Useful for all marketing and sales communication.
Connection to Source
Faith supercharges our work and connects us to the source of creativity.
We’re followers of Jesus. Faith informs everything we do but we never beat people over the head with it. We work with anyone seeking to make a difference, no matter what they believe.
We use the Enneagram, a framework for self-knowledge, to give your brand a human soul. We use what’s unique and often subconsciously hidden within you as the main point of difference for your company. You get an authentic identity that slices through the noise. And you get tools that will strengthen your team for years to come. Value far beyond the brand.
Holistic authorship weaves all these threads into a unified body of work. At Steel Brothers, writing and design are one. That translates to strategic and aesthetic standards you usually find at big branding agencies.
We adapted Donald Miller’s BrandScript model for this section. The narrative at the end will appear on our homepage.
In their own words: the hero’s profile and problems
I’m a leader of an established or new venture. People look to me for vision.
Wealth and comfort are fine, but I love the impact my work has on people’s lives and that’s what drives me. I find uncharted territory exciting, and I have a high tolerance for risk.
I’ve always been curious and questing, and I read a lot because it makes me a better leader. My business heroes are Warren Buffett, Tony Hsieh and Yvon Chouinard, not Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos.
My business needs to connect with our audience, and we need to stand out in order to compete. We’re either brand-new or undergoing metamorphosis.
Behind closed doors, my team and I are confused and frustrated. We need clarity. We have a sense of purpose and vision but no idea how to articulate it. We don’t know what makes us different. We don’t understand our customers beyond a superficial level. Our values are undefined, unused or inaccurate. We’ve outgrown our brand, either due to a lack of authentic purpose and durability from the get-go or a change in business strategy. We need a sherpa. Maybe even a brand therapist. But if we’re going to invest in our brand, it should last at least a decade, perhaps much longer.
Invisibility is our real villain. The feeling of being ignored and overlooked. Not enough inquiries, losing to better competitors. If our communications lack substance and purpose and therefore fail to stand out, we might as well be invisible.
We respond with empathy and authority and give them a plan that ends in success…
Invisibility Kills Good Stories.
It’s hard to communicate when the world won’t stop yelling. Lots of messages. Tons of images. Many promises. Most of them empty.
We know what it’s like to have a unique idea and be ignored or overlooked. No one wants to be the lonely kid on a playground. The desires we all have – to find identity, be known, make a difference, connect – these are older than cave paintings.
Brands are no different. They’re made by and for people.
To connect and inspire, find your company’s purpose and use it to change how you do business. If you want an identity, you need to define it and design it.
This is where Steel Brothers comes in.
Our clients love uncharted territory. They forge paths no one else could imagine. They believe branding shouldn’t be a tool for manipulation but rather a way of sharing beliefs and ensuring that good ideas are seen and heard.
We call them Wayfounders.
We turn their companies into brands that people love.
Purpose is the heart of our brand. We summarize our brand purpose with a short headline statement that describes our essential action – what we’re here to do. But essential belief is what’s really under the hood and it’s the hearth fire that will attract Wayfounders. Our manifesto lists fifteen beliefs that drive us and define our practice. The last belief also serves as our tagline.
Strengthening Thoughtful Ventures with Unbreakable Purpose
Our ambition replaces the traditional vision statement. This is our north star, the ideal outcome we envision as the fulfillment of our purpose. Useful as a starting point or punchline for conversations and all visual communications. As with our purpose, our ambition statement is a short and highly visible headline. We’ve accompanied ours with a miniature essay that will appear on our website.
Turning Purposeful Companies into Meaningful Brands
When Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond, it wasn’t to concoct a plan for wealth or prestige. What drove him to the woods was a desire for meaning and a place to create, and he found both in spades. The result? A life led by unswerving principles and a body of work that people still talk about.
Meaning is endlessly varied and deeply personal. When you find it, purpose appears. When you have purpose, people want to pull up a chair and warm themselves by your fire.
At Steel Brothers, a meaningful and wakeful life is what we want for ourselves, for you and for all who interact with your brand. And we want to take part in forging things that are both beautiful and unbreakable. Or, like the Japanese art of kintsugi, to weld broken things back together and thereby transform flaws into features.
If branding and Thoreau seem like snake oil and water, that’s because people often use branding for selfish and dishonest ends. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We want to rebrand branding. Branding that puts lipstick on pigs or distorts truth is dishonorable and vulgar. It shouldn’t exist.
When we brand and design with conscience and a desire to help, the work becomes a public service. It becomes a bullhorn for meaning. And meaning makes the difference between brands that waste space and brands that create benefit.
The following stanza is from the dedication page in our self-initiated edition of Walden. If you know Thoreau, you may recognize some of these words. This is what we want for ourselves and for you, whoever and wherever you are.
live deeply and simply
suck out all the marrow of life
rebel against the quiet desperation
that seeks to pull each of us
down into oblivion
when death comes for us
that we had indeed lived
a life worth living.
· § ·
And that, folks, is all we wrote. Stay tuned for the fifth and final installment in this series, where we’ll unveil the process that led to our visual identity – dead ends, setbacks and all.
The On Being Project is an excellent example of how to present brand values (“grounding virtues,” as they call them) in a way that resonates with the intended readers. To borrow from Ursula Le Guin, words are On Being’s matter. Kudos to whoever wrote this brilliant copy: “What we practice, we become. These six “grounding virtues” guide everything we do through The On Being Project. Virtues are not the stuff of saints and heroes. They are spiritual technologies and tools for the art of living.”
This EY Beacon article is full of fascinating data and anecdotes about the impact of brand purpose. Here’s one of many: “Author Raj Sisodia … found that companies that operate with a clear and driving sense of purpose, beyond the goal of just making money, outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 14 between 1998 and 2013. Three-quarters of executives of purposeful companies reported that the integration of purpose creates value in the short-term, as well as over the long run for their companies.”