Nail your next branding project: Here’s your 7-point checklist

Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of startup CMOs like a company-wide re-brand. Between finding an agency that won’t bankrupt you, taking on a crushing amount of thankless work, and goat-herding your internal stakeholders, it’s a fraught project to say the least.

But when it’s done well, it’s perhaps the most satisfying feeling in the world — a chance to put your lasting, creative imprint on the business and give it a strong, differentiated style.

Having been through this process approximately one billion times (slight exaggeration) and having made every mistake in the book, I’ve compiled my learnings into this handy, seven-point checklist.

If you’re time-strapped, here’s your TL;DR: Get your positioning in place; line up your stakeholders; pick a good agency or consultant; clarify deliverables like logo, visual identity, and brand voice; herd your stakeholders; bring everybody along; and give credit.

1. Get your positioning in place

Have as much of your positioning in place as you can ahead of time. That means articulating your category, personas, differentiation, and value proposition. Here’s a core messaging how-to and a core messaging template. If you’re still figuring out positioning, this customer discovery process may help. I also find this three-part framework useful for getting started.

Derive your differentiator from that hard-to-replicate set of features, and/or a unique competency that makes you special. Your definition/category can be an existing, reframed, or brand new category. Consider your alignment with and position (leader? challenger? laggard?) in the category, as well as the category’s growth and relevance. There’s a lot of talk about “category creation” (or its smarmier cousin, “category design”). Category creation is something that happens after the fact — when you’ve been strategic and deliberate about your choice, utterly consistent in your messaging, and masterful in proving yourself with examples and data. Your aspirational who is who you serve, with a nod to who they aspire to be (or can be, if they would only buy your darn product!).

2. Get your stakeholders lined up

Get your stakeholders lined up. Start with your core team and leader. The leader should be able to negotiate contracts, manage agencies, and deal with internal stakeholders. Next, appoint someone to wrangle content and keep messages aligned — maybe your PMM. And while those two can probably muddle through, I find it helpful to have a coordinator — someone to manage the project calendar and herd the cats.

Secondary stakeholders are those from whom you need to buy-in (and who can derail things). In my world of B2B technology, that’s usually the CEO, CTO, and heads of sales, product, and customer success. The more you can corral and guide them, the better. That means being clear about their role, what you need from them (and what you don’t!), and where you are in the decision-making process (so they don’t try to give you their feedback on step one when you’re on step five of the project).

Keep all others in the loop, too. More on herding those stakeholders shortly.

3. For God’s sake, pick a good partner

The agency or consultant you choose can make or break you. No presshah! Some things to consider are who will be on your actual team (vs. the beautiful geniuses pitching you), whether they’ve served clients like you, whether their toolset matches your needs (e.g., if you’re using them to design and develop a new website, are their developers facile with your CMS?), and whether they have strong references from clients like you (size and project type). Ask them to step you through a similar project to yours and tell you how it unfolded — the highs and lows, how they handled delays, and how they worked through difficulties. Beware if they tell too rosy a story. Call their references and grill the heck out of them! If you’re interviewing multiple agencies, generate your requirements ahead of time so you can compare apples-to-apples. Score each immediately after meeting them (jot down your rationale, too) and calculate a weighted average score based on how important each requirement is. Don’t let the model hold you hostage, but let it guide your thinking on what you value and how each agency measures up on your most important requirements. Here’s my agency ranking tool that you can download and tweak for your needs.

4. Clarify the deliverables

Before you start, make sure you're clear with your agency or consultant about what you expect. The primary deliverables from a branding project are logo; fonts; color palette; visual identity system; and brand voice. They’re typically pulled together in a handy brand guidelines document. If your business requires it (or you’re really anal like me), invest in a style guide so all of your writers are singing from the same hymnal. You can do it manually or choose an automated tool like Writer. Full disclosure: I’m an investor in Writer, but I was a fan first! Here are some standard writing rules I usually work into a style guide.

If you’re unfamiliar with visual identity systems, here are a few examples of how companies build their ownable look. Note: This is my interpretation based on their websites; the companies may have a different way of describing their brands.

Asana. The project management application weaves together product-related illustrations with stark, friendly photographs of people to create a clean, simple look across its visual assets.

Figma. The design platform combines colorful elements and indicators of team collaboration to make it feel like a “drop in” design session.

Pendo. The digital experience software makes use of dots and gradients, giving the feel of connecting the dots in a nuanced world.

Here are a few things to remember when it comes to these brand deliverables:

5. Herd your stakeholders

Once you’ve identified your stakeholders, over-communicate to them. Tell them what you’re trying to achieve, and why. Always share the why. They’ll care more, give you better feedback, and question your decisions less often.

Set the stage. For example, if your goal is to stand out from the crowd, provide a “state of” description, like, “The industry is stodgy and buttoned-up. Our customers tell us they appreciate how approachable we are. We’d like to play that up and differentiate by coming across a little friendlier. We’ll look to do that in our colors, fonts, imagery, and voice.”

Give them options. It’s hard to respond to one option. They don’t have a frame of reference and may feel backed into a corner. If you show them a few options, it eases the pressure. Also? Don’t ask them what they like; ask them whether a, b, or c accomplishes the goal (that you’ve socialized with them ahead of time). Ask why or why not.

Be explicit about timeline — what you need from them, and by when. And if you don’t hear from them, don’t assume all is well. Corner them in the hallway and double-check.

6. Bring everybody along

Screw the big reveal! Bring as many people as possible along on your journey.

I like to send 3-minute, super-informal videos to the broader group (sometimes even the whole company, depending on size) every couple of weeks during the re-branding project — something like, “Hey all! Quick update on our branding project. As you may know, we’re in week 4 of our 12-week project. We locked in our logo and color palette and we’re working on imagery choices. The goal is to look different from our competitors while keeping things simple and lightweight. Here are three mood boards. The stakeholder group is leaning toward choice B, but choice C is a close second. If you have any feedback, send it our way.”

Doing it this way takes just a few minutes and makes sure that your broader group feels kept in the loop, valued, and heard. It’s also a way to suss out real issues, valuable feedback, and have-you-thought-ofs, like, “That image looks exactly like competitor XYZ,” or “That tagline may not fly with our French customers.” And it’s a great way to head off the inevitable, out-of-the-woodwork stakeholder who absolutely hates that color of yellow! By God, they’ve had 82 chances to let you know, and they aren't going to harsh your vibe now.

7. Give credit

You and your team are well-paid. You get stock options. So, if anyone can afford to be magnanimous, it’s you. So give away credit with reckless abandon. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make.

When you hit a milestone, call out a contribution a stakeholder made, like, “We elevated the customer success portion of our message because of how high our team’s CSAT scores are.” Or, “Bernard from data science had the idea that we incorporate a visual reminiscent of Greek notation in our identity system. We think it’s pretty nifty.” Celebrating the broader group’s contributions will not only give credit where it’s due, but will also make people feel like they’re along on the journey with you.

Because they are.

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