• What is branding? What is marketing?

    These two words are used so interchangeably that it’s easy to see how their meanings get confused. At Character, we are often tasked with both establishing a new brand and launching that brand’s first product. In these instances the line between branding and marketing is particularly blurry. So, where does brand end and product marketing begin? Knowing the fundamental differences and the interrelationship between the two will ensure you make smart investments in the short term and plan for success in the long term.

    A quick search on these two terms serves up a range of metaphors, analogies and definitions:

    Branding is strategic. Marketing is tactical.
    Branding is pull. Marketing is push.
    Branding is the cart. Marketing is the horse.
    Branding is who you are. Marketing is how you sell it.

    These descriptions reveal differences but also allude to the inherent relationship.

    Branding should precede and underlie any marketing effort. In order to establish a strong brand, you’ll need to ask and answer the fundamental questions about why your brand exists and what you will consistently deliver to your audience. Brand Strategy is the story that ties your purpose, values and personality together, and it clarifies what your brand is and what it’s not. What makes brand so tricky is that it’s not expressed in a single place but communicated to your customers every time they see, feel, touch, or experience your brand. When done right, your brand permeates everything you do.

    Marketing, then, is one of the many ways people will experience your brand, but not the only expression or interaction. Using your brand strategy as a guide, you can make decisions on how best to reach and sell to your audience through a specific medium with a specific message. The conversation shifts from defining what you stand for to strategizing what the right messages are to sell your product and reinforce your unique point of difference. Marketing may be designed to engage or convert, but ongoing branding keeps customers coming back. The fact of the matter is, there will be companies who make comparable products or sell similar services. It is your brand that builds loyalty, trust and relationships and your marketing that gets your brand in front of the right people.

    Why start with branding?

    You may think your brand is self-evident and doesn’t need to be spelled out. But without having a platform in place, it’s easy to be reactive. Things change, fads come and go, sales drop, competitors threaten your position. What do you do? If you define what your brand stands for at the outset it becomes easier to make hard decisions and determine the best path forward. Building brands is a long-term process, it isn’t a one time thing that you do at the beginning of establishing your business, it’s an ongoing effort that needs to be brought to life repeatedly and delivered on consistently.

    In short, your brand endures and marketing shifts.

  • Gina Gutierrez | Strategy

    These days it seems like most brands share a common ambition: to be more human. It’s a worthwhile aspiration: a brand that succeeds in acting more like a person than a company is almost guaranteed to create better experiences for its customers. So how did we enter the era of human brands? And how can a brand successfully create the perception of being human?

    We are only eight years out from the greatest recession of our lifetimes. It sparked Occupy Wall Street, a booming “shop small business” movement, and a general distrust in the private sector. In 2014, Burston-Marsteller and CNBC found that only 44% of Americans saw corporations in a positive light. To read between the lines, most companies were perceived as acting out of self-interest, rather than in the interest of others. Lippincott released a white paper that makes the connection between corporate perception and human brands explicit, noting that “trust in institutions has eroded drastically in the past few years, spurring companies’ desire to behave more like people.” People, it turns out, like people more than they like companies.

    In contrast to companies that can be seen as cold, inauthentic, or profit-hungry, humans come out looking pretty good. They are emotional, real, and empathetic. But for brands, “human” remains one of the largest categorical adjectives out there. To select “human” as a brand attribute alongside “warm” or “approachable” is to misunderstand that it is the value underlying those characteristics. The diversity of humanity itself shows us how many thousands of trait combinations can fall under the larger human label. Being human goes beyond being empathetic‒it is to be individual. In this way, there is no one human playbook for brands. But there are countless lessons to be learned from how people relate to each other, and the sort of things that makes a person likeable or trustworthy. Let’s consider a few.

    1: No one who’s got it, flaunts it.

    Drawing attention to your own qualities is a near universal taboo. Yet brands continue to fall into this very un-human trap. To be humble, or authentic, is a good thing‒but only if others are saying it. As the thinking goes, anyone who truly is those things wouldn’t draw attention to them. Consider this the next time your marketing team develops a headline touting your best qualities instead of the benefits you provide to your customers.

    2: Everyone loves an underdog.

    We tend to admire success and confidence in people, but sometimes it can backfire. When someone is perceived as the big shot, it doesn’t always endear them to others. It can trigger a desire to prove that we are somehow immune to their charisma, and a sneaking wish to see them fail. In other words, even if you are the best, acting like it doesn’t always work to your advantage. A brand that knows this well is Under Armour: in spite of their mounting success, they defend their position as the gritty, hardworking underdog of the athletic category.

    3: Better to put it all on the table.

    It’s refreshing when a fellow dinner party guest drops the pretenses and tells us something surprisingly honest. It shows us that they aren’t afraid of the truth. For some brands, sharing customarily tightly-controlled information can help build a perception of honesty. The growing retail brand Everlane understands this well, and has created a brand that is inherently trustworthy by virtue of their transparency around sourcing and pricing. It follows that if they realized a mistake, we would expect them to own up to it and make it right.

    4: Earn the right to familiarity.

    Many brands make the leap that if they are human, their customers are their friends. But it’s important to remember the codes that dictate real human interactions. Most people respond well to a warm welcome and a friendly tone, but being called by nickname on first greeting, or being pushed into a relationship before we’re ready, exhibits a worrying lack of social awareness. Brands would do well to remember: taking it slow is the best shot at a long and happy relationship.

  • Character Crew | Design, Copy, & Strategy

    You may view your brand personality simply as a set of emotional characteristics that represent your brand, but brand personality is so much more than a laundry list of traits related to your product. It guides your brand’s expression and representation in the real world, and actively shapes the way people feel about and interact with your company. It influences not just messaging but design, digital experiences, and even retail environments – and how people relate to these.

    Consider the in-store feel of two very different brands: ZARA and Tory Burch. ZARA’s floors are concrete, the music pulses, and the woman ringing you up wears a nose ring. In Tory Burch, the doors are a vivid orange, the floors are richly carpeted, and the attendants offer you a bottle of water while you shop. The design and service decisions of both stores are expressive of two very different personalities: one – young, urban and irreverent, the other – traditional, well-heeled, and vibrant.

    These brands, among others have put ample thought, time, and money into how their brand is felt, heard and interpreted, and we think for good reason.

    So what do we think a brand personality can do for you and your company?

    1.) Create a Unified Front
    Claudia DiMartino, Designer
    “Brand personality helps to shape most touchpoints in the design process. It helps to unify designers and their output no matter what the medium. Identity can be aligned to web, to packaging, to written copy if we all consider the same personality, and how they are likely to look, speak and act. This is important for consistency, and ultimately authenticity. If all mediums are communicating the same thing, we’re more likely to believe this personality is a legitimate one.”

    2.) Distinguish Your Brand in the Market
    Meghan Berckes, Associate Creative Director
    “A brand’s personality is what sticks with consumers beyond a logo, color, typeface, website, or store. It’s an immensely important part of a brand’s identity—yet it can be subjective and hard to quantify. Consumers typically look for brands with personalities that align with their own. In that regard the personality of a brand can be more enduring—and provide more differentiation—than something like a logo.”

    3.) Reach the “Right” Customer
    Will Geddes, Design Director
    “People use brands to help shape their own projected identity. From one’s choice of a particular brand of apparel, to one’s preference for a particular coffee shop, many decisions about where we shop and what we buy are influenced by how we think of ourselves, and ultimately how we want other people to perceive us. This is most obvious in fashion, where sophisticated labels can broadcast a message about our own refinement. But even choices which seem more personal or hidden—like what kind of deodorant we use—or utilitarian—what brand of skis we ride—tend to be made on some level of brand and personality awareness. Am I quirky and young like Old Spice, or am I a professional like Degree? Whether it’s a product that will be seen by others or not, people tend to make decisions that are influenced by how products fit in with their identity. Building a brand with personality means appealing to your customers identities—it means deciding on a tone that’s true to the brand, and one that a specific group of customers can relate to, and adopt as part of their own image.”

    4.) Encourage User Confidence
    Gina Gutierrez, Sr. Brand Strategist
    “We may deny it, but most of us love a little predictability. Knowing what to expect doesn’t make our favorite food or vacation spot any less satisfying — in fact, it makes us like it even more. A brand’s personality, just like a friend’s personality, creates just enough predictability. It helps us to understand the ways a brand will behave and all the ways it will make us feel. Knowing what to expect makes it easy to decide whether we like a company, and whether we want to strike up a relationship with it.”


  • Stevie Belchak | Strategy

    Conversion, conversion, conversion! Conversion is understandably top of mind for clients who are building sites and launching first-of-their kind products. In an effort to drive users to the shopping cart, there’s an eagerness to highlight a product’s form, function and features. But, it’s important to remember where users are coming from. Some visitors may be doing cursory research via Search, some clicking through a targeted ad campaign, and still others, happening on a hyperlink in a news article. The fact is, not all users are ready to purchase upon landing on your website.  When they are ready to purchase, we should make it easy for them to get there literally and figuratively.

    At Character, we see a product’s launch site as an opportunity to generate fans, not just clicks.  Because when a new product launches on a website, we are also launching a brand. When users see how a product fits into their lives, or folds into their belief systems, that is when they make a move, regardless of how many “Get It Today” messages we surface.

    So how do we turn potential users into believers?

    Provide context

    Remember – not only does your new-to-the-world product look alien to users, how it fits into their world is also alien. It’s never been tried on for size. It’s never been used. It’s never been experienced.

    Take the iPod. When it launched, its sleek design, touchpad turntable and easy-to-toggle volume alone likely did not inspire millions to trade in their familiar Walkmans for a pocket-sized boombox. Its form may have driven curiosity, but it was the silhouette of the “every man” dancing hands-free and carefree that turned music lovers on.

    In diving into proof points and finer details of your product and not taking the time to brush broader strokes first, you risk losing your audience in the weeds. For the curious and less-informed, context is particularly key. You want to move beyond trees and paint a complete picture of the forest – how your product plays with other products, how it intersects with users’ lives, how it fits into their story.

    Create an emotional connection

    Though other companies may eventually compete in terms of functionality, it’s the “feeling” your brand gives users that’s impossible to replicate. And, creating that feeling doesn’t happen through a single touch point, but across all touch points – including web experiences.

    Recently, Character helped launch the product site for Teforia. Functionally, Teforia is first-of-its-kind, allowing for the creation of a near-perfect cup of tea, every time. While functional messaging was essential to explaining what it is and how it works, we wanted to dig deeper.  At the heart of every tea maker lays an inherent love of ritual, the ability to step out of the day-to-day to experience, a momentary renewal. We used this as a guide in defining the brand and crafting its introduction to the world.  We looked for ways to emphasize little instances of calm and indulgence that users could readily connect with. The tea bubbling. The steam rising. That moment of that fresh pour. Our intent: encourage associations with reprieve and tranquility, to pique the senses and help visitors “feel” something unique.

    Show them where to dig

    Sometimes new products or services enter a market with the odds already stacked against them. Perhaps existing products in the landscape failed to meet users’ expectations. Or perhaps a product lives in space where fact and fiction are hard to distinguish.

    In these instances, it’s important to get out ahead of user doubt and fear, but it’s equally important to do so delicately. Diving into the science behind the product too quickly could overwhelm, or placing too much a focus on efficacy could raise authenticity flags.

    With one of our recent clients, Molekule, an air purifier company entering a market where vague claims and poor effect was common, we quickly identified the need to not simply build emotion, but to educate. We strategically used a “Technology” page to allow audiences to dive deeper on their own, balancing technicalities with approachable language, soft hues, and lifestyle imagery – literally unveiling science in the comfort of users’ homes.

    Our thinking: it’s important to unveil the unfamiliar in a familiar way and give the audience the opportunity to go deeper – on their terms. Because when it comes to building relationships, nuanced communications work best and trust takes time.

  • Claudia Di Martino | Design

    I recently discovered an interesting article on WIRED.com, playfully titled: Inside the Campaign to redesign SF’s suck-tastic flag. Roman Mars, an american producer and host of the 99% Invisible podcast series, had broadcasted a TED talk documenting his distaste for San Francisco’s flag. He has now created a campaign to redesign it.

    So…how bad is it?

    Well, it’s not great. Some could view the brown phoenix rising from the burnt ashes, bordered by a thick mustard yellow frame as intentionally bad in an attempt to be ironic, but sadly I think the design is genuine…and ugly. As an Australian newcomer to this northern Californian city, it made me wonder about a new design: how would you even begin to encapsulate the identity of a city that prides itself on innovation and progressive thinking?

    With the entire world keeping tabs on Silicon Valley’s consistent creative output, San Francisco can comfortably claim title as progressive city. The startup community, alongside the bigger names of Google, Apple and Facebook work happily  side-by-side in the 46.9 square mile area.

    Also noteworthy is SF’s support for the LGBT community. It was one of the first cities in the Unites States to foster political involvement and activism in the late 1960’s. The iconic rainbow flag (proudly worn and shown all over the US after last Friday’s Federal ruling for Marriage Equality and the weekend’s PRIDE festivities), was created by local resident Gilbert Baker, says another WIRED Article : Here’s where the Rainbow Flag came from. The rainbow flag has now spread to become a global symbol for LGBT rights and sexual equality, emerging from humble, yet conceptually valid, beginnings in an attic of the San Francisco Gay Community Center in 1978.

    This iconic flag rose from a time of heightened political power and post-war inquest. It served a specific purpose to unite a community that needed to gain recognition and respect within a society that offered none.

    Roman Mars’ latest endeavour to re-design the SF flag is born from a less specific need, and warrants a discussion about format. After all, a flag proves to be a limited amount of real estate to accurately and visually represent a city associated with so many niche communities, each aided by technology, design and innovation.

    As designers, we often face a similar question when presenting new identities to clients. We believe that a single logo cannot communicate every aspect of a brand. This process is instead an accumulative one achieved through multiple channels of messaging, photography, color and other visual and tonal elements that bring a brand to life. The end result is a sum of parts that contribute to a bigger, brand driven picture.

    Perhaps then Roman Mars’ solution to San Francisco’s flag is a simple, yet complicated one : Don’t redesign the flag, rethink it.

    A bigger and more generous design system could be a much better fit for San Francisco, considering its innovative history and application for new technology. More of a holistic branding exercise than anything, San Francisco could pull its range of incredible resources to create something bigger, better and more unifying than the effects of a single flag. An accumulative effort from the design, tech, engineering and communications industries could initiate a big discussion surrounding the idea of identity on a global scale.

    Regardless of the outcome, the undertaking and process itself would have equal gravity in setting a new precedent for municipal decision making. So, in true San Francisco spirit, our approach should be diplomatic, inclusive and crowdsourced… of course.

  • Gina Gutierrez | Brand Strategy

    Last week I attended a consumer electronics speaker series hosted by Shasta Ventures and Hub Strategy + Communications. During the Q&A, a woman stood up from her chair and directed the last question of the night at the panel: how and when do you shift marketing efforts from early adopters to a greater mass market?

    This question reveals an interesting and prevailing belief in Silicon Valley. Start-ups view the Bay Area (and maybe New York and Seattle) as a wellspring of early adopters. Read: people who eagerly scan technology blogs for the latest and greatest software releases and hardware launches.

    In many ways, this belief is grounded in truth. The techno hubs of the world are full of passionate, intrepid tech buyers willing to make riskier purchases. They don’t need lengthy consumer reviews to buoy their decision to click “Buy Now,” nor are they put off by a waitlist or pre-order form. These are the people that catapult fledgling companies into popular awareness, evangelize ideas and legitimize new categories.

    So why are early adopters a myth? Because for the most part, they are one-dimensional portraits. The truth is, if a start-up builds it, they may not come. Even early adopters.

    Early adopters also need a good reason to buy into an idea. From a brand perspective, we need to knock down the invisible wall in peoples’ minds between early adopters and the mass market. Early adopters are more than young to middle-aged men sitting in front of Apple products. Their reason for existence is not just to buy more, buy everything, buy the latest. Early adopters are people, just as all consumers are people. They have families and foibles. They lead busy lives. They care about what their peers, husbands and girlfriends think of them.

    While they may be more willing to give your company some slack when they experience a bug, they don’t buy products just because they are forward-thinking. They buy forward-thinking products from the companies that paint a narrative around why the product is something they should want as a part of their lives.

    My answer to this woman’s question would be this: establish the reason your company exists. Find a position that makes you different. Create a story which people can believe in and connect to. And stick with it throughout your marketing program. Chances are, a compelling brand will mean as much to an early adopter as a homemaker in the suburbs.

  • Cody Pallo | Development

    I have a rather interesting job; I’m a Senior Creative Technologist. It’s one of the newer titles in the field of design and development. Simply put, a Creative Technologist is a developer who understands design and the creative process. I believe that coming up with really unique web solutions requires not only understanding what’s possible, but also how to convey the intent of the client in a forward-thinking way.

    A Creative Technologist helps to formulate ways to uphold, improve, and hone the integrity of a design from a programmatic and imaginative perspective. We work alongside the Creative Directors, Strategists, Copywriters, Digital Design Directors and the rest of the digital department to create works that are not only fresh, but also intelligently conceived and built.

    A key component to the effectiveness of this role is flexibility. When I’m involved in helping figure out design technicalities, it helps in the development of a strategic game plan for writing solid code. Designs change and code needs to be written in such a way that allows for adaptability. Being able to have foresight in the creative process helps to accomplish this.

    Design shouldn’t be conceived in a black box. Creative Technologists understand that how something operates on the inside influences how it appears on the outside. As the field becomes more complex the creative possibility become greater. Creative Technologists bring clarity to this complexity, they help to bridge the gap between the seen and the unseen while also helping to communicate new possibilities for creative expression. I’m excited to see more agencies start to hire people in my role.