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People are always preaching that when it comes to branding, “consistency is key!” But why? Let’s dig in!
Ever lost your car keys and had to retrace your steps to find them?
Or walked into a room and instantly forgot why you’re there in the first place?
Have you ever been at a Blockbuster video and had someone walk up to you and say, “hello!” with such familiarity that it frightens you because you have no clue who they are?
*no? just me? wait, am I old?*
We’re not losing our marbles… this happens because we tend to forget things when we’re removed from the original context. It’s called context-dependent memory. But this is not a psychology lesson, I’m going to explain why it’s so important for your online marketing; but first…
How buyers really make decisions
A big mistake people make is thinking that marketing is a process of getting in front of as many people as possible who will see their lovely visuals and read their captivating copy and either say “yes, this is brilliant, where do I sign up?!” or “meh, not for me, pass.”
And that’s understandable because you’ve put your heart and soul into getting that far… you expect people will see how great you are and want to buy it instantly, right?
But you know that’s not how buying decisions are made — you know because that’s not how you make decisions.
When people don’t know you yet, they’re not sure whether they can trust you — it doesn’t matter how brilliant your first impression is. They’re going to go out and consider a few more options, or maybe wait a little longer until the time is right — they’re just not ready. It’s not a “meh, not for me”… it’s a “huh, maybe!“.
It takes time and repetition for customers to go from awareness to remembered
The first impression is when people first become aware of you, duh. But awareness is a process — it might take seeing you in their field of vision 15 times before they’re really super-awesomely aware.
So it’s a matter of getting in front of those people a second, third or fifteenth time so you can prove to them you’re credible, trustworthy, and the best option from all the others they’re considering. This is marketing. This is communications. Where branding fits in is to provide the glue of consistency in your message — visual and otherwise.
Branding is the glue that helps put people back into context
Think about the people you “know” online… your influencers, your authorities. Maybe you love their blog content and never miss it, or maybe you became aware of them on Twitter and decided to join their Facebook community and then a few months later they offered a free webinar and you signed up.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you were in their marketing funnel all along. They were nurturing your trust and allowing you to get to know them slowly. Months may have passed between that initial first impression and you signing up for their course, or hiring them for a consultation.
What happened during that time? Was their message all over the place? Did they change their avatar, colors, fonts and visuals 500 times? Or were they showing up time after time with consistent visuals and messaging? If you’re clear who they are, know what to expect, and you trust and like them, they’ve “branded” an impression through consistency.
You see them post something on Facebook and you know it’s theirs and you pay attention to it?
Brand consistency helps put you back in context so people are more likely to remember you. It’s not a magic trick or some silly rule brand strategists invented, it’s how the human brain remembers things.
Let’s look at a typical customer journey to see context-dependent memory in action
Say somebody sees an attractive graphic you’ve created for Pinterest, it’s blue and has flowers on it and the fonts are feminine and classy. They click on it and land on your website.
The visuals on your website are exactly as they’d expect — it’s blue, there’s a floral theme, and the fonts are the same — feminine and classy. Perfect!
They want to hear more from you, so they follow you on Twitter so they can get more of your content and get to know you a little better.
A few days later they see something posted in their Twitter stream and it’s red with a typewriter. They have no idea who it’s from and they’re busy, so they scroll on by.
But what if it were blue, with flowers, and feminine and classy fonts? Huh? Huh? Ya get me? *elbow nudge*
Visual cues are powerful
I know everybody’s always saying that visuals don’t hold a candle to powerful copy, but if you want to get noticed and be remembered, you actually need both. They’re the pillars of branding and one without the other means “the other” will have to work a billion times harder. Why you wanna work so hard?
When it comes to context-dependent memory, copy doesn’t hold a candle to brand visuals. *score one for design, at last!*
Having inconsistent visuals makes the process of nurturing trust and becoming remembered a nightmare — you’ll be introducing yourself to them for the first time every single time.
If it starts to feel a little repetitive and boring for you, that means you’re doing it right
Believe me I know how tempting it is to burn your brand to the ground every time you discover a new font or visual style you fall in love with, “Gosh, I wish I had branded my business like this! Maybe I should start over, it’ll be more me!”
There are legitimate reasons for rebranding, but proceed with caution. Don’t do it because you have brand envy, or because you get bored looking at your own stuff — you’ll lose all the “memory equity” you’ve built up when you do it. Those “hey, maybe!” customers are out there and they may not be at the stage of awareness where they’re able to remember you by name recognition alone.
Now if you’re one of those people who does your own visual branding because you enjoy the hell out of it (I know, it’s so fun right? That’s why I became a designer in the first place and why I keep being a designer), but you keep changing up your graphics because you get pleasure out of trying on new visual styles and colors and fonts… don’t do that. You’re hurting your business.
Design is not art, it’s not “you expressing who you are through font choices.”
I say this all the time and I’ll keep saying it until the whole world hears me loud and clear: design is a business tool, not art. It’s either helping you make money or it’s not.
Tapping into the power of design means using those visual devices to burn an impression into people’s minds and to help them remember who you are. You just can’t do that if you keep experimenting with pretty fonts and colors all the time.
Here’s what you do, here’s what I do: make art. Do that on the weekend, express yourself creatively, play with fonts! But do it on the side, not as a branding exercise.
I’m being consistent but what I’m doing isn’t really working, should I change it up?
Maybe. I see a lot of poor visual branding out there and I know it’s not doing people any favors. If it’s not hitting the mark, a new brand visual style might be needed.
But! People tend to make rash decisions when things don’t work overnight. Have you stayed consistent with your visuals for a long time? Are you showing up day after day and month after month but nobody’s paying attention? Are you unable to raise your prices because you’re not in-demand enough yet? Are you taking your visual brand seriously? Or do you think it’s not really that important because you’re so smart and talented and everybody’s going to see that if you can only get them to read your impressive bio?
Here’s another way design functions as a business tool: it can elevate how people perceive you before they know you, you’ll appear credible while people are in the awareness stage. Design is the hook, and then, when they read your impressive resumé: POW!
If you are constantly feeling like nobody sees your brilliance, if you feel invisible… branding is what gets you noticed.
I’ve rebranded my own business and tweaked along the way. Because I’m an insane person and I don’t always follow my own advice. But mostly, because I’ve gotten clearer about my customer, the services I want to focus on, and what I want people to know most about me. What I was doing before wasn’t in alignment with any of those things. When I made changes I did so knowing that I was going to lose traction.
If you started your whole show without clarity, sometimes pushing the reset button is necessary… but the sooner you can settle into consistency, the sooner you’ll begin to see results: you’ll attract the right people to you, begin growing an audience, and start (the sometimes long process of) nurturing the “hey, maybe” peeps.
Make visual consistency easier by using a brand guideline
I’m a huge believer in branding guidelines, as a designer I work with them a lot — most especially when I’m designing something for a larger organization. If they’re working with lots of employees and contract designers, they want to make sure that their logo, fonts, imagery, and messaging are consistent no matter who is producing it.
If you’re not working with a designer, you can create your own brand guidelines and I’ll tell ya — it makes your life a lot easier if you’re creating all of your content and graphics on your own. And as your business grows, who knows? Maybe you’ll need to outsource some of your design tasks, and you’ll want the people you hire to maintain your consistency.
A brand guideline should include such things as:
- How your logo should be used (and how it should not)
- Your color palette
- Your brand fonts and how they should be used (headlines, body copy, callouts, etc.)
- Patterns, textures, icons, photography graphic styles
- Brand voice/messaging — the phrases you use, the tone, and personality of your message
- Rules (templates) for creating social media sharing graphics
You don’t have to get fancy about this. If you want to create a beautiful brand board there are templates out there that can help you do that, but honestly, all you need is to put this information in a Google doc so you can refer to it when you’re making social media graphics, advertisements, and documents your customers will see.
Before you can create brand consistency, you need brand clarity
When you don’t have a clear vision for the brand you want to build, it’s very difficult to move forward with any branding or marketing initiative.
In my book, The Client Attraction Mindset, I share all of my “Aha!” moments, paradigm shifts and exercises that helped me get clear about who I am, who I want to attract, how I need to show up to get my dream clients’ attention and to put an actual plan of action together to get visible with the right people.
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.