Acquisitions are commonplace in the tech industry, but still, learning how to navigate an acquisition can be difficult, especially when the buyout affects an entire brand. Some buyouts leave both brands intact as two separate identities, such as Facebook and Instagram, while others retire one brand completely, such as Southwest overtaking Airtran.
More complex acquisitions require a merger of both brands, which can leave a company on the verge of becoming brandless, and this was the situation we were facing.
Our brand was retired when our company was acquired last year, and once that happened, our team was asked to quickly create collateral for the newly combined company from a one-sheet ‘Identity Quick Reference Guide’. That one-sheeter of 6 colors, 4 text styles, and a logo was the only brand identity documentation that existed. Instead of becoming a reactionary design team frantically producing sloppy designs while wallowing in our own blood, sweat, and tears—we developed a plan to advocate for a strategic brand and create a whole new identity for Valassis Digital.
So how did we persuade the business to invest time in creating a new brand identity? How did our team shift from a reactive state to owning our brand strategy? What techniques did we use along the way? We’ll walk you through our process of crafting our brand identity.
The Plan: Uncover & Socialize Design
First, we had to clearly define our value as a team. Our role and responsibilities as designers in the corporate world have significantly matured. We’ve evolved to understand the relationship between business needs and design strategy and when to put on our business hats to back our design proposals with research, metrics, and proven outcomes.
Exposure became our primary focus. We’d spent years building credibility with the business pre-acquisition, but with new leadership, we needed to reintroduce our capabilities. We began by hosting a design roadshow. We met with leaders and newly-formed teams to showcase our prior brand identity work and its impact on the business from events to marketing to sales materials to our website and products.
We socialized our design process by explaining the core relies on strategy, goal alignment, KPIs, and testing. We shared how each step influences our design outcomes—ultimately ensuring our brand’s success.
Design teams often need to make sacrifices during their process to stay focused on the bigger strategy. Our sacrifice was designing interim materials based on the one-sheet style guide to get the business functioning while we finalized our brand identity plan.
Without stakeholder support and exposure, your design process is doomed to failure. To ensure our success, we organized a core group of stakeholders we could lean on for accountability and alignment with our business strategy.
We established five checkpoints with this core group throughout our identity process: research debriefs, gut check test, mood boards, identity testing, and the design identity reveal.
“Without stakeholder support and exposure, your design process is doomed to failure.”
Checkpoint #1: Understanding your foundation
Every brand needs a foundation to build upon and evolve. When a brand lacks foundation, designs become subject to the loudest voice in the room, and that’s a disservice to the brand.
A brand doesn’t exist to please your boss, a marketer, or an exec; brands exist to express the company’s mission, vision, and values. A brand encompasses how a company looks, sounds, and behaves.
The brand’s identity is how it looks and feels.
We needed to understand the state of the brand that acquired us. Our research began with an audit of information from our parent company. We found a competitive analysis and the beginning stages of brand messaging from an outside agency, and we used this information to understand our parent company’s brand challenges.
To align our design focus with the business vision, we surveyed leadership to gain perspective on Valassis Digital’s future identity and how they wanted to be perceived in the marketplace. During our first checkpoint, we used the survey results as a basis for our foundation—gathering keywords for our brand personality, clarifying design focus, and aligning on brand goals. The results validated our approach to creating a brand fusion with influences from both companies.
“The brand’s identity is how it looks and feels.”
Checkpoint #2: Kickstarting the look and feel
After aligning our strategic focus, we held a gut test session with our identity stakeholders. This activity encourages non-designers to talk about the look and feel—jumpstarting your design ideation phase. The activity includes:
- Gathering 20+ inspirational websites that match up roughly to design ideas
- Asking stakeholders to rate websites on a scale of 1 to 5
- Tallying scores to identify the top 5 and bottom 5 websites
- Facilitating group discussion about the top 5 and bottom 5 focusing on design elements
We purposely chose non-competitor websites to help the group stay focused on design elements, instead of being distracted by how they perceive our competition. The goal was to gather a variety of styles from playful to serious themes, serif versus non-serif fonts, illustration styles, and imagery to begin exploring visual directions.
Checkpoint #3: Establishing Visual Direction
Mood boards can easily be misinterpreted as artistic wall decor if not tactfully presented. Without design education, they’ll leave your execs confused—and definitely not on-board with your process.
Design education plays a critical role throughout your brand identity process and determines whether your stakeholder checkpoints are successful or not.
Explaining your design intent upfront and clearly articulating your desired takeaways encourages better participation, which ultimately improves the outcome of your brand.
Before sharing our mood boards, we explained their purpose is to visually capture an identity’s tone, and we encouraged our stakeholders to vocalize their Initial impressions when viewing the boards. The goal of our session was to collectively establish the visual direction for our brand.
To help improve our presentation, we decided to take a personification approach to developing our mood boards—not necessarily naming them George or Samantha, but plotting the personalities on a quadrant of four distinct characteristics.
All directions needed to:
- Tell a story
- Make an emotional connection
- Humanize tech—an evolving theme in our design identity
Developing 3 personalities and a standardized format kept our stakeholders focused on the mood instead of differences in layout. We combined typography, color, imagery, and personality blurbs to depict each mood board.
The results were a blend of the Intelligent Innovator’s clean, modern, airy feel with a bit of warmth and human vibe from the Approachable Go-Getter—leading us towards our ‘humanizing tech’ theme.
Our guidepost: The importance of a brand brief
At this point we’d been working towards solidifying the foundation for our brand identity in tandem with the content team. We solidified everything we learned into a brand brief: positioning, differentiators, market audience, key competitors, brand attributes, and our value proposition.
Our brand brief was written by us—the designers. We used the brand brief as our guidepost to gut-check ourselves throughout the rest of our identity process.
Putting the pieces together: Type + Color + Image + Patterns
With an agreed-upon visual direction and a brand brief, we were ready to dive into design details to form a distinct identity. We first looked at type, imagery, and colors individually.
For type, we researched which typefaces supported the ‘Intelligent Innovator’: we wanted our typography to feel modern and clean, but we didn’t want it to be too stark. We had to take into consideration which typefaces work best for supporting stats and graphs as well as longer forms of copy.
The team used stickies to up/down vote typefaces and discussed why they were or weren’t working to express our brand.
For color, we explored color theory, reviewing analogous, complementary, and compound color palettes to decipher which worked best for our brand. We asked ourselves how the various colors played together, and what feeling each color provoked on its own.
Early-on color explorations from color schemes to how colors interacted with each other.
For imagery, we looked at various ways to tell engaging stories that supported our brand vision. We began layering images to create a narrative.
Our individual explorations of typography, color, and imagery naturally began to overlap. We began purposefully pairing them together to create micro vignettes.
With several designers individually exploring pairings, it became apparent that we needed structure. Similar to our moodboards, we created a layout we could all use, allowing us to easily compare design decisions and begin to see emerging patterns. We looked for similar design conclusions and explorations that felt unique to our identity.
Left and Middle – Two of many styleboards we created to evaluate image, text and color together. Right – Evolving the styleboard into a homepage concept. While a little too minimal for our brand, it became a big influencer to our identity.
We narrowed down key elements and styles and transitioned into full fledge mock-ups of our biggest brand touchpoints: pitch decks, marketing event materials, product marketing pieces, and webpages. It was a lot of mocking up, talking through our decisions, aligning and reworking, getting group therapy, and revising again.
Along the way, we asked ourselves if the identity we were forming was strong enough—was it still in the vein of the ‘Intelligent Innovator’ with some human warmth? Did it align with our brand brief?
Mock-ups on mock-ups of our brand touchpoints: pop-up banners for tradeshows, powerpoint templates, print ads, and web pages.
Checkpoint #4: Identity Testing
Testing is the cornerstone of our design process. Even with a visual system that’s fairly subjective, we found it helpful to pause and test. We needed outside perspective. The results refocused us, and gave the team renewed inspiration to push the design further.
We tested internally across multiple teams and with external clients, modifying our client test to gauge overall brand satisfaction using an established scale called the SUPR-Q. This scale measures quality (similar to satisfaction), usability, credibility, loyalty, and appearance, and based on the testing results, we scored high on trust and appearance—but also had a number of colleagues and clients say our brand felt too bland, sterile, and generic. How could we make our identity bolder with a punch of personality?
We reviewed the sea of iterations we’d previously designed, along with bolder concepts we’d left behind to better reflect our company’s mission. We highlighted stats to show more credibility behind our brand, while exciting our brand with image compositions—vibrant color offsets, layered illustrations, text, and patterns—that visually represent the layers of data that fuel our campaigns.
Checkpoint #5: Design identity reveal
Our team built an identity system that we are proud of and that was received well by the company. Our CEO was amazed at the value and quality of our internal team’s efforts; within a few months, we turned a company’s one-sheet style guide into a full-on brand identity kit.
BEFORE A glimpse of the brand before our acquisition:
AFTER Our new design identity:
Words of advice on identity crafting
Flex your skillset and lean on resources. Historically, we’re a product design team that grew into a product and marketing design team. We aren’t brand experts, identity experts, or an agency, but there’s a plethora of resources out there that we were able to learn from.
Elevate design within your organization. Advocate for design quality and educate others about the importance of your design process. This includes exposing your research, exploration, and ideation phases. Increase your ability to ‘teach-up’ to fellow execs about the value of strategic design and push back on smaller requests that aren’t part of the bigger strategy.
Remember that good design is good business. Take the time to understand and educate yourself on business objectives, vision, and goals. A great place to start is by building relationships with other teams and leaders throughout the company: listen to how they talk about the company and what they are focused on.
When you have an understanding of the business and where it’s headed, you can make a greater impact by aligning design strategy with that vision.
Interested in reading more?
Over her long career, Rachel has worked at companies large and small, producing award-winning designs, growing collaborative teams, providing ongoing training, and crafting user experiences for a variety of products and applications. She has been influential in the UX community through sharing her knowledge at both international and local conferences, including UX Scotland, Interaction South America, Big Design, Grace Hopper, The UX Lab NYC, and Ladies That UX. When not producing high-caliber designs or mentoring team members, Rachel looks for every opportunity to travel the world. Follow her ideas, topics, and travels on Twitter: @RainbowliciousD.
Heidi is a Raleigh-based designer chasing beauty in systems, interactions and visuals. Her analytical and research-driven approach allows her to span a variety of disciplines from visual to interaction to information architecture. Over her career, she’s worked for start-ups and large corporations, collaborating with UX teams to create visually stunning mobile apps, products, websites, and brand identities.