Brandening: inch by inch, row by row, a step-by-step process to help your brand grow

by Meg Fowler Tripp

Now that the days have become longer and warmer and trees have their leaves, many of us find ourselves elbow-deep in cool soil. Nurturing plant life is something we’ve been doing to feed ourselves, shade ourselves, and beautify our surroundings for a long time––and those of us who enjoy both the process and product of gardening know that following best practices yields the best results (and the least frustration).

Building your brand has a lot in common with gardening: everyone wants a healthy, resilient brand, but cultivating and nurturing your brand requires a thoughtful process––and digging in. Let’s look at some best practices… from the ground up.

Everyone wants a healthy, resilient brand, but cultivating and nurturing your brand requires a thoughtful process—and digging in. 

Know your environment

The first step in gardening happens before you buy a single seed or sink your spade into a clump of soil: learn about the conditions you’ll be growing in. What are the temperature averages and extremes? How often will you get precipitation? What plants are native to your area? How much light and shade will your plants get? You can only grow what has a chance of thriving.

When it’s time to get to work on your brand—whether you’re starting from scratch or evolving one that’s already in place—take a close look at the conditions––the environment––in which you exist. What similar organizations or groups are competing for market- and mindshare? How do they tell their story through messaging, design, and their use of technology? What attributes do they own? What position? Who do they speak to?

To occupy an available, differentiated position in the landscape, start the process by learning about the landscape your brand will live in, inside and out.

No more than you can plant one shrub on top of another, develop your brand to occupy an available, differentiated position in the landscape; start that process by learning about the landscape your brand will live in, inside and out.

Prepare the soil

You can’t just toss a seed on hard-packed earth and expect it to grow. Successful gardeners spend time preparing their soil to be a receptive environment: removing rocks and debris; loosening packed areas; improving the soil with nutrients, and so on.

In the same way, effective brand-building requires that your organization be both ready to help your brand grow––and be an active participant to ensure it takes root and grows. But how do you get there?

Plan interviews or group discussions with your leadership, staff, and communicators to learn about their needs and wants. Find out how they see your organization, and how they see their own role in it—and how that picture might need to shift or expand to make you more successful. What do they want to grow? Remember to do much more listening than talking.

By including a broad cross-section of voices in the conversation from the start, you make your team feel valued, heard, and part of the brand-building process; they’re invested in, and receptive to, change and growth.

Know what you want your garden to look like

Your garden is going to be formal, or it’s going to be rustic. It’s going to be a riot of color, or its going to be subtly monochromatic. It might have a dominant theme. Your choices communicate.

Analogously, know what you want your brand to mean. What brand attributes need to be reinforced; which are aspirational and will take more work to bring to fruition? Which attributes, like garden pests, need to be managed away?

Internal conversations will help you sketch out part of the picture, but conversations with partners, clients, prospects, and industry experts will give you valuable insight into how you’re perceived from the outside; you’ll be able to see where internal conversations align with external needs and perceptions––or not.

Understanding from the start the meaning that you want associated with your brand is critical to developing messaging, and informs subsequent decisions around visual and technological expression.

Understanding from the start the meaning that you want associated with your brand is critical to developing messaging, and informs subsequent decisions around visual and technological expression.

Recognize your “threats”–and get proactive

Once you’ve chosen the plants that suit your environment––those that will realize your vision for your garden––and have prepared your soil and tucked seeds and sprouts in properly, your job is done, right? In a few months, you’ll be able to enjoy the (literal!) fruits of your labors.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of pests and predators waiting to munch your half-grown seeds, exhume your baby carrots, and nibble holes in your roots. Now’s the time to fix that hole in the fence, put up that scarecrow, yank out weeds that steal nutrients from your seedlings, put netting around your most fragile growers, and use natural repellents to keep bugs away. If you wait until damage is being done to deal with these threats, it could be too late.

“Renegade” communicators and die-hard traditionalists can be two of the biggest threats to establishing a new or evolved brand. The first group is sure that their needs are “special” and that a new corporate or institutional brand can’t serve their, or their constituents’ needs––so they want to chart their own path, big-picture branding goals be damned. The second group wants to cleave to the old look and feel because change is hard and the new is unfamiliar, which is to say, risky.

The best remedy for renegades is have, early on, included them in your investigation and formulation––and then to ensure that they’re kept abreast as the verbal and visual components of your brand are developed. When you’re near launch, these people need the tools and thinking to constructively execute the new brand––from documentation of the strategy, to an image library that reflects your new approach, to guidelines that detail how to use your mark, typography, color palette, imagery, and design moves to best effect––complete with prototypes, successful examples, and “don’ts.”

The traditionalists need all the above, as well, but they also need coaching––and they need to be brought along to understand that your new brand conventions will make their jobs a little easier and a little more efficient. Take the time to work with these people to show how your brand toolkit will work for them.

Make the best use of your bounty

When the time comes to harvest your garden, you’ll want to get the most value out of everything you’ve grown—and that means leaving nothing to waste.

More zucchini than you can fit in your crisper? Share it with a neighbor who doesn’t have a garden of their own. Tomatoes up to your eyeballs? Get out your Mason jars, and save them for another day. Endless amounts of flowers in bloom? Cut a bunch or five to take to the local hospital, and cheer up some patient rooms. The more you share, the more you’ll enjoy what you’ve created.

The goal is to use what you’ve got to the fullest—and to make an impact beyond the borders of your garden. In the same way, don’t waste the opportunity a new or refreshed brand provides to connect with your most important audiences—both internally and externally.

On the day you launch your new look and feel, place a box of just-printed business cards on each team member’s desk—and maybe a branded tchotchke, too. Reach out to your partners and clients to share the good news about your evolution. If you’re not currently in the midst of a collaboration, this will put you firmly back on their radar, and remind them you’re eager to work together again.

You could deliver an evocative communication to your constituents to introduce the new you––but make sure you’re focused on what you and your brand means for them. (Yes, your new branded communications look and sound better, but what counts is whether they’re more resonant with your constituents.)

How does your garden grow?

English poet, Alfred Austin, once said, “Show me your garden, and I shall tell you what you are.”

Ultimately, your brand should convey who you are, and are becoming––to different audiences, across different platforms, and over time. To achieve that kind of resonance, you need to develop it thoughtfully, intentionally, and with care… just as a successful gardener plans, plants, and nurtures a garden to get results that originally were only a vision.

By taking a close look at the landscape in which you operate, including the right people (internally and externally) in your brand-building conversations, developing messages and materials that reflect your meaning and promise, and using your new brand to reconnect with your constituents and energize your colleagues, you’ll achieve maximum return on your efforts. And your brand will flourish.