Beyond identity

Beyond identity

How to craft a complete brand story

Crafting an original brand is about much more than just designing a logo or choosing a typeface. It’s about understanding the soul and character of a business and communicating that to the world.

We’re always excited when we have the opportunity to craft a brand from the ground up, and our work with Maple & Ash was no exception. We worked in close collaboration with key stakeholders in order to understand, define and position a brand that would get all of Chicago talking.

1. Positioning the brand

Defining a brand is the most essential step in the process and it doesn’t happen overnight. Stakeholders need buy-in, writers need clarity, designers need inspiration. Everyone needs to be on the same page about what the brand is and what it stands for.

Positioning the brand

Brand character

We begin by discerning the key attributes that define a brand. It’s often helpful to imagine the brand as a person, place or experience. What are the adjectives that set this brand apart from others in the same industry?

Understanding the brand character to drive design for our Chicago client

Brand persona

What are the labels that will be used to define who this brand is and how they behave? We like to write clear and concise statements and place them into two columns. The “who we are” statements will lead into the “how we behave” statements. Clear connections between the two will help define guiding principles in the next stage.

Brand persona of who we are and how we behave

Guiding principles

Using an understanding of the brand’s character and the statements generated during brand persona brainstorming, guiding principles can be drafted. These are a few complete sentences that distill what the brand stands for and will guide everything the brand does.

Other data collected on guiding principles for steakhouse client

Brand story

Now it’s time to put it all together. What’s the elevator pitch? One succinct paragraph needs to convey something of the brand’s character, persona, guiding principles, and leave someone wanting to know more. The brand story should touch on the three essentials of positioning — product, place and people.

Maple and Ash Mission statement on white background

2. Creating mood boards

With the brand’s positioning statement buttoned up and key stakeholders having signed off, it’s time to begin assembling visual reference and defining the look and feel of the brand. There are usually a few key ingredients that go into the visual brand stew.

Creating mood boards

Inspirational Imagery

What are the images that feel like the brand and inspire everyone on the team? What makes stakeholders point in excitement and say “that’s it!” Now’s the time for a Pinterest-style board of all these nuggets of inspiration. The more diverse the collection, the better. Shots of people, clippings of typography, unusual close-ups, interior shots — they’re all good. But it’s important to limit the number and use only the ones that truly feel right.

Various images used for branding inspiration & design

Grabbing historical references

We sometimes find it helpful to ground ourselves in a particular movement from art or design history. The references can be subtle but will help lend a sophistication and cohesiveness to the designs. We often find ourselves inspired by designs of the past and ask “how can we modernize this?” Over the course of the branding process, Maple & Ash began to take on echoes of art deco, which we brought into many of our designs.

3. Identity creation

Armed with a brand persona and a collection of solid visual references, the identity creation process can finally begin. After brainstorming with key stakeholders, three or four key directions are identified. It’s helpful if these are as different from each other as possible. For Maple & Ash, our three primary concepts for exploration were 1. a purely typographic mark, 2. a mark that visually reflected wood and smoke, and 3. a brand that combined the “M” and “A” from the name.

Identity creation

Creating and iterating identity options

This phase is all about exploration. All ideas are thrown into the mix and eventually a limited number of solid options emerge. These options are then refined and presented to the team. After initial feedback is collected, the most well-received options are further refined. Sometimes, as in the case of Maple & Ash, one concept clearly stands out above the rest. Other times, there are a few solid contenders, which will all be considered. Eventually, a final decision must be made. One mark should stand out and more accurately represent the brand than all the others.

Three custom brand identity options for Maple and Ash

Extrapolating into collateral

The process doesn't end with the identity. This is only the beginning. The brand will need to live in a variety of forms and contexts and the identity needs to adapt to all of these. The mark will also need to be supplemented by other elements. In the case of Maple & Ash, this came in the form of a geometric pattern which was created from the shape of the M&A mark. Studio K, the interior design firm bringing the Maple & Ash location to life, loved the pattern so much that they decided to use it to create iron grating over the windows.

Example of how to use a logo on a pattern

Creating an original and exciting brand story can be a long and winding process, but it is always rewarding. It’s about about far more than the logo, which usually emerges only after significant work in positioning the brand has already taken place. And it never ends with the logo. This is merely the jumping off point for the ongoing life of the brand, as it goes on to engage and captivate.