Business & Design: Branding

the 7 necessary steps for building a successful design brand

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Most of us in the design profession understand that, much like the architecture which supports the spaces we create, a successful business requires a carefully established philosophical underpinning.  I’ve spent nearly 27 years researching and implementing some of the basic concepts of successful branding.  Recently I’ve turned my focus toward the tools available through the internet.  Here’s a wrap of my thoughts, both the old-school and tech savvy, as they apply to a design centric business.

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1. Begin with a well crafted Mission Statement

A mission statement sets forth the raison d’être for your business venture.  It’s an overarching point of reference for both you and all the individuals or organizations you interact with.  It sets the tone for all that you do.  There’s an excellent article on Entrepreneur.com that gives a more in-depth expose on how to craft your mission statement, but I’ve boiled it down to 5 questions – the answers to which your mission statement needs to convey;

How do you describe what you do?   In one sentence describe what you do, and use words that are familiar to the audience that you intent to sell your product or service to.

What are your goals?   It’s important to plan for the future when creating your brand so it will stand the test of time. What are your plans for the future, and how does your brand fit into that picture?

What is your brand message?  When your audience thinks of your brand, what is the primary message you want it to convey? Is there a specific emotion you want them to feel when they see it?

What are you really selling?   Think carefully about what you’re really in the business of offering. Be as far-reaching as possible with as few words as you can.

What is your level of commitment?  Building, implementing, and maintaining a brand requires commitment. How committed are you to the brand you’re building?  Get the clear answer to these question, and close your mission statement with it.

Once you’ve successfully written your mission statement, you have a solid point of reference for any and all questions that come up in conducting day-to-day business;  an underpinning that not only you can reference, but that potential investors can look to for an understanding of what you and your venture stand for, and will attempt to accomplish.

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2. Write a compelling business plan.

These days, there are as many views of traditional business plans as there are entrepreneurial advisers.  Some say business plans are a waste of time, some say scribble it on a napkins and then get to work, while still others advocate for writing a lengthy expose.  For me, the difference between each is the amount of seed money you require to start your business ball rolling.  If you’re going to sell hand-made picture frames made at your crafting table you need less financial backing and scalability projections than if you’re setting up a 5000 square foot custom upholstery workroom (both of which I have done.)

I’m no expert, but I recommend 2 things when considering writing a business plan.  First, read both the ‘Harvard University Business Plan Overview, and ‘Business Plans for Dummies’You’ll think them wildly dichotomous, but they’re unique and excellent primers for familiarizing yourself with the concept, and will help you clearly understand the process. 

Second, contact your local city government for resources available to entrepreneurs in your area.  If you live in the NYC area, you’ve got an EXCELLENT resource through the Small Business Administration called SCORE (Senior Corps of Retired Executives).  You can make an appointment at either the Madison and 33rd Street or Wall Street locations to meet with a retired captain of industry to discuss your venture at no charge.  You can also arrange ongoing mentoring.  I’ve availed myself of the organization’s services often, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I’ve learned, including resources for pro bono or scaled legal services.  SCORE is also available in 347 other cities and towns.  Search for locations here.

I’ve also got a top-notch accountant in the Chelsea area that specializes in design business.  He’s hard-hitting, and plays 100% by the tax code, so if you’re more interested in sleeping soundly through tax season than cutting corners to save a few bucks that may come back to haunt you in the future., message me in the comments below, I’d be happy to pass his contact info along.

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3. Establish your company’s appearance

For most of us in the design industry what is of paramount important is visual – but few understand just how important the scope of what ‘visual’ really means.  Let me give you a candid example.  Several weeks ago I was researching a story for this blog.  I paid a visit to a certain showroom (to remain unnamed) on the 18th Floor of New York’s D&D Building that shares initials with the lead character of a Texas oil family prime-time drama.  Another hint, the actor that played the character in mention just passed away.  But I digress, let me make my point.  The woman at the front desk was rude to me when I introduced myself, and dismissed me by answering the ringing telephone while in mid-sentence with me.  I then introduced myself to one of the sales staff, explaining that I was researching a story that would include the showroom.  He curtly told me he that he didn’t have time to talk with me, and promptly walked away, his dog in toe.

The result of the experience?  My perception of that company has been severely damaged, and I’ll likely never include them here on the blog.

Now, some might argue that a lowly blogger isn’t important.  I’m here to tell anyone who’ll listen that EVERYONE is important in our economy.  Advertising is dead (which I’ll talk about later), companies now need to rely on word of mouth to extend their influence.  And if the members of your organization don’t leave EVERYONE with a good perception of your company, your balance sheet will have more in common with a porcelain bowl than with a bank vault.

Your logo, your stationary, the weight of your card stock, and your office decor may appear to you to be the only real considerations when it comes to your outward appearance.  You would be wrong.  In a visually driven industry such as interior design, EVERYTHING visual matters.  The way your staff dresses needs to be representative of your brand at all times.  The telephone demeanor at the office, the (super-clean) tote bags that assistants carry, and the glassware you serve water in during conference room meetings is all of paramount importance.  Pick a colored gros grain ribbon at Jamali Garden Supply, and a coordinating tissue paper and a logo printed paper sack from Uline to wrap every delivery to your Park Avenue client.  Better yet, spritz some Jo Malone on the calling card you send with the flamestitch memo samples for the beach house sofa.  It’s the DETAILS that people remember, and interior design is arguably all about details.

If you’re looking for more ideas for honing the perception your clients take away from your brand, study other brands that have made a lasting impression on you.  They’re great road maps.

And the last comment I’ll make on impressing potential and existing clients is simple yet key.  SEND A PARCHMENT/ENGRAVED THANK YOU NOTE FOR EVERYTHING.  It’s the singularly most important thing you can do to impress your concerns and wishes for a successful outcome to a client.  It’s definitely old school, but speaks of cultured breeding.  An email ‘thank you’ is a dreadful and lackluster way to show your appreciation.  As an interior design professional you want your clients to have confidence in your ability to discern the finest things in life.  A brief Gmail ‘thank you’ (or worse yet a Facebook message) may tell your client your tech savvy, but lacking in old world charm.  And finally, NEVER send a showroom labeled shopping bag to a client.  It becomes a calling card for their brand, not for yours.  Refer to the previous paragraph for how to create your own shopping bags.  You may be sending Old World Weaver fabrics, but the custom branded satchel you’ve created to put them in suggests that your firm gives them your seal of approval while promoting your brand.

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 4. Carefully and effectively assemble your team.

Each and every member of your team must understand what your brand represents, what it has to offer as a salable service or product, and how he or she fits into the commerce interaction.  You’re team members are in essence your Brand Ambassadors.

You must define your brand as more than a product or service, but as a total experience and as a set of tangible results.  That’s most effectively done when you think in terms of your customer’s perspective.  What is it that your team provides for your customer that gives them a ‘wow’ moment that they’re willing to share with others as brand evangelists.  Think in terms of meeting deadlines, arriving for appointments consistently 15 minutes early, being prepared to a fault at presentations, and anticipating questions for which you have carefully considered answers.

Not everyone excels at the same skill, which makes it an imperative task for any entrepreneur to learn team members skills not only by reviewing a CV, but through carefully asked questions in an interview.  If you yourself aren’t the best at managing schedules, endeavor to attract a team member who has that skill, and so forth.

If you take the time to make an honest appraisal of your own skills and weaknesses, you’ll arrive at a road map for the kinds of individuals you need to attract to meet the goals set forth in both your mission statement, and your business plan.  It’s also of the utmost importance to remember that teams need to be constantly in flux.  Businesses are ALWAYS CHANGING to meet the challenges of the moment and as such team members need to rise to the occasion and adapt.  Darwin’s theories regarding adaptation are as relevant to business today as they were to bird species in the 1850’s.  We need to adapt to current circumstances to survive.

I’ve mentioned ‘brand evangelists’ here, which I could go on to explain.  Instead, I suggest you read the first of 2 books I’m recommending in this post.  Seth Godin’s “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Usis the first.  It’s a clear, easy to follow guide to establishing brand ambassadors and brand evangelists.

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5. Identify your potential / ideal customers.

No business has a chance of surviving unless you identify, as specifically as possible, your potential idea customer.  It’s in that process that you begin to formulate the needs, wishes and problems that you will endeavor to meet or solve through your product or service.  It’s been my experience that you can’t be too exhaustive in establishing this customer profile, and it’s equally important to remember that the profile WILL CHANGE as you add and subtract information while learning more about your client base.

Here are some of the things (but by no way an exhaustive list) you need to discern about your clients base.

  1. What is their gender, and how does that affect the styling for your brand?
  2. What is their age, and what voice/message will connect with your audience?
  3. What generation are they in, and generation values they possess?
  4. What is the household income level? Is your customer middle class or wealthy, and how does there expendable income effect your research and development?
  5. Where do they live?  Is there anything specific that needs to be built into your product to make it geographically specific?
  6. What is your customers marital status?, do they have children or pets?
  7. Is your customer computer savvy, technologically advanced?
  8. What kind of social activities do they engage in?  Television, movies, theater, sports, etc.
  9. Where to they shop for food and apparel?
  10. Do they vacation regularly?
  11. Do they dine out regularly, and at what price point restaurants?
  12. What are the news outlets that they review to gather world information/current events?
  13. What career level are they at?
  14. What is the highest level of education they’ve achieved?
  15. What are their fears, frustrations, hopes, and dreams?
  16. What sort of events might cause them to search for a product or service that you offer?
  17. What are the products and services that your customer currently seeks out and purchases?
  18. What do you have in common with your potential customers, and can you work to establish common threads to better understand their needs/wishes?
  19. How can you establish interactions with your customers so that you can have honest assessments over time in the interest of improving your product or services?
  20. And probably most importantly, do they interact on social media outlets?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but serves as a springboard for developing your own list.  There will of course be more questions to be asked that are specific to the product or service you intend to offer.  Arriving at a potential customer dossier is critical at all stages of research and development.

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6. Build your company website.

On the subject of company websites much has been written, and as technology seems to change at the speed of light, it would be unfair to set down any hard and fast rules here.  For example, several years ago it was thought that adding ‘Flash’ capability (moving images) to your company website made it more dynamic and interesting to the viewer.  Now, it appears that flash enabled sited generally load slower, and as such the viewer ‘jumps’ from the site before it has been completely realized on the screen – translating into a lost opportunity.

There are other less technical reasons that a website might be considered ineffective.  I’m going to go out on a limb and give you one particularly egregious example.  There is a certain well-known and very well established interior designer who has a serviceable website, but upon clicking the ‘portfolio’ link, you are directed to call the office to ask permission to view the portfolio.  I’ve studied luxury marketing strategy, and this may seem at first glance to fall into that category, but ask yourself…. even if I am Mrs. Filthy Rich, and my assistant is researching a decorator, will this strategy lead anywhere?  Websites should facilitate time efficiency and information gathering, not challenge you to do more work.  On the other hand, I’ve got another designer friend whose website tells you a complete story, from his unabashed use of strong color to his ability to work in a myriad of stylistic genres.

Decide what information you want to convey to your perspective clients, and design your website around those tenents.  That’s what websites are for.  Early on I read a book that had been recommended to me on the reasoning (not the coding) behind building a successful website.  I highly recommend it.  I think it’s also very much worth mentioning that up until now in this post I haven’t advocated for hiring an expert to help you.  If you’re serious about establishing a branded website, here’s where you should get out your checkbook.  A good web designer who understands writing code is a requirement if your committed to a successful site.  I’ve found that establishing a budget, AND STICKING WITH IT, works.  You may have to implement your site in stages, but you’ll understand the objectives and costs along the way.

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7. Create a Social Media strategy.

On the subject of social media, I’ve got less to say didactically than I have suggestions for what to read and where to seek advise.  When I first began investigating social media marketing, a friend recommended a book that she said would change the way I look at the medium.  It did.  While there are many volumes that can help you understand the merits of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc, I believe that Michael Hyatt’s ‘Platform’ is perhaps the best I’ve read.  It’s informative while not overwhelming.  It can be taken piecemeal as you implement the strategies it purports, and it serves as an ongoing reference guide as you move through the process. (*NOTE; Mr. Hyatt is a fairly outspoken Christian, and makes reference to his beliefs throughout the book.  Please don’t send me negative commentary regarding this as I defend his right to believe what he chooses: and besides, his beliefs do not negate the validity of his research)

I could go on in detail here about what I learned from the book, but I’d be doing a disservice to the real scope of the information included in the volume.

I will offer a suggestion with regards to choosing the social media platform you endeavor to market in.  I have found that LinkedIn is the best platform for my social media interaction, as I intend my audience here on the blog to be almost exclusively design professionals.  If your product or service is geared toward a different demographic, then by all means identify that group and find the appropriate social media platform to interact with them on.

This has been a long-winded post, but I’ve hopefully given you some helpful information.  There are 3 more (I know, hold onto your seats) things you might appreciate knowing about.  Hootesuite is a software program that allows you to pre-program posts on FB, Twitter, and LinkedIn to go out over the course of the day, meaning you don’t need to be tethered to your laptop to make status updates.  Mailchimp is a free software program that allows you to prepare and schedule branded email marketing campaigns which I have found invaluable, and lastly there’s Evernote, a software program that keeps track of every activity, chore, and list you need to run your business.  It’s invaluable.

And my last thought, utilize YouTube at every turn.  There’s a tutorial on how to begin working with each and every program I’ve listed in this post., and as a visually oriented guy, watching a video that explains how to use a software application is infinitely easier that reading a text version.

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Is there something I’ve missed in this branding overview?  I encourage you to add your thoughts in the comment section below.  I believe in proceeding from a place of generosity, and hope you will join me in that endeavor!

29 thoughts on “Business & Design: Branding”

  1. Fabulous post! I am an established interior designer who recently added an online retail site to my interior design business. I have been advertising the online site for two years in interior design magazines, and do not feel as though I have reached my target audience. It has taken me some time, but I know realize that the way to reach customers is by advertising and hopefully receiving positive feedback on established interior design blogs. Our customers are now gaining their insights into the design world through these blogs, and we need to embrace this in order for our businesses to succeed. Blogs are the future of savvy interior design! Thank-you for your very informative piece.

  2. Very Informative piece! I can’t wait to get started. I am a newbie to the design business, but have been an artist for years. All of my clients are from word of mouth and I can attest to the personal touch really goes a long way to impress clients. i have used perfume on my cards and I hand paint my bags and packages. Customer service is a great place to move far ahead of your competition, it is just the right way to do things.

  3. Wonderfully informative post! I feel like I am always reading some sort of business, marketing, management-type article full of catch-phrases and buzz words that are hard to define at best. What is great about your post is how straight-forward it is and the very useful links you have provided to either more information or sites to actually do what you are describing! I’ll be book marking this post. And love your comment about advertising being dead, which I couldn’t agree with more (the “new school” opportunities are so much greater in scale and affordability) and the old school practice of hand written notes. Thank you for a great read!

    1. Freddy, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your compliments. I’m a ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ guy, and like to clear away anything superfluous. I’ll be following up this post with a bi-monthly ‘Business and Design’ story. I hope you’ll come back to visit again.

  4. Thank you for this great post ,I really thought this was one of the most informative posts I have read .I wish we had Score here in South Africa ,what a wonderful concept.I am so pleased I came across this at this time as I am setting up my own Interior design business ,and felt rather daunted by the whole process but this post made it possible for me to think in a new direction .Once again thank you .

    1. Norean, Thank you so much for your comments, I’m so flattered that you think the post has information that could be of value to folks outside the design industry!, and thank you for supporting the blog!

  5. This a great post – very thorough and I’m sure it’s being bookmarked (or better yet, saved in Evernote) by more than a few designers. I particularly enjoyed your comments on a business plan. Lots of startups avoid business plans out of fear or procrastination when it really makes all the future steps much easier.

    1. Thank you for your kind assessment James. Coming from such an enlightened,tech savvy entrepreneur as yourself, I’m really quite flattered!

  6. I really, REALLY loved this article. Your thoughts about making every interaction, package delivery and note card to a client be a wonderful experience are just spot on. I incorporate some of these concepts into my business already (nice reinforcement of what works for me too), but I am taking away some fabulous new suggestions from you that I can’t wait to try. As we are ALL continually looking for ways to streamline our business models and differentiate ourselves, your post really strikes some critical high notes. Thank you for sharing your expertise and passion. And Happy New Year!

    1. Lisa, It’s incredibly gratifying to get such positive feedback from design professionals like yourself. With the client pools dwindling in the wake of the recession we’ve all got to find ways to distinquish ourselves as the best our industry has to offer. And may I say both Happy New Year, and thank you for supporting my efforts here on the blog!

    1. Thanks for the thumbs-up Elyse!, my accountant is Phil Ambrosino of Ambrosino & Associates. He’s at 150 West 25th… do tell him I sent you!

  7. Great insights here, Carl. I’ve realized that social media and online efforts are really key these days. As our clients and customers get younger, their method of acquiring information must be addressed. If they want to learn something, they google it. If we don’t come up, then it’s a missed opportunity.

    I’m keeping this post close at hand to remind me of what I need to constantly think of in steering my business. And I just loved this …”Mrs. Filthy Rich….” 🙂

    1. Coming from such an accomplished writer as yourself, your compliments are incredibly important to me Carla! Thanks, and Happy New Year!

  8. Another great post, I don’t know how you do it Carl, but each new post is better than the last. They are full of valuable information.

    1. Thanks for the thumbs-up Mario. I’m working hard on keeping the blog informative, and very industry specific.
      I can’t tell you what it means to me that so many great professionals like yourself are behind my efforts!

  9. GREAT information Carl. I appreciate your thoroughness as I begin working with a company to update my current website, while beginning to plan a longer term complete change. So for me, very timely, and very helpful! Thanks again as always, and Happy New Year!

    1. And as always Irene, I appreciate your kind comments. It seemed an appropriate time of year to write this kind of post as we all re-evaluate our businesses.
      And as a side note, I wish you a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!

  10. It makes me wonder how we all did it 30 years ago! However, we don’t live in that time any longer and your insight and research may help some of us old dogs find a new lease on our business life. This struck cords and even hurt a bit at times (in a good way) but having been in business for 35 years, I realize the importance of all of this new advances and technologies. I will say I was slow in getting started but you have surely helped me find my way through all of this confusion. this is a great informative article and you should be proud of it.

    1. Thank you Carl. Remember, you’re not alone. We’re in this together, and you have much to teach me that I hope to be supremely open to learning.

  11. Wow… Great read… Loved reading it…. I read it twice just to make sure I didn’t miss a thing…. I’ll email this out to everyone I know… It’s a great informative piece…..

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