Branding Beyond the Logo

· March 6th

It’s Friday and the week has been long and busy. You’ve made plans to go out to a restaurant that everyone’s talking about, and you get there early out of fear of having to wait two plus hours for a seat, it’s one of those “we don’t take reservations” places. The restaurant is in an up-and-coming neighborhood where the rent is cheap enough to focus on the craft of food and cocktails without having to cater to tourists.

Walking up to the entrance of the restaurant you notice that they’ve had a brilliant sign painter make a trendy script logo on the window in gold leaf paint, it’s nearly perfect in it’s unwavering line work and beautiful strokes of each letterform. Right above the door is a simple crafted metal logotype in what appears to be the brand’s secondary typeface, just big enough to notice but not obnoxious. The front entrance is made from old reclaimed church doors, stained and lacquered a few times over and as you enter through them the first thing you notice after the intoxicating aroma of delicious food is the hostess. She is wearing a dead womans dress altered with a belt to be fashionable again. Her hairstyle is obviously a version of Uma Thurman in Pulp fiction, pitch black hair with sharp straight bangs contrasted by her deep red lipstick, the tattoos poking out of her sleeves suggest some significant ink work. She asks how many and offers up their evening’s craft cocktail as you wait for what will be at least an hour.

You start to look around, some really interesting art installations mixed with an eclectic collection of paintings and taxidermy. The dining room has reclaimed wood tables with metal hardware showing detail and craft, you say to yourself “This place is great.” The wait staff is wearing all the same simply branded aprons with diverse styles in clothing, hair, tattoos and accessories. The bartenders are all wearing a white shirt with a bow tie as they twirl, shake and pour with both hands. You can only see as far as the front dining room and bar area. The hostess calls for you and you follow her into a crammed seating area. You have a feeling of “we are in” as you are seated you can’t help but stare at the poor suckers still waiting to be seated, knowing their wait is just beginning. The hostess then places the menu in front you, it’s designed well, neatly placed contrasting justified letterpressed type with a healthy amount of negative space on all four sides. The cloth napkins have the restaurant identity embroidered on them. The glassware, utensils and plates are a mix of traditional and minimal handcrafted pieces.

The busboy is the first person to greet the table only to pour your first glass of water from an old hand blown blue glass bottle with a sealer top making that clinking sound against the glass everytime he tilts to pour. The soft lighting and subtle branding throughout the dining room almost make you forget that the cocktails are $15 and that the tapas style menu is $18 a plate which of course means you’ll leave slightly hungry. Your food is presented in manner only someone of the highest culinary status would be able to pull-off. “Everything is delicious,” you say. “The cocktails are going straight to my head,” says your lady.

Since you’ve had a few drinks and some water from that beautiful blue glass bottle, nature calls. Making your way to the bathroom you notice that the next room over from you is put together differently but just a beautifully. You get to the bathroom doors, spend a moment trying figure out the witty mens/womens labeling as not to walk into the wrong room, you open the door and it’s immaculate. Small white tile with dark grout, old mirrors with just the right amount of patina on it, old claw foot ceramic sink with amazing hardware, that great smelling citrus soap and lighting that would make any guy think he is looking better with age. You make your way back to the table, pay the bill and start to leave, but you can’t help but wanting to come back almost immediately, even though you dropped a good amount of money to wait an hour and a half for dinner.

Now I realize this all may sound a bit snobby, but that’s not the point. The point is that everything matters in branding whether you’re a restaurant, an artisan storefront or any experience where someone is interacting with your brand. The last thing you want is people associating your brand with a bad experience because of missed details. I’ve had experiences in branding where the client and I have seen eye to eye on what needed happen and how to achieve it and I’ve had other experiences where I knew after the first conversation that the client wasn’t going to take any creative direction from me on anything beyond the logo and some collateral design. Creating logos and identity systems is rewarding as a designer but the more you do the more you want to have a hand in the overall feel of the experience. After all, you end up spending a significant amount of time with the client’s brand and you become invested in how it’s all going to come together, so it makes sense to be a visual partner and not just a logo designer.

A little over a year ago I was approached with a rather blunt, non-descript email from an “entrepreneur” looking to start a coffee shop, a project that most designers would highly consider. So even though his email was not very informative and against my best judgement, I took a meeting in another coffee shop (ironic) to talk about his project. The coffee shop we were meeting in was designed very well and we talked about all the details, like the nice woodwork, minimal branding, beautiful mugs, inviting atmosphere and lack of wi-fi. We talked about how we might approach his coffee shop in a similar… but different way. I was excited because he was asking for someone to collaborate with on much more that just a logo.

Since his first email and some of his comments during the first meeting I gathered that he wouldn’t be a great decision maker or clear communicator. So I went back to the studio and fashioned a proposal for him with all the bells and whistle, twists and turns and hand holding I could foresee for his branding project. As I thought… there was a debate over the price, amount of time and my consultancy and by the time we were done, the project had been chopped down to a logo with some moodboards and simple executions of what the branding and space “could be”. Not what I wanted, but after our conversations and his “vision” I assumed he would be able to put something together that wouldn’t be god awful, after all he loved the coffee shop we first met in, so he must have good taste, right? So I left those details in his hands and started on the first round of logos and mood boards for how it could all come together on various printed materials and in environment.

After a few rounds of logos we were getting somewhere and I really loved the simplicity of the mark & logotype and since I was showing logos in context with other subtle things he could do to enhance the brand experience I was sure we were on the same page. So asked how the hunt for the shop space was going and decorating, etc. I was hoping that I had wowed him enough to find the budget to bring me in on some of those decisions on direction. “Very well” -he says. I told him I’d love to see what you are looking at and see if there is anyway I can help. “Definitely, I’ll send you some pictures of the space we are hoping to get,” he says. Now things are moving in the right direction, he’s happy with the logo, he will be using coffee beans not available in Chicago and he is closing on a space in the popular Wicker Park neighborhood.

After a couple days I get an email with some pictures of the space, which is not in Wicker Park (that place fell through). This was a patch no bigger than 200 square feet between a Noodles & Co. and a parking garage in a building with an unfortunate 80’s facade treatment right where one would imagine the signage hanging and oh, did I mention that there was no real store front just concrete with a glass door? It was also in an area up north in Chicago that has about 20 starbucks on the same street. Needless to say my optimism was completely crushed in one email and all hope was lost for this to be a well designed cool coffee shop with artisan coffee beans and caring baristas, even though I loved the logo. I emailed him back with an honest piece of feedback on the space as I felt it was completely wrong for this kind of venture, his response put the last nail on the branding coffin. “ I was thinking we would just have a window that people could walk up to and grab a cup of coffee, you know like an interesting take on a pop-up, with no real seating,” he says. Good lord! So I wrapped up my last bit of branding work and invoiced him for the work. Surprisingly I was paid in full, on time. Not surprising, I never heard from him again or saw his coffee shop come to fruition.

So how do we as designers deal with this? We know that there are massive benefits to working in close collaboration with a client on their branding. But they have to be willing to invest a portion of their start-up funds and trust in a partnership with a designer and it’s our job to speak up and be honest about the task at hand. Branding isn’t just a logo. Actually, the logo itself may not be the thing that most people remember. Different people will appreciate different things about your brand based on their interests. A designer may love the fact that everything is letterpressed and embroidered, a fashion designer may love how you let the staff express their own personal styles, a carpenter may love the reclaimed church doors, a food stylist may love the dinnerware and a OCD, detail obsessed, perfectionist may find comfort in in the dark grout between the perfectly spaced, one inch, square white tiles on the bathroom floor. It’s in everyone’s best interest to consider all the details when branding, and not stop at the logo itself.