Brands are all around us, although most people probably don’t consciously think about their impact. But the biggest brands all have instantly recognizable elements. Take Nike, for instance: That name is synonymous with their famous “swoosh,” which the company has used since 1971. Or, if you hear something about Tiffany’s, you’ll likely picture the particular blue shade of their boxes, a color they trademarked in 1998 so that no one else can use it. These are just two well-known examples of ways that branding links products to a company.
Why is this association so important? According to Media Producer Savannah Gillespie, it’s all about conveying a lot of information to the public in a short amount of time. “If you’re talking about the practice of branding in its most ideal form, then a brand is a set of elements used together to communicate an organization’s identity: what they believe in, what they are trying to accomplish, what sets them apart,” she says. “In theory, all visuals connected to an organization’s brand should be a manifestation of their values and intent. When developing a brand, in a way you are personifying a company and making it easier for their audience to connect with them. The language a brand uses is also a big part of that.” This is why Nike’s swoosh is often accompanied by their trademarked phrase, “Just Do It,” which evokes the spirit of what they’re trying to convey with their brand: committed and talented athletes, whether professional or amateur, who strive to do their best and who want gear that will help them perform.
It’s easy to see why a company selling a product would want powerful, clear branding: They want to be recognizable and to invoke customer loyalty. But branding is no less necessary for a learning experience. Whether it’s a nonprofit, university, or organization that is putting together a learning experience platform, they want it to be tied to their overall branding. Their learners need to recognize that a known entity has created and vetted the content, and that therefore they can trust the experience to deliver what it says it will. Savannah says, “It’s important that everyone working to create the learning experience is aligned on how new content will be infused with an organization’s brand identity. In some instances, clients may actually want to deviate from their core branding because they want to reach different audiences with their new online learning experience. In those instances, we work strategically to ensure that key elements of the parent brand still shine through while finding ways to tailor the new content so that it has a slightly different personality.”
Key Branding Considerations
When you’re creating a learning experience, rather than a tangible product, certain branding strategies require considerations beyond the branding methods that companies like Nike or Tiffany’s would use; after all, you’re not just looking to engage an audience but also aiming to educate them about a topic. Consistent, clear branding is still important, and it’s going to be used throughout the learning experience platform in more pervasive ways than simply a logo or tagline. In a learning experience platform branding is present in choices for elements including:
- Colors and shapes
- Icons and logos
- Wording and typography
- Style (e.g., abstract, realistic, cartoony, modern, etc.)
So it’s critical to keep the following in mind as you think through your project’s branding:
- Know who your learners are and how you want to reach them. This is the best way to pick a direction when you’re making choices about your content or the look of an element.
- Think about how much you can deviate from your parent branding. “Learning experiences are their own animal,” Savannah says, “so you want to make sure that form and function are going hand in hand. I recently helped a client whose institute is part of a larger organization but [that] provides its own offerings. Since they were piloting the use of [an] online learning experience for their organization, they wanted to give the program a distinctive style that represented their institute’s goals and identity while still maintaining points of connection with their parent organization’s branding.”
- Remember not to make choices based on personal preference. “Don’t get me wrong, I hate certain colors too,” says Savannah, “but I never eliminate them from my proposed designs just because of that. If a given color helps to communicate a message or evoke a desired reaction from a learner, then who cares about my personal preference?” This is where understanding your learner is important, but it’s also about knowing your brand’s identity overall.
- Be aware that some of your decisions may be constrained by platform requirements. Due to budget, time, or other factors, you may not be building your learning experience from scratch, and if you’re choosing and then modifying an off-the-shelf platform, you may have to make some choices based on what that platform allows. For example, maybe in your chosen platform, certain elements are always the same color. You can pick the color, but you can’t alter which elements will appear in that color.
What to Expect When Working with Extension Engine
Our learning experience designers and user experience designers are well versed in helping you get the most out of your brand. Whether you come in knowing everything about your brand and how you want to showcase it or you’d like some guidance, we can assist you. One way we do this is through style and tone workshops. These aren’t held for every project but are offered on an as-needed basis to work through the components listed above: colors, icons, wording, and style, among others.
“When developing a brand strategy for an online experience, one thing I always keep in mind is that clients — and people in general — have a very hard time talking about what they want,” Savannah says. “And they usually don’t know what they want until they’re looking at something and they’re able to say, ‘That’s not quite right,’ or ‘Yes, I really like that.’ So when we’re doing the style and tone workshops, what we’re really trying to do is pull out of [the client] the things that they may not think to say or the knee-jerk reactions that they have. Then we step back and look at them holistically to identify themes and patterns we can use as our starting place.”
Working on branding together can be a lengthy process, but there are ways to make it easier on yourself and your team, both at your organization and at Extension Engine:
- Have your brand and style guidelines ready. “Having your guidelines clearly and readily available saves a lot of time,” says Savannah. “Providing any accompanying assets is useful, too, so if you have a specific set of icons you want us to use or if you have rules around brand imagery, if you can pass those off right away, it means we can spend more time on actually developing content and helping you get further rather than waste budget on playing fetch.” This includes communicating about any changes you’d like to make to current branding so that everyone can start with those in mind. As Savannah says, “Giving content creators some parameters is very helpful, because then you know what you can’t do and where you have freedom to play and explore.”
- Know who on your team can make branding decisions. “The key is to figure out who’s going to be empowered to make decisions. How are you going to make sure that the branding choices that you make for this course are in line with any other branding choices you’ve made for other offerings?” Savannah explains. “[The client] needs to make sure that the right people are in the room and are part of the approval process. Client teams also need to have a unified understanding of what they’re trying to do and who they’re trying to reach.” Making this decision early in the process helps prevent spending time or money redoing work or sorting out contradictory opinions.
- Approach the design process with an open mind and a collaborative spirit. Savannah notes that at Extension Engine, hearing random design thoughts up front is always welcome because “we’re partnering with [the client]. We want to develop a dialogue with them and create an atmosphere where they also feel encouraged to experiment and play with ideas without fear of judgment. Cultivating this trust also allows us to get rapid feedback from clients and use their time and money as effectively as possible. If we know that a client has faith in our ability to create work that is really beautiful and fine-tuned, then we are going to feel more comfortable showing them something really rough and asking them to envision what we are trying to do and where we are headed so we can get their initial thoughts.”
With everything aligned, you can come up with a learning experience that matches your branding exactly or complements it in the right way to showcase who you are. You can put your stamp on it — so that it’s as recognizable to your learners as the Nike swoosh or Tiffany’s blue box, a visual reminder that they can trust you and the experience you’re delivering.