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How to Build a Brand for Humans

by Jeremy Nulik

When Ken Crabiel first walked into the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library, he was in awe of the Carnegie-style space. When you close your eyes and imagine a major municipal library, that is exactly what Carnegie-style means. The philanthropist covered our nation in proud column-structured libraries around the turn of the 20th century. They are dim (sometimes claustrophobic) cathedrals to the curating and worship of knowledge.
And now Ken and his design team at CannonDesign, a global architecture, engineering and design firm, were being asked to take this century-old concept and convert its built environment for a culture that is no longer anything like it was in Carnegie’s day.

So, precisely how could the design team create a new library experience that respects a heavy legacy while increasing its relevance for a culture that no longer values the entirety of that legacy?

At some point in the development of your idea or your organization, you’ve likely come to a crossroads like this. You have a sense that your brand (the manner in which your intentions are understood by your audiences) is no longer having the impact it once did — or perhaps it falls short. There is a temptation to dash the old concept and create something completely new, a coup d’brand.

However, you know that would remove any value from what exists. A clue for how to contend with this crossroads can come from the CannonDesign team:

1. Observe. The team began with deep observations. In what manner are people using the space? What do they avoid and why? They saw that what seemed to motivate patrons was a desire for choice in how knowledge is accessed. People wanted freedom in the way they uncovered new ideas.

2. Evaluate the goals. Based on the observations, they went digging a bit deeper with a number of audiences — including leadership. Then they were able to understand the deepest motivations of the existing space as it was in present day and check their assumptions about what they observed.

3. Serve the deepest human need. Preserving the spaces that were in alignment with the deepest need of internal and external audiences, they created new contemporary structures that converted the claustrophobic cathedral into something more akin to a knowledge garden. Their use of color, light and sensitivity to space conveyed the intention of the library: to offer freedom and access to new possibility.

Here’s what they didn’t do: They did not make a hipster library. Why? Because the deepest human need is not hip. It does not capitalize on the latest trends. By definition, a deep need is evergreen. It transcends the tangible. In the case of the library, it was more of a recalibration. Back at the turn of the century, humans had a desire for access to knowledge. Knowledge was understood as something with which status can be gained or meaning can be established. That need is still true now. While the methodology for how it is best accessed has shifted, it is the same need.

Your brand is an artifact. It is a set of clues to your audiences (internal culture and external marketplace) as to how you see the world. It ought to offer some understanding to those audiences about just how earnestly and how deeply you desire to serve a human need — something that will transcend any hype cycle.

If you feel your brand is not carrying this level of significance in the minds of your audiences, the same three steps CannonDesign used can apply to your business:

1. How are your audiences understanding your brand? You have some notions for certain. And you can also observe some key behaviors to give you clues.

2. Use your observations to check your assumptions. Are you able to create the experiences you would like?

3. Be vigilant in your design to serve human needs. What is the evergreen need that you can serve?

Jeremy Nulik (jeremy@bigwidesky.com) is evangelist prime at bigwidesky, a human business consultancy, in St. Louis, Mo.
Submitted 83 days ago
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