A Guide to Picking and Managing the Right Brand Agency
June 21, 2022
At Bonfire, we focus our investments mostly at the Seed stage when a company is just starting out. During that early phase, companies typically don’t have a formal brand identity, meaning their “brand” and “visual identity” is essentially a logo that a friend or recent graduate student designed (note: a logo is not a brand), and their messaging and website were likely developed by the company’s co-founders. This is perfectly fine early on when a company is still figuring out what it wants to be, but once you begin raising money and expanding your team, it’s usually time to reevaluate your look and feel to differentiate in the market and clarify what makes you the better choice. At this point, you will also have a clearer understanding of what your customers’ needs and expectations are, so you’ll naturally start to hone your messaging and visual identity to better resonate.
I like to use the term “brand evolution” to describe this process because a “rebrand” makes it sound like something needs to be fixed. At young startups, decisions are made fast and branding can be emotional. I have no doubt that (almost) everyone involved in the first iteration of the brand loved and signed-off on it and it served the company well. But as we know, companies evolve and grow, and branding is a big part of that.
Bonfire is lucky in that 85% of our investments raise follow-on capital, so our working relationship with some of our portfolio companies can span from the seed stage to series F, getting acquired or going public. With that, we see many of them go through a brand evolution or two during their lifecycle.
There are usually two parts to this process. First, undertake an audit and refresh of the company’s narrative and high-level messaging, and second, design a new visual identity that aligns with the updated messaging and realized direction. Typically, a seed stage company does not have an in-house brand and design team so a project like this will be outsourced to a third-party and overseen by the head of marketing or potentially even the CEO (in the event you do not yet have a marketing lead).
I’ve been in this seat many times and have worked with budgets ranging from $50K - $500K. Each time the process is a little different and I’ve collaborated with some extremely creative people. Given this experience and that Bonfire recently updated its brand, I thought I'd share a few tips, templates, and helpful questions to ask when engaging a brand agency and embarking on an updated brand evolution of your own.
1. Know your story before you begin...or at least have a plan for how you will define it.
Narrative is half the battle. Make sure you can clearly articulate your company's story and value proposition (why customers will give you their next $1) before embarking on a brand project. If this is something you feel you need outside help with, have a plan going into your project how you want to manage it. Your brand story needs to be on solid ground before you begin any design work, and around the time you raise money is a great opportunity to do an audit of company narrative and key messaging. If everyone is already aligned on narrative and you are providing it to an agency, then congratulations, you are two steps ahead!
If you work with Bonfire, we’ll help you with company narrative. Brett Queener, Managing Director and storyteller extraordinaire, has developed a very useful narrative workshop he’ll walk you through, where together, you will answer three important questions that will become the foundation for your company narrative: Why This? Why Us? Why Now? (An outline of this workshop can be found here. You’ll want to use this template to get started.) The key objective here is to ensure when prospects visit your website, receive a prospecting email, talk to a sales rep, etc., that they understand exactly what you do and are intrigued enough to engage with you in a purchase consideration.
Unless you have someone on your team who is extremely skilled in writing and storytelling, in my experience, using an outside resource when updating both internal and external brand copy is the best approach.
As the saying goes, “it’s hard to read the label from inside the bottle.” Sometimes you can be too close to something to see the white space and make a true impact, and that’s ok.
Larger (ahem, more expensive) agencies will usually have a senior copywriter on staff who can help with narrative, as well as mission, vision, values, positioning and even webcopy. Smaller agencies that focus mostly on design likely won’t have a copywriter (or a very good one) so you’ll have to outsource to a company like Creative Blue or a freelancer like Erika Ekiel at Storyboard to help.
Whoever ends up working on narrative, make sure they’ve done their research, have spoken to your key stakeholders, and fully understand your market and the short and long-term goals of your company. The number one thing I’ve seen hold up a brand project is team alignment on narrative. Your agency will want to be very familiar with your company narrative before they get started on design.
QUESTIONS TO ASK:
- Is company narrative and web copywriting included in the scope or do we need to provide that on our end?
- If the agency is going to manage it, can you share examples of past projects the copywriter has worked on?
- If we provide it on our end, do you have an outline for what you will need us to deliver and where it will live?
WHAT TO COME PREPARED WITH:
- Any and all past messaging including important decks, press releases, sales materials, marketing one-sheets, culture docs, etc. This will give the team a head start on how you currently speak about your company and what’s been used in the past.
- Outline of where you need the copy to go, i.e., internal vs external docs, brandbook, website, ads, social media, etc.
2. Use an RFP to save time, money and headache.
This might sound obvious, but before you reach out to a brand agency, make sure you have a clear understanding of exactly what you need from them and document that into a concise request for proposal (or RFP). Don’t assume everything you associate with a “brand evolution” is included in the agency's capabilities. One brand agency's Scope of Work (SOW) will differ from the next, and they can be confusing, even with an RFP that you gave to them. Think through all of the brand assets you need inside and outside of a brand book, website and advertising, and make sure you discuss that upfront as part of the project scope. More often than not, I've seen things come up during a project that was "assumed" to be in scope but wasn't, or where the SOW language was misleading.
For example, if you’re updating your website, will you need new team headshots or pictures of your office and culture? If so, who will be in charge of this photography direction and photo assets - you or the agency? If social media is a big part of your marketing strategy and you plan on doing a campaign once the new brand launches, will the agency develop and design those assets for you? In my experience, some will and some won’t. All of this needs to be discussed upfront while working out the project SOW, otherwise it adds time and money on the backend.
Here’s a shortlist of common things I’ve seen forgotten about that should be considered when creating an RFP: website animation, motion graphics, integrations, brand photography, social media direction, launch campaign ads, email templates and SEO.
Having an RFP is not only a great way to stay organized, it's a way to create interest in your project while clearly stating your goals. Also, not all creative agencies do all things, so your RFP will quickly allow an agency to see if their capabilities align with your needs.
QUESTIONS TO ASK:
- Are there extra costs involved if the new website requires animation?
- Our current website integrates with a jobs board and portal, are those integrations included in the scope?
- We have blog content that needs to be ported over. Who will manage that?
- Does anyone on your team specialize in SEO keywords and meta tags?
- What’s the best way to manage link redirects prior to launching?
- Instead of business cards, can you create email signatures or a new email template for us?
- Will the new site use stock photos or custom photography assets? How many of these assets will you provide within scope?
WHAT TO COME PREPARED WITH:
- A Request for Proposal and thorough list of everything you need to run your marketing with a new and improved brand. Here’s an example of the RFP Bonfire used for our latest brand evolution project and a Brand RFP Template for you to get a jump start on yours.
3. Appoint an "approval" team and keep it intimate.
Be very clear before you start your brand project who from your team will be the decision makers, and make sure everyone is onboard with that decision moving forward. Two very common challenges I’ve run into when going through a design update are when:
1) too many stakeholders are involved in providing design feedback
2) feedback is made based on preference and trends as opposed to data and research
Logo, name, font, colors, submark all make up your company’s brand identity. Things like layout styles, iconography, illustrations, photography assets and motion graphics create your visual identity. Together, these visual elements identify and distinguish your brand to your customers and make your company more ownable. This part of your brand evolution project is really fun and creative, but can also be tricky when it comes to decision making.
It’s a slippery slope when you start receiving design feedback from an extended network. What you don’t want are design decisions being made subjectively, which is oftentimes what happens when you include too many people.
You want your brand’s visual identity created based on research, what the market is telling you, and what your trained designer recommends. Listen to your designer when he/she tells you the design strategy behind creative decisions that were made, and make sure you share that information with your key stakeholders when you present the different rounds.
Once you’ve selected your agency, have a conversation with your internal team to decide who else should be included in the decision making process. Usually it’s the co-founders, CEO, head of marketing and head of product. Make sure this is well communicated to the rest of the team before starting.
QUESTION TO ASK:
- How would you like to receive feedback from us? Do you want it from all the stakeholders or a compiled list from just the project owner? (This is usually the preferred way.)
WHAT TO COME PREPARED WITH:
- Have a list of dates when your key stakeholders are unavailable for meetings (due to PTO, product launches, holidays) to make it easy for your agency to create a project timeline. A good agency will create a schedule or gantt chart of your entire project in advance so you can plan to be available for important meetings and decisions.
4. Tell your agency to create your design assets in a tool you can manage.
Designers use tools that most marketers don't have, so make sure you communicate upfront how you want your assets delivered for easy management on the backend. As head-of-marketing I find that brand agencies assume I’m an expert in Photoshop or Illustrator, and too often after a project ends, I find myself needing additional design support in order to edit a graphic they’ve given me.
Early stage startups usually outsource design which can be expensive and time consuming, so whenever possible I try to manage it myself...but I’m no designer. While you’re engaged with a brand agency, have them develop templates for you with your new beautiful brand assets in a format you can manage. If your team works in Google Slides instead of Powerpoint, or prefers Canva instead of Illustrator, make sure you tell your design agency this upfront so they can plan their deliverables accordingly. With a ton of user-friendly design tools these days, agencies are usually very accommodating with this request.
QUESTIONS TO ASK:
- What design tools will you use throughout the project?
- How will the assets be delivered once they are ready?
- What if we need to make a change to the brandbook or advertising creative after our project ends?
WHAT TO COME PREPARED WITH:
- A list of tools you and your team currently use to manage your brand and marketing.
Bottom line: a good brand = good business, but it’s your job to make sure you get the most out of your project from start to finish. A really good brand agency will address all of these things upfront, but if they don’t, use this guide and come extra prepared so your project stays on track, on budget, and makes all your stakeholders happy. Ping me if you want my list of preferred and vetted brand agencies for all budgets.