Co-Creation: Today’s Collaborative Approach to Brand Identity Design

Paul Rand, designer of some of the most iconic identities of the 20th century — AT&T, Westinghouse, and IBM, among many others — was equally famous for his very autocratic approach with clients, presenting them with single-option design ideas.

There were no exceptions, not even for clients like Steve Jobs. Recounting his personal experience in an interview, Steve Jobs talked about Paul Rand’s work on the logo for his company, NeXT.

“I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people.’”

While this approach might still be acceptable with certain types of clients, our experience tells us that those days are largely behind us in the world of B2B corporate identity. Expectations have changed. Interactions have changed. Leaders and marketing teams today want options. But even more than that, they want to play a greater role in the process.

 What is driving this new reality of co-creation?

The demographics of the modern CMO

Part of the answer may be generational. According to the career website, Zippia, the average age of a Chief Marketing Officer in the United States is 39 years old. The millennial generation is now running the show and calling the shots. And millennials have been marketed to their entire lives. They’re savvier and more informed than previous generations, having access to knowledge and resources that baby boomers and Gen-Xers could only dream of.

Additionally, countless studies have come to the same conclusion on what drives millennials. They want to make a difference, they want to partner, and they want to make connections. Therefore, co-creation is only natural.

Others may argue that this shift could be related to gender. According to a study by Spencer Stuart, women outnumbered men as CMOs for the first time in 2021. In 2022, 47% of Fortune 500 CMOs were women, up from 44% in 2021.

Successful marketers and leaders are empathetic. They have the ability to see things from the viewpoint of the customer and the employee. And the science is clear: On average, women tend to be more empathetic and sensitive to the thoughts and emotions of others. Brands aren’t remembered long term because of what they say, but because of how they make people feel. The breadth of touch points and interactions you can have with a brand today requires someone at the helm who has a deeper emotional intelligence. The greater likelihood for women to be the decision makers on brand identity may be connected with the shifting desire for teams to be more involved in the creative process.

The evolving needs of the visual brand

Demographics aside, the most likely reason for this new normal is the sheer scale of the modern visual brand’s impact and usage across today’s multitude of channels. With an increase in the ways a brand is utilized as a tool for communication and consistency of experience comes the increase in the variety of staff and teams needed to manage them.

The era of the generalist in branding is seeing a decline as specialist individuals and teams are brought on board to lead a variety of initiatives and disciplines. Teams focused on digital environments such as websites, social media platforms, and video integrations being one example. Another example emerges from what was traditionally human resources, now focused more than ever on community relations, DEI, and the usage of the employer brand to guide the recruiting process and increase retention.

Each of these teams looks to a brand’s visual identity as a critical resource to fuel their particular touchpoints and create a consistent “brand vibe” that adds value to the total experience. The visual identity therefore needs to offer enough relevance and depth to satisfy the specific use cases for each team. For this to become a reality, the needs of each team and the brand overall must be understood and factored into the design process. The best way to accomplish this is through the process of co-creation.

How can creative agencies adapt to best meet their clients’ evolving expectations?

“To design a successful brand identity for mass impact, it’s critical that business leaders and their design partners share an inspiring and deeply collaborative exchange. Collaboration is a powerful catalyst that makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary brand identity design with enduring outcomes.”

Michael Dula, Chief Creative Officer, BrandingBusiness

Co-creation is about finding ways to involve and empower clients throughout the branding process. Below are five work steps and milestones we’ve found that leads to more engaging client relationships and greater success for all parties involved. Whether you’re talking about logos or comprehensive visual identity systems, some or all may apply based on available time, budget, and the nature of the client relationship.

1. Getting to know the brand: Audit & Design Workshops

With an eye on the future, it’s important to first assess and analyze how the brand has been used historically and how it is being used today across the spectrum of touch points today. From collateral materials and tradeshow graphics to digital communications and technology platforms, a comprehensive view of the environments in which the brand must live is crucial for the design team’s understanding. BrandingBusiness developed and currently offers a Brand Audit Checklist that helps guide organizations with the collection of these assets. Clients have told us they find it valuable to go through this process of collection and review, as it often results in the unveiling of areas of inefficiencies and forces a cross-functional conversation about the brand’s future.

Alongside the collection of these branded materials comes the interaction with the teams that manage them. Sometimes consisting of multiple sessions with divisional, regional, or departmental teams, design workshops are critical to the process. First, they allow us to get better context into how and why the brand is used as it is today — reviewing examples from the brand audit together. They also allow us to have in-depth conversations about challenges, constraints, and desires that need to be addressed with the new identity. Finally, these discussions provide a platform for a greater variety of team members to voice their opinions. They get to be a part of the process, and that makes them much more likely to be champions and stewards of the new brand when it launches.

2. Confirming the details: The Creative Brief

While the preparation of a creative brief is certainly nothing new, it deserves to be on this list. It is largely an outcome of the audit and workshops discussed above, as those challenges, constraints, and desires previously mentioned are incorporated into the brief alongside the strategic considerations and positioning that shape the brand’s future trajectory.

What’s critical to remember here is the brief isn’t written and utilized in a vacuum. Walking through the details with the client and gathering feedback in a live and conversational session typically results in those one or two personal nuggets of information that are sure to lead to a better design outcome — one driven by the decision makers who will be responsible for its approval, integration, and ongoing success.

3. Empowering the team: Iterative Reviews

This is where things have really evolved over the past few years. Traditionally fueled by the creative brief mentioned above and leading directly to a presentation of final recommendations, today’s design process can, when appropriate, incorporate a series of iterative reviews or checkpoints along the way. It’s not uncommon to have sessions with some or all of the client teams from the workshops step, sharing thoughts, offering considerations, and gathering feedback. These kinds of iterative reviews can not only empower the client to help drive the creative process but they ultimately lead to a smoother review and approval process. It’s hard to argue against design that has been co-created as part of a collaborative journey.

4.  Providing options: Presenting Concept Pathways

One additional consideration that can be incorporated into the process is the presentation of different conceptual pathways to showcase ways to think and look at what can be. Similar, but not identical, to the iterative reviews mentioned above, it can often be beneficial for us, the consultants and creative designers, to more fully extrapolate identity system concepts versus reviewing system elements individually. For example, where in some cases it may make sense to review color palette recommendations as an iterative step before moving on to other elements, in other scenarios a client’s culture and decisional hierarchy may necessitate that we provide a more holistic picture of how the brand identity can play out — giving the client a look at entire systems as concepts so the vision can be more fully understood. From there, our clients can select a concept pathway that we can then take to completion.

5. Bringing the brand to life: The Brand Expression

No matter the path to get there, ultimately, we arrive at a comprehensive look at the visual identity system that we call the “Brand Expression.” Here clients get to see not only the individual elements that make up the system, but also how those elements combine, influence, and enhance each other to create a compelling and differentiating look and feel.

Client teams are involved in the final preparation of the Brand Expression in a crucial way. They help direct the selection of prototypical applications that will be used to demonstrate the system in action. The Brand Expression allows us to apply the brand to a variety of physical and digital prototypes that help the client envision how the brand being applied in real-life situations. These prototypes range from things as simple as business cards and PowerPoint templates to more complex applications such as internal workplace environments and website integrations. By working with our clients and giving them the opportunity to identify the right mix of prototypes, we give them a view of the brand that is more relevant to their world and provide a head start to design teams as the brand begins to be applied.

In summary, co-creation has introduced new opportunities to enhance the agency-client relationship and has brought about new ways to collaborate as part of the journey. We welcome it. Depending on the nature of the project and the makeup of the team, we aim to infuse as many of these collaborative touch points as possible into the process.

If you’ve been considering a rebrand or enhancement to your corporate visual identity, let’s talk about making this process work for you. We’re ready to co-create your future.