Presented by Brandpad: how to manage your portfolio of brands, with North, Matchstic and Gretel
Hello, and welcome back to The Finishing Line, presented in collaboration with the digital brand guidelines platform Brandpad. Over the course of six articles, we have been talking to the creative industry’s finest about what is often seen as one of the most challenging, fiddly, frustrating and complicated elements of brand design: getting it over the line. For our season finale, we’ve gone one step further, speaking with Atlanta-based creative agency Matchstic, Brooklyn-based design studio Gretel and London branding studio North about what happens once a project is finalised. Namely, how do you manage your portfolio of brands and, likewise, where is the client-creative line drawn?
“We think of brand management as being a shared responsibility with our clients,” Partner at North, Stephen Gilmore, tells us, “we aim to help ensure that appropriate tools and platforms are in place so that the management side of things is as painless as possible,” a practical sentiment shared by Matchstic. “Ultimately it’s our clients who manage their brands,” Design Director Brit Blankenship simply puts. “They’re doing the work day-in and day-out while we’re like special ops, coming in to partner with their teams at key moments,” she details, checking in and nurturing the brand’s lifecycle, depending specifically on Matchstic’s unique relationship with them.
Our first job is to build beautiful, hardworking brand tools.
“We have clients of all different shapes and sizes,” Blankenship recalls, “so sometimes there’s a large in-house team and sometimes there’s no creative staff at all,” meaning the client is more reliant on sustaining the identity IRL. “No matter where a particular team fits on either end of the spectrum,” she adds, “our first job is to build beautiful, hardworking brand tools with systems and usability in our minds from the outset,” ensuring they’re optimised for and understood by the correct audiences.
Likewise, Gretel’s Design Director, Dylan Mulvaney, details how the quality of the brand equates to the success of its maintenance, telling us, “at Gretel, we develop brands through a principles-led approach, adhering to flexible parameters rather than rigid rules,” creating powerful, practical building blocks designed to be endlessly reconfigured. “Each brand is like a restaurant,” Mulvaney suggests, “with a small set of ingredients that can create a wide variety of dishes,” meaning that the greater the ingredient set, the greater the restaurant’s lifecycle. “The result is a system that can fluidly adapt and create a consistent impression,” he adds, “without being repetitive or formulaic,” a feat accomplished through dedicated ‘pressure-testing.’ “Over weeks or even months, we design, iterate, and proliferate across a wide range of deliverables,” Mulvaney details, “targeting a range of audiences, adapting to new materials and mediums, and leaving room for the system to flex and grow.”
Each brand is like a restaurant.
“A disciplined approach to organising and storing brand assets is key,” Gilmore explains, utilising digital brand guideline platforms, like Brandpad, to achieve as much. “We are finding more and more that software asset libraries,” he notes, “are invaluable to ensure the most up-to-date assets are in use.” For Matchstic, this discipline starts from the ground up, beginning internally with consistently and systematically organised project labels and structured, iterative filing systems – all of which are easily accessible from their local server. “Externally, we take deliverable hand-offs very seriously,” Blankenship remarks, asking their client about the type of tools they use, as well as their in-house capabilities and capacities. “Lots of these questions come out when practically talking about what approach to brand guidelines would serve them best,” she continues, “other clients want a rule for everything, into the minutia of design,” she adds, “the culture of an organisation plays a huge role.”
Ultimately, this raises the necessity of questions and conversations between brands and studios. “The most important thing for us is to include brand management as part of the conversation from the outset of the design process,” Gilmore concludes, “that way, by the time the brand is ready to go live the internal structures and thinking are already in place to protect and maintain the brand.” Similarly, Blankenship notes, “whether we review ongoing work or not depends on the agreement and relationship at hand,” with some specific clients regularly returning to host “rich conversations” about how the brand guidelines might adapt over time. “Other clients only call back years later when they’ve had a big change,” she recalls, or are looking for something entirely new. “In this industry, when clients return,” she suggests, “it’s a very rewarding testament to our quality of work and strong relationships.”
Continuing our conversations with Blankenship, Mulvaney and Gilmore, we also welcome Gretel’s Associate Design Director, Andy Keating, where we discuss hand-offs, coping with brand evolution and building systems from scratch.
HB If you finish working with a client on their brand identity, how would the management of that brand differ if you were continuing to work with that client versus handing everything over to them?
BB If we’re going to continue partnering with a client, we structure a working relationship that is best suited for them and for us. We consider the right rhythms, communication or meeting style, how work will be reviewed, etc.
One realm of high-value work is key branded touchpoints, the high-visibility, high-impact pieces a brand needs: a website, a key print piece, a key recruitment application. This can vary for different industries. For a hospital brand, it was thinking through their emergency vehicles. For a place-making brand, it is often key signage. For a lifestyle sports company, it may be a line of apparel.
Another piece is consulting. Consulting can vary from a brand architecture refresh as a company grows, to hosting periodical workshops for in-house brand-builders, to playing more of a creative director role in quarterly work reviews of an in-house team.
There are plenty of other ways we support clients, but at Matchstic, we aren’t trying to be all things to all people. We know that we’re excellent at branding, and we don’t stray too far outside of that realm, so you won’t find us managing a client’s social media channels or doing media buys.
SG In all honesty, there would be little difference. Personnel and relationships change, so we always have to help put brand management systems in place which are robust enough to endure without our involvement.
HB Does there need to be consistency and coherence in how all of the different brands in your portfolio are managed?
BB As you’ve probably gathered, not at all!
SG Every project is different, so consistency in how we manage brands is not an intrinsic priority. However, we all learn from experience what works and what doesn’t, so certain processes, terminologies and platforms are consistent across our portfolio.
HB What measures do you take to ensure a brand handoff is successful?
AK As we prepare to handoff a project, it’s important to ensure the client clearly understands the design system and how to implement it successfully.
We begin with a thorough walkthrough of the brand guidelines, allowing us to discuss any of the client’s questions. We also offer guidance on using and maintaining the system’s tools and templates. This can range from demonstrating how to update content within a motion toolkit to sharing best practices for managing static assets.
Next, the client test drives the working assets, getting comfortable with the system by using it across their full range of departments and applications. This acts as a litmus test for the system’s user-friendliness, pinpointing any areas that might warrant additional clarification or refinement.
Finally, we arrange workshops with internal teams and external partners. These allow a more in-depth demonstration of the design system – showcasing its full potential. The workshops also allow us to discuss details within the system and answer any final questions that have emerged.
It’s important to ensure the client clearly understands the design system.
HB What measures do you take to not only maintain but continue to evolve the brands of ongoing clients within your portfolio?
BB I’ll answer this in two ways.
Our philosophy is to build brands that are radically relevant. We’ve got a fantastic book by our Founder & Creative Director, Blake Howard, that walks through a tool we created based on our 20 years of brand-building (and maintaining) experience. There are six criteria on how to evaluate your brand’s ‘Radical Relevance.’ It covers topics like governance and brand affinity. Our clients can use this tool to diagnose their brand, but also to chart how they’re able to move the needle over time.
At the core, the work we do is all about relationships. Our clients seem to genuinely enjoy the work we do together and often see great success (both measurable and intangible) from the outputs we create together. We often stay in communication with them and make sure they continue to feel supported and tap us when they need us, whether that’s ongoing or periodical.
SG We place a lot of value in our ongoing relationships with our clients. Most typically, our role in these situations is to help solve emerging branding challenges which arise as organisational needs evolve.
AK After handing off a new design system, we frequently receive requests for additional work. Follow-up projects range from launch campaigns or brand videos to new product identities or sub-brands.
These additional scopes are a great opportunity to showcase the brand's flexibility and intuitiveness. A design system's success lies in its ability to adapt and expand while balancing consistency and range.
HB How do you document and deliver a brand that’s meant to grow and evolve?
DM In a project’s final phase, our goal is to codify the brand into guidelines, tools, templates, and examples that internal teams and their external partners can use.
Great brand guidelines let an art director in Stockholm or a web designer in São Paulo build something on brand. How much to include is always a balancing act. Too little, and people don’t understand the system. Too much, and the guidelines risk being ignored.
Our guidelines tend toward principles over rules and inspiration over instruction. I think Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s idea about the power of inspiration is right. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
The first section of our guidelines captures strategy – the brand’s principles, positioning, purpose, and personality. The second section explains the verbal identity – the brand’s tone of voice, messaging, and how they modulate across different contexts. The third section lays out the visual identity – the brand elements, signature behaviour, and the principles that drive them. We also include a gallery that can be continuously updated with inspiring work across mediums.
Alongside the guidelines, we create the tools and templates needed to sustain the system.
How we deliver the guidelines, tools, templates, and examples depends on a client’s organisation and needs. Figma guidelines and a shared file directory work well for smaller clients, centralised locations, and infrequently updated systems. A digital brand hub works better for larger clients, a mix of locations, and more frequently updated systems. The brand hub we created for RISD is a recent example of the power of a one-stop shop for a brand, its partners, and even the public.
The rise of web platforms for creating brand hubs has lowered the barrier of entry. Delivering and maintaining striking and scalable brands is now more intuitive and accessible. This living resource makes it easier for brands to project their unique purpose and personality as they grow and evolve over the years to come.
Create the tools and templates needed to sustain the system.
HB Are there reusable or modular elements that you can use when building out a brand system or guidelines, or is every brand built from scratch?
BB Every brand identity is built on a thoughtful brand strategy. That brand strategy is our foundation for making a relevant, distinct visual identity that is true to the brand. So, in that sense, yes, every brand must be built from scratch.
Every branding exercise should also consider context and history as applicable. Is there already compelling brand equity? When and where there is equity, you’re seeking to build off of that foundation instead of scraping everything just to start from scratch.
In terms of the identity toolkit and guidelines, there are elements I’d argue are almost always required. For example, should guidelines consider reducibility and accessibility? Every time. That is, until the time when there’s a great reason it’s not needed. Rules are only helpful until there’s an intentional reason to break them or to not have them.
SG Naturally, we build upon the learnings from previous projects, and use common structures and processes across projects. However, we feel it would be a disservice to ourselves and the client to think about guidelines or brand systems in a modular or interchangeable way.
Brandpad is a brand identity cloud-based design software. From guidelines to rollout, Brandpad is stacked with features, making all brands easily manageable, with precision and control.