What is branding and why should I care?

Not only does brand consideration, thinking and strategy enter my company’s work with clients on a daily basis, we at my company is currently going through the process of a rebranding ourselves. While the process of brand development can be extraordinarily beneficial for companies and entrepreneurs, I realize that it remains mysterious to many. Because of this, I reached out to Arielle Walrath, Principal at the Portland branding firm Might + Main, to demystify what a “brand” actually is, why it is important, and when and how companies should start thinking about working on theirs. 


To start, can you tell me what Might + Main does? 

We define ourselves as a branding agency. We are not a marketing firm and we try to make that distinction pretty clearly. We don’t deal with market strategy or media buying. We’re really about crafting your brand’s personality and image and then giving you the tools you need to, if you want to, go and work with a marketing firm to figure out how to go about marketing appropriately.

Who is typically looking for a brand or for help with their strategy?

Generally it is a lot of new businesses or businesses that are in a place in their evolution where they realize it’s important to shape how they’re perceived, and to take control of the narrative about them that is out there. For them, it’s time to make their presentation reflect who they are in a more honest way.

Branding is about helping people find their foundation. So much of what we do is strategy, where we are looking at things like core characteristics and differentiators and tone of voice. We are looking at what makes you different from another organization that might on the surface seem the same. 

Why does that matter? In other words, why can’t I just decide what my company’s name is and how it is presented aesthetically?

Brands started as a way for consumers to know that the product they were getting really came from the company whose name was on the package or bottle. Over time it has really grown to be much more than about the product inside the package; it’s more about lifestyle and who you are as a consumer if you buy into that brand. That’s an emotional response. A lot of people who are great at putting out a product or providing a service might not be as good—or have experience in—using visual language to connect on an emotional level.

How do you distill a brand from a company, product, individual or whoever? What is the process like?

We work with a lot of small businesses. In those cases, the brand is an extension of the people. Even as companies and brands grow, there is a reason that the businesses exist. Getting at that and figuring out what it is that drives them is our goal. We do this through a lot of communication, a lot of discussion, a lot of testing things out, a lot of back and forth. This is just to get to where we feel we are speaking the same language. If a client feels they are modern, eclectic, hard working, what does that look like? Do we think that it looks like the same thing the client feels it looks like? Getting to that point where we can share language is such an important piece of the early part of our process. This way, by the time we are showing options for design, we are showing options that are appropriate, exciting, interesting, and that resonate with that common language.

I think an important differentiation to make, one that many might not realize, is that it isn’t like you go through this process for however long and then at the end you have this tidy package that is your brand. I mean, you do but there are also other realizations that happen along the way.

So much of what we do early on is just listen to the stakeholders. A lot of times, a client will know what they are but maybe they don’t know that they know it. We are good at pulling out the pieces that feel more coherent or cohesive and handing it back in a way where they can say, “Oh wow. I never could have formed these sentences in such a concise way, but this is who we are.” And I have heard people say that they end up using our strategic process for decision making outside of brand development. It turns into a good filter for figuring out “is what we are doing true to who we are?”

What are the elements that make up what you construct when you are developing a brand? It seems like there is a lot of conceptual work, but then also a lot of research and design elements.

A lot of people will come to us believing a brand to be the logo exclusively. They’ll come saying that they need a new brand, but what they need is a logo mark. So a lot of our work is communicating what we mean by brand. The logo is part of it but it’s really getting at what is that brand promise? What are you telling people you can offer them? And what are all the different ways you can deliver on that promise? The logo becomes a shorthand for that, but the logo in itself is not who or what you are.

We look at all of the touch-points and all of the different ways people are interacting with you. We end up touching on many of the visual design pieces of that, and think about not just what your brochure or business card looks like, but also how are you interacting with customers? How does your space feel? All together, this makes up a brand.

At what point in the lifecycle of a business should brand strategy and development be explored?

I think the earlier the better, but for many their budget needs to be spent other places first. At the very least, you should keep these elements in mind: Who out there is doing a good job conveying who they are? What does their stuff look like? What do you think looks good?

In terms of naming a business, you want to think about ownability. You want to think about what the negative connotations of the words you are using might be. What do those words mean to people? You want to do trademark research and find out if that name is available. All of this can be part of our process. We tend to see people who are at the phase where they either have a business plan put together, or they have some investment. Or they’ve been in business for a few years and built up a solid product and following and now they’re ready to take it to the next level.

What do you wish more people knew about branding?

I think that in Maine in particular, people have this fear of looking too slick and appearing too corporate. So many businesses here sell the Maine aesthetic and the ethos of being a Mainer. They fear that if they have a brand that looks too professional, it will look like they have too much money or like they sold out. There are these negative things they fear will appear to run counter to this frugal New Englander DIY image.

Right, even though “frugal New Englander DIY” has positive connotations but can also carry a bunch of baggage.

Right. We try to counter that in that we are not jumping onto trends. If what’s authentic, true and honest for your brand is DIY, we’ll do that, but we’ll also do it in a considered way that both conveys what you want it to while also avoiding that baggage. It’s not about jumping onto trends. It’s much, much bigger than that.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.