Choosing a branding firm can be a nightmare.
From free crowdsourced logo design, to $5-20 logos on Fiverr, to Craiglist designers who might do a logo and/or a website for a few hundred dollars all the way up to branding agencies who might quote you anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 and up, it's hard for people who can't quite tell the difference in the value of the work to determine why you might spend more money on one than the other.
So how do you decide? How much help do you really need? How do these various service providers differ in their offerings and how will that affect the outcome?
How much should you spend on your brand?
It all comes down to what different freelancers and agencies mean by “branding,” and what your ultimate business goal is with the branding project.
At Worstofall Design we believe branding encompasses 4 critical elements.
1: Your Brand Positioning
Who are you in the marketplace as you relate to the competition. Are you the sassy one? The expensive one? The luxury one? Straight and narrow? Buttoned up and professional? Do you focus on one demographic or psychographic? How do people know WHO you are for and why?
2: Your Brand Messaging and Voice
Then there is the messaging that communicates what you do and why you’re different, which includes all of the copy and messaging on your website and in your materials, including when you speak about your company. This should reflect your brand positioning.
3: Your Business Model & Structure
At Worstofall Design (unlike most branding companies) we are just as concerned with understanding how you deliver your service and on your brand promise as we are about how we're going to communicate it. This is because we can build the most badass brand in the world for you, but if the delivery doesn't match up with the promise, your business is going to tank. While we aren't necessarily hired to consult on your business, if we have to we will in order to make sure your brand is in line with your offerings and also to understand why you're the best in order to properly build a brand message that is accurate and bBadass.
4: Your Visual Brand
I know, visual brand is the last item on the list surprisingly! That's because it's wildly important but should also come after you've figured out all of the above first. Your visual brand aesthetically represents what you’re all about: the design of your logo, website, and materials, and should be a visual representation of your positioning, messaging and value. How can you design a brand if you don't know what those are?!
Now you can see that when a freelancer or firm offers “branding,” it may be referring to only one or two aspects above. To decide which one your business needs, you must take into account where you are in the evolution of your business, assess your current challenges and goals, and determine the best partner to address them. Even if the branding firm you hire doesn't actively consult on all of the above, if they aren't even asking about them to understand the whole picture and the goals, you can be sure you're hiring what we call "the hands" to make something look nice without making those decisions based on the goals of the business.
Visual Brand Designers
When a designer says they’ll design your brand, they usually mean your logo, website, and identity materials. It would be more accurate to say they are designing your visual brand. They often will want you to provide your own messaging and copy, and they will completely rely on you in terms of positioning and strategy.
So if you are going to hire a designer for a logo, you want to be confident that you know what you're talking about in terms of what makes your brand so badass and why, OR you'll want to have a brand strategist who knows what questions to ask on your team to manage the project. Otherwise, you'll be making brand design decisions based on person taste which might have the opposite affect on your business (just because you love violet doesn't mean it's the right color for your logo!)
But I recognize that when you are just starting out, you don’t have a lot to invest and might not even have enough information to give a brand strategist if you were to hire them. And since you need something to get your business out there, to start selling and testing your services in the market, just having something clean and professional is all you need at first. (Incedentally, in this case we actually think you can get away with doing it yourself, especially with steps to follow to get clarity on elements 1-3. Take our upcoming free training to learn more.)
Once you’ve had some experience with clients, a more strategic branding firm can craft that information into something that will take you to the next level. We don't work with startups at Worstofall Design because we know that until you've had some experience in the market with clients, it's not worth the investment to hire a professional to build a brand based on hypothesis alone.
You can find people who will do your entire brand on Craigslist/UpWork/Fiverr for $500 to $3,000, and it’s even possible to catch a great designer for even less if you get them at the right moment—like right out of school. But these are unicorns, not the norm, and you will always end up paying more in other ways. When my partner and designer, Steve, first left school, his management skills were nonexistent. Those that hired him got amazing work, but they were also working with a creative who was only interested in making nice looking design. It takes experience working with clients for a highly creative designer to manage all the other factors that must be taken into account. Without that experience and business savvy, you'll pay less cash for great design work but you'll likely pay more in terms of your time.
Also, don't forget that pure artistic designers are generally not thinking about messaging and business strategy. They may make something that looks great, even brilliant, but if your messaging is generic and your business strategy is weak, a gorgeous visual brand is not going to help you much in the long run, so make sure you come to these Badass designers with clarity on your Badass Brand first so you can fully take advantage of their talents.
Brand Message & Design
Luckily, plenty of agencies integrate design with messaging. You tell them what you your business is about and what you want to communicate, and they put it into words, and design an identity to match. If you’ve got a solid business strategy, a brand agency that does the messaging and the design is a great match.
This is the agency you hire if you have a clear business model, own a solid positioning in the market (for example, if you are the go-to interior designer for boutique hotels), and are already profitable and looking to take your company to the next level. If you have a great foundation, a branding agency that has marketing savvy can enhance your brand’s existing positioning in the market.
A small agency that does both can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 and up. I know, I know: this is quite a range. So what’s the difference? It’s not an exact science, and if there was a definitive way to slice up these numbers I would share it with you. Price doesn’t always equal value, but unicorns are rare. Usually the price is determined by the size of the agency, the experience of the principals, and the business savvy of the owners. The best thing to do is find an agency that you vibe with and that seems to have enthusiasm for your company and its work.
Business Strategy X's Messaging + Design
Finally, there are agencies that do all 3.
This is the agency you hire when you have a lot of revenue—and therefore a budget—but not a lot of profit. This agency can help you strategize how to better position your business in the market to increase profit, and then build a brand message and design based on that positioning to catapult your business to market domination.
Fewer of these agencies exist because they need to understand business strategy, marketing and communications strategy, design strategy, and how to integrate it all together.
Given that it takes different experience and knowledge to grow a tech/e-commerce business, a mid-size consulting firm, a small service business, or a thought leader brand, it’s best to look for a branding agency that has a focused clientele. They may focus by industry, by business size, by the clients’ target market, or by a variety of factors, but if they have a focus, they are able to learn nuances of their clients’ businesses and consult on the business itself.
I think it's ironic that many branding firms fail to focus their niche of target clients, which means they often aren’t able to offer this service. It’s a rare agency that is adept at developing strategy for businesses of all kinds.
Another reason branding agencies don’t touch business strategy is that strategists are often the bearers of bad news, and many agencies don’t want to take on that responsibility. Essentially, you may think your strategy is solid, but if your business is not profitable and is just breaking even (meaning everyone is getting paid but the owners are not taking home an additional profit share every quarter on top of their salary), your brand needs a more strategic positioning in the market, and a more solid sales and business strategy, as a foundation for the new messaging and design.
This can mean painful short-term pivots for the long-term health of the business. Without that, the shiny new brand may help you look nicer, but ultimately you’re not going to achieve the goal of having a highly profitable business. You might sign more clients, get more work, and need to hire more employees, but the profit at the end of the quarter or year stays the same and might even shrink.
Even when taking into account personal goals, social missions, and the like, making your ideal model highly profitable should be the end goal of any business.
Pricing for agencies that include business strategy range from $10,000 to $50,000 plus, but have no ceiling. A good way to identify these agencies is to look at their questions on your first call. Are they asking about your business and goals, or just what your wish list is? Are they asking about your biggest challenges? If they are, then they are making sure that your brand messaging is supported by a strategic and profitable business strategy.
Some of the biggest agencies do this and do it well, but the price tag usually starts at $30,000 just for the strategy, and when you throw in research, messaging, and visual design, the projects can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Smaller agencies usually don’t offer all three, given that committing to a certain size and niche business is difficult to stomach. But if you are looking for a branding firm and you struggle with profitability, I highly recommend asking agencies you are interviewing how much they need to understand the overall business in order to do their job well. If they say "yeah we don't really need to know that stuff to build you a beautiful brand" then they don't know what they don't know and I would pass if I were you.
We started Worstofall Design as a visual design firm, and over the years evolved into a messaging and design firm and ultimately into a business strategy, messaging, and design firm as we gained more and more insights into clients needs out of our own necessity. We realized in order to really to right by our clients, and to build them the brand they needed to succeed, we were going to have to understand the entire picture first. Otherwise, we were just taking their word for it that a new website was going to solve their problem, and if it didn't, they would think it was our website that didn't do the trick!
When we started asking more questions, we learned that almost every client had more going on than they initially shared, and by understanding that, we could actually help them craft a way more Badass message than they even thought was possible. Then we could design something that matched, and it made sense to all of us, my team and the client, why this brand was the best look and feel for the job.
We learned this while building our own business—that standing out in the market was critical to the success of a business. Without a unique message and brand voice, we could have the nicest design and still lose out to other agencies that made a better case. Once we implemented this into our business, we quickly realized this applied to our clients too, and without offering the brand strategy the client wasn’t going to hit their goal of getting more clients.
But as we continued to work with small businesses and saw patterns of the unprofitable businesses, our process evolved to address those as well. When we realized we were doing all three for clients out of necessity to help them achieve their ultimate goal of success, it helped us decide to focus on one- to three-person service businesses so we could offer all three. It’s a niche we know well—being one of them ourselves—and we have learned the ins and outs of all three elements of branding for this niche. We bring business strategy and positioning to all projects—regardless of whether our clients know they need it—because we know a message based on a weak positioning is going to fall on deaf ears.
While a beautiful brand may make people ooh and ahh over a pretty new website, if the clients don’t close and don’t create a profitable business, the brand didn’t accomplish the ultimate goal everyone ought to have.
To figure out whom to hire and what to spend, identify where you are in business, determine what your goals are, and then find an agency that is adept at helping you meet those goals.
If you need help, sign up and take our next free training below. See you there!