How to Make Your Brand Look Smart(er)

In a recent article titled “You Really Look Smart,” the Wall Street Journal noted behaviors that people use to try and appear intelligent, compared to those traits that research shows actually makes one look smart.


Some of the interesting tidbits from the article include the fact that using a middle initial connotes higher intelligence, while using pretentious language (big words and complex sentence) or moving faster than others is off-putting and suggests a lower I.Q. Using clear language, on the other hand, and being responsive in conversations (nodding and gesturing) suggests to others that you are really knowledgeable.


How to Project Intelligence


While an interesting study in behavior and psychology, I began to wonder how some of these traits could be applied to branding; and what makes a company’s product, service, or organization appear more intelligent and “smart.” I would argue that there are three key characteristics that every brand should have: they should be simple, unique, and memorable.


Simplicity is the first key to projecting an intelligent brand image. People must know who you are, what you do, and why it matters to them. Key messaging must clearly convey the core benefits of the brand. To that end, does your product, service, or organization have a name or tagline that tells people what it does or sells? Is the name easy to read, understand, and speak (yes, this is coming from a brand and marketing firm whose name is Indicia)?


Uniqueness is what separates your brand. Is there enough differentiation between your product or service and competitors’? Highlight the key benefits of the brand, and how it stands apart from competitors, but don’t stress how “innovative” or “progressive” your solutions are. If using pretentious language or moving faster than others is harmful to people’s impressions of intelligence, then using big words or terminology that requires a Ph.D. to decipher will harm your brand’s perception. Be sure to talk with your customers, not down to them.


Memorability is what all brands should strive for. Memorable brands connect emotionally with customers and resonate with them, meaning that they respond to customer needs. These products, services and organizations are constantly asking for feedback, such as how they are doing, what they need to improve upon, and what other products or services customers desire. Much like being engaged and responsive in a conversation is a sign of intelligence, listening and acting upon the needs of customers makes your brand smart.


By: Ryan Hembree, Principal
Brand & Creative Strategy

Scouting for Good Brands

How following the Scout Motto can help benefit your brand.


I was never a Boy Scout growing up. Nor was I the “outdoorsy” type who loved exploring the wilderness, sleeping in bug-infested tents or cabins with small forest creatures lurking about, or starting fires without matches and tying all sorts of knots. In fact, my idea of “roughing it” would be to stay a night in a Motel 6.


Since my son has become involved in Cub Scouts, however, and I a Den Leader (not necessarily by choice), I have learned that there are a lot of valuable life lessons that can be learned. Many of these lessons can be applied to the business realm as well, particularly when it comes to building a brand image.


The Scout MottoTake the Scout Motto, for instance. Recited before every Pack or Den Meeting, it is a perfect example of a Mission Statement. And it can also easily be applied to successful businesses or brands. If you still have a hard time making the connection between Scouting and business, let’s dissect the motto line by line.



Every brand or business makes a promise to its customers, whether it is providing a product or service. That promise is to deliver a relevant brand experience based on quality, service, and emotion.



Passion is vital to your brand. If you don’t believe in the product or service you are providing, customers can tell, and will take their business somewhere else. Integrity is also important: do what you say, and say what you mean.



While the religious or nationalistic qualities of this statement could be the topic of much debate, I think that this statement applied to business simply means that you are called to serve a higher purpose, whether that is to your shareholders, employees, business partners, vendors, or customers.



The attitude toward big business today is very hostile, with the perception that all businesses are out simply to make huge profits at the expense of others. I would argue instead that most entrepreneurs go into business in order to fill a need or solve a problem they see within society. Not everyone is only profit or money driven. At the end of the day, brands and businesses seek to help benefit the common good by creating innovative products and services to make lives easier or more fulfilling.



Business and brands should strive for integrity by treating others with respect. In order to do so, they must follow the rules of society and follow cultural norms.


While scouting in general and the Boy Scouts in particular have had their share of image problems over the past several years, there are still important lessons that can be learned. The Scout Motto, applied to business and brands, is one of them.



By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Brand & Creative Strategy

Pink is the new…well, pink

Pantone Radiant Orchid


In case you haven’t noticed the explosion of pink in everything from fashion to appliances and electronics, get ready for an even “rosier” new year! The Pantone Color Institute, which is an organization that studies trends in color throughout the world, has named Radiant Orchid (to the layperson, “pink”) as the color of the year for 2014.

Pink clothing pink-makeup



Color trends typically reflect what is happening in the world at the time, and the overall mood of society in general. For example, during World War II, colors were drab and militaristic—Olive green, tans, navy blue, and grays were prevalent in fashion, furniture and accessories. In the psychedelic 60’s and the “cultural revolution,” bright, vivid colors such as orange, green, yellows and purples were the norm.


When recession and oil crises hit in the 1970’s, however, colors became more muted and earthy (browns, burnt orange, and gold). The 1980’s saw a return to bright and vibrant color spurred by a resurgent and blustering economy. Finally, during the Internet and dotcom bubbles of the late 90’s and early 2000s, a lot of brands used bright, vivid colors to project an optimistic view of the business climate.


Color Through the Decades


People once again are seeing the world through “rose-colored glasses”—literally. The general mood around the country (and world at large) is improving as the economy recovers, customers spend more money, and employers are hiring. So what does this mean for your brand? Should you change your corporate colors to Radiant Orchid (pink) or use it in all of your marketing collateral? Probably not.


It usually takes color a few years to make its way from fashion and electronics to the general consumer realm. And color trends to be cyclical, just like fashion. It is interesting to note that Radiant Orchid was also a prevalent color in the 80’s— which might also explain why “mom jeans,” fluorescent colors, big hair, and metal bands seem to be on the rebound lately!


By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Brand & Creative Strategy

Subject to [mis]interpretation: Why crowdsourcing your brand won’t work

It seems that everyone is “crowdsourcing” these days. Online polling, fundraising, and even news reporting are being achieved through the use of social media and the web. Anybody can post their thoughts, opinions, and ideas about anything and everything. The newest frontier in crowdsourcing is branding, by allowing anyone to use your brand in whatever way they see fit—but is this really a good idea?


KickStarter and Quirky are two popular crowd sourced brandsWhile crowdsourcing might be good for financing a new product or idea (think KickStarter), or gauging interest in a new invention (Quirky), it is questionable as to whether this technique is effective in branding. Some brands have been successfully doing this for years: Jones Soda Co. allows users to upload their own images and then uses them on actual bottle labels. In addition to uploading images, users can even customize and create their own soda’s flavor and label. The reason that crowdsourcing has worked in this example is because it corresponds to the personality of the brand and the people who drink it: they are unique, quirky, and individualistic.


Jones Soda Packaging


But is it possible for more mainstream brands, including those with a rich history, to crowd-source? Kansas City, Missouri recently unveiled a new logo that “anyone or business, with good intent, has permission to use … [because it] does not just belong to the government, it belongs to all of KC.” (Source: Kansas City Business Journal).


This approach to the city’s branding is going to be challenging, as there is no way, and no one, to ensure that the application of the new “KC” will be consistent. And, according to city officials, the new brand won’t replace the old ‘Fountain’ logo, but will be used instead on city publications, news releases, and a city government channel. Without consistency and proper management, or even guidelines for its use, the new KC logo could be distorted, altered, and used to promote disreputable enterprises and endeavors. It may even be more confusing for people since there are now two logos and brands to represent the city.


KC's City of Fountains logo compared to the new crowdsourced "KC"


Ironically, the old Kansas City, Mo. ‘fountain’ logo was originally conceived through a design contest (the “original” form of crowd-sourcing). Patrice Jobe of EAT Advertising & Design convinced city officials to close the contest and then developed the consistent, memorable mark that has persisted for over 20 years.


Crowdsourcing your brand is a lot like design by committee; everyone is happy to have an opinion but no one likes the result.Brands require consistency; with one person, or one agency or firm, who is responsible for creating positive customer perceptions. Good brands must have standards and guidelines that show appropriate uses of the logo, how and where it may be used, and within what color palettes. In other words, brands need constraints in order to be effective. Many companies have a “brand czar,” who ensures that the brand is used properly, and in applications that are positive reflections of the product, service, or organizations.


A brand is often the personality of a company or product’s founders, employees, or customers. Audience considerations, business objectives, and shareholder value all must be taken into account when developing a brand. Crowdsourcing often dilutes the perception of the brand—if everyone has the ability to communicate their own version of the company, product, or organization brand, then its story will lose meaning and relevance. In this case, the result is that nobody can tell what the company stands for. This is much like design by committee—in the end, everyone is happy to have their say, but no one likes the results!


By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Brand & Creative Strategy

The Importance of Infographics: Visualizing successful communications for your Brand.

Breaking through the clutter of mass communication is getting more and more challenging in this age of social media, with all of its YouTube videos, Facebook updates, and tweeting. People no longer want to read lengthy prose to be informed or educated—they want to be entertained, and given a “Cliff’s Notes” overview of the material being communicated. But how can you possibly differentiate your product or service in 140 characters or less, or through constant “likes” or “comments”? Is it possible to make sure that relevant information is getting through the clutter?


The SKC Solution

SKC Solutions graphic used in PowerPoint slides and as a print out.



Technology has allowed for the collection and storage of immense amounts of information about customers: profiles, preferences, and purchase histories that may be used to better target and market to them. While providing a spreadsheet with rows upon rows of data and numbers might make the case for your brand; that message will be lost because most people won’t take the time to read, let alone digest all of that information. It’s one thing to collect a lot of information, but if people don’t know what to do with it or can’t understand quickly what it means to them, what’s the point? A more compelling way to reach your audience is through the use of infographics.


Many might think of infographics (“information graphics”) as simply charts or graphs—something created in Microsoft Excel to show financial information. The truth of the matter is that infographics may contain a wealth of information and help simplify complex data into visuals that are quickly comprehended by the audience. Infographics help people understand and filter out the most important information—in other words, they can quickly make your brand’s communications relevant. Simply put, they tell a story.



Minard Infographic

Arguably the first commercial use of infographics, from 1869, diagrams the correlation between the number of troops, distance, and weather during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.


Lexington Plumbing Infographic on Water Heater Efficiency over time.

Indicia developed the infographic above for a promotional piece for Lexington Plumbing and Lochinvar to communicate the efficiency of water heaters over time, and associated operating costs.



Infographics and data visualization (new corporate buzzword, anyone?) don’t have to be static visuals, such as pie charts, graphs, diagrams, or color-coded maps. They can be animated into moving and interactive components for presentations, web sites, and onscreen display. Motion infographics allow you to communicate many different data points in short, compelling videos that people will actually watch and understand.


Newspapers and magazines have long used call-outs (bite-size pieces of content from an article, or a pulled quote from an interview) to engage readers. Much like well-written headlines that draw readers into a news story or article, infographics can do the same for your brand by allowing audiences to quickly, and visually, comprehend information that is valuable to them. If a picture is worth a thousand words, infographics can be worth hundreds, thousands, and even millions of data points and bits of information. To view samples of graphics Indicia has created for some of our clients, please scroll down.


By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Brand and Creative Strategy



Garney InfographicInfographics help communicate a lot of data about Garney Construction in a way that is meaningful for employee-owners and recruits.


Financial Infographics for The Economic Development Council of Kansas City, 2009.

Financial Data infographics for the Economic Development Council of Kansas City, 2009 Annual Report.



Color You Can Almost Taste (but you probably won’t want to.)

How Starbucks confuses the senses



In early July, Starbucks introduced newly repackaged organic boxed milk in its stores. The old Horizons brand with its leaping cow, has been replaced by a Starbucks design and branded container featuring bold colors, simple graphics, and the iconic green straw.


The new Starbucks milk containers side by side


The new Starbucks milk packaging is simple yet whimsical, with a flood of bold color and subtle pattern of farm-related symbols. A large, old-fashioned milk bottle appears on the front, with a green circle (a simplified Starbucks logo?) and a playful attempt at naming the product: “moo-gnificent chocolate” and “moo-mazing vanilla.” The brand story appears on the side in a hand-written typeface. Overall, the design of these packages is well done. The problem, and what is most disconcerting, is the choice of colors used goes against all conventional wisdom (and proven research) regarding brand packaging, making the product a lot less appealing, and appetizing, to buy.


The new milk cartons give off the wrong first impression.

A product’s packaging is often the first interaction that a customer will have with a retail brand. According to a study commissioned by MeadWestvaco (Packaging Matters: Packaging Satisfaction Study), “when it comes to making purchasing decisions, the average consumer ranks a product’s packaging almost as important as [the reputation of] the brand itself (ten percent versus 12 percent).” In the case of Starbucks’ organic milk packages, they don’t look like milk cartons—the bright orange makes it look like it’s orange juice, while the blue box is reminiscent of blueberry or raspberries.


Coke Polar Bear Cans

When Coke introduced their white Polar Bear cans for Christmas 2011 (read more about this), not only did customers have difficulty finding the product on store shelves, they also complained that it tasted more like Diet Coke (presumably because the can looked similar).

Packaging colors should correspond to flavor.

Flavorful Color diagram



Color has the power to affect how we perceive something to taste—which is why it is so important in food and beverage packaging. Common color and flavor associations have been completely disregarded by the Starbucks milk packs–the Vanilla-flavored milk should have used the baby blue carton; instead, the flood of orange makes it look more suitable for orange juice or Tang. And while Starbucks uses a lot of brown throughout its stores and brand, that color would have been much more appropriate for the chocolate milk carton. It is almost as if differentiation instead of communication was the goal of the color schemes.


So what can be learned from Starbucks’ fruity-looking milk cartons? First, no matter how beautiful a design is, if a package gives off the wrong impression about the brand or product, then it will not resonate with consumers (and possibly hurt sales). Secondly, color should be used for effectively communicating a product’s attributes, not simply as a means to differentiate. Only time will tell if Starbucks customers will find the new packages relevant (or appetizing).


By: Ryan Hembree, Principal  |  Brand & Creative Strategy


Bringing Clarity to your Brand will clearly help customer perception

Do people understand what your product or service really is or does, and why it matters? Does your brand compel customers to tell others about the product or service offering you provide? Is there a remarkable story behind it, one that lends itself to retelling through referrals?


“Your marketing materials and sales presentations must be designed to communicate your core message of differentiation with complete clarity,” says John Jantsch in The Referral Engine (Penguin Books, 2012). If not, then your brand is at risk of getting lost among the thousands of daily marketing and advertising messages customers receive from print, television, and online.


Brands must have clarity of purpose

In order to be relevant, your products or services must help customers make money, save time or money, or feel better about themselves. Sometimes customers have challenges or needs that are undefined, or that no other brand is fulfilling.


“Clarity is the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways, and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had…the ability to move others hinges less on problem solving than on problem finding,” says Daniel Pink in To Sell Is Human (Penguin Books, 2013). Apple has built their brand based on simplicity and usability, and by finding solutions to problems that customers didn’t know they had and creating products that people didn’t know they would want.


Apple iPhone, iPod and iPad.

The iPod, iPhone and iPad simplify the music, phone and tablet experience by focusing on usability.


Brands must have clarity of differentiation

Bringing clarity to your brand can be achieved through differentiation; it is often easier for customers to see the benefit of your product or service when compared with another, similar product, instead of seeing it in isolation. Many marketers try to highlight their value through side-by-side feature comparison charts, instead of touting their product or service benefits, and why those matter.


As information curators, it is the brand manager’s job to not overwhelm customers with too much information. According to Mies Van der Rohe, the famous Bauhaus architect, “less is more.” Research supports this notion, and has shown that offering customers too many choices actually leads to fewer sales, whereas fewer choices leads to greater probability that customers will buy your brand (from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, 2005).


Brands must have clarity of meaning

People love good stories. More than a good story, however, people love to share good stories, because it makes them look more knowledgeable, helpful, or like they are “in the know” about what is new and cool. Jonah Berger attributes this to the idea that “people are social animals, [and] love to share opinions and information with others” through gossip or stories (Contagious: Why Things Catch On, 2013).


Bring clarity to your brand by articulating a memorable, meaningful story about it. Make your product or service offering an integral part of the narrative so that people can’t repeat the story without mentioning it. Marketers have been using this trick for years when they strategically place products throughout television and movie sets.

Clarity in branding can be achieved through purpose, differentiation, and meaning.


When marketers bring clarity to their brand through purpose, differentiation, or meaning, they create positive perceptions of a brand in the mind of customers. This not only creates a compelling reason to buy a product or service, but gives them something to talk about and recommend to others.



By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Brand & Creative Strategy

We’re emotional about brands (and here’s why you should be too)

What motivates people to buy a product, service or offering? It turns out that effectively engaging with customers requires getting emotional about your brand and with your branding—literally. When feelings are at the core of marketing messages, they are more relevant to customers—and in turn, using emotions motivates them to believe in and buy your brand.


Only 7 percent of word of mouth happens onlineAccording to Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster, 2013), “focusing on feelings” allows brands to tap into customers’ emotions and make them care about your brand. Berger observes that when people care about something, they will talk about it with their friends, colleagues, and others; this ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing is one of the most effective and powerful forms of marketing.


Negativity can be just as powerful as Positivity when promoting your brand


Emotions That Motivate Customers

Effectively using emotions to market your product or service doesn’t need to incorporate visuals of people sitting around a campfire singing “kum bay ah” or messages that are overly optimistic or happy—studies have shown that both positive and negative emotions may be used to motivate people. In the diagram above, various emotions have been placed on a scale; the higher up on the scale, the more persuasive and motivating your messages will be. Fear, anger and shock are just as powerful as joy, passion, and awe when used to motivate people to act, whether it is to communicate important information, contribute to a cause, or buy your product.


Behavioral economists have made important observations into how certain emotions drive our buying decisions. For example, George Akerlof’s famous article* about products that are ‘lemons’ discovered that people are often fearful of purchasing something because they think that marketers are hiding information from them, or are simply out to take advantage of them. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s studies revealed that people have ‘loss aversion,’ and hate the idea of losing something more than they like the idea that they might gain something more valuable.


Pointing out the “pain points” that someone has while trying to complete a task or use a competing product can be just as powerful as espousing all of the benefits of your brand. This is not to say that you should be negative with your messaging all the time; on the contrary, positive emotions such as awe, passion and joy can build trust in your brand. The key is to use emotions that are active and aggressive, not passive messaging.



People average 2 hours per day online but more than 8 times as long offline engaged in other conversations.

The average American engages in sixteen word-of-mouth conversations a day where they say something positive or negative about a brand. By being emotional about our brands and branding, it is possible to help drive word of mouth marketing. “When we care, we share,” says Berger.




By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Creative Director



* Akerlof, George. “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism” published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1970.

How to Better Explain Your Brand

Companies that become so familiar with their product, service, or organization sometimes forget that the people who should care the most, their customers, might not fully understand the value the brand provides. Sales and marketing become such experts about their products and service offerings that they make the mistake of thinking that everyone knows as much as they do. This is what is referred to as the “curse of knowledge,” or knowing too much about your brand.


When companies take this expert knowledge about their product or service for granted by assuming that customers have the same level of knowledge (and by using words, messaging, and imagery that are hard to understand or no longer relevant), customers might become alienated from the brand. This can lead to lost interest, lost opportunities, and lost revenue.


What to do if your brand suffers from the "curse of knowledge"Instead of bombarding customers with a list of features and/or facts, successful companies explain the value they provide by telling customers a compelling story. Stories are not just about the “what” of the brand (what it does, what it is) or even the “how” (how it works, how it helps); rather, stories should explain the company’s understanding of the common problem customers have, and tell a narrative that provides the resolution. Framing the messaging, imagery, and wording within this context makes it is easier for people to understand, not only how your product, service or organization will benefit them, but more importantly, why they should care.


Brand stories should transcend culture, language, and international borders, while providing a consistent experience for customers. They convey ideas that the target audience can identify with, and use words they will understand and relate to. They should not be too complex, or too detailed, or too esoteric. They should not get lost in detailed descriptions of features, but instead focus on big picture ideas.


Brands stories should not get lost in translation.

According to Lee Lefever, author of The Art of Explanation, facts can give your brand’s story substance, but it is stories that give those facts meaning. Lefever continues, “Explanations that make people care also have another benefit: people who care about an idea [or brand] are often more motivated to learn more.”


We have observed companies that are the best in their business, having the best solution for customer needs; however, their message is not getting through to the target audience—even with brochures packed with benefits and features, and a web site that contains enough content to produce a technical manual or novel. While they may suffer from the “curse of knowledge” about their brand, simply finding better ways to explain the value they provide will help them connect more with customers. And getting those customers to care about the brand is the first step of any sale.


By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Brand & Creative Strategy

Strategies for spring-boarding your new initiative

strategiesSpring is a time of renewal, when the cold chill of winter finally subsides and the landscape outside begins to blossom. It brings about the hope of new life, and that perhaps maybe—just maybe—this year the Royals might have a chance at winning a pennant. Spring also happens to be the time of year when many of our clients launch new sales initiatives, whether introducing a new product or service, or simply looking to enhance their brand.


Like the seasons, some of the thinking about marketing tactics used for promoting products and services have come full circle. For example, before the proliferation of email marketing, customers used to be bombarded with direct mail postcards and offers in their mailbox; only now those same “junk” messages are ending up in inboxes, where they are quickly ignored and deleted.


Generate buzz and excitement.
Customers like to feel special and unique. Choosing a select group of target customers and offering them a limited trial of your product or service at a reduced rate, or for free, can help generate buzz and excitement for the brand. People who receive “free” stuff usually will tell their friends, either by word-of-mouth, or online through blogs and social media.


While I would normally advise against the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter for corporate clients (B2B), they can be effective when used to promote B2C brands such as consumer packaged goods or retail products. Identifying the loyal fans whom will sing your praises to their entire network of friends and followers (Seth Godin refers to them as “brand advocates;” Malcolm Gladwell calls them “connectors”), and targeting a message that is relevant to their needs, can help increase sales and brand awareness.


Get the word out.
Creating a new web site “landing” page, posting a new article on the site blog, or updating your company’s portfolio to build brand awareness is not enough. Unlike in the movie “Field of Dreams” with Kevin Costner, the idea that “If you build it, they will come” does not apply to online marketing strategy—emails and “eBlasts” have become so ubiquitous that most customers simply ignore and delete them before opening and reading them.


A more effective way to get someone’s attention is to develop a highly targeted direct mail campaign consisting of uniquely sized, shaped, or constructed print collateral. Being selective about who you will send these print pieces to is important—instead of buying a generic mailing list with thousands of names and addresses (a shotgun approach to marketing), select a specific target audience who are most likely to not only buy, but who will care about your brand. A few hundred key decision makers—receiving a few highly relevant messages that address their pain points—are more likely to call, email, or visit your company’s website.


Generate Goodwill and Public Interest.
Ultimately the success of your new product or service offering will depend on the perceptions you create for the brand. Making customers feel valued and important helps generate these positive perceptions.


Developing case studies to create associations between the audience and the brand, so they can see themselves using the product or service in a similar situation, generates interest. One way to do this is to feature reviews from some of your current or best customers, and have them provide a testimonial or story about the quality of the brand. Including these case studies in printed collateral such as newsletters, sales sheets within sales kits, and on the web and within eNewsletters make your brand more believable and relevant to prospective customers.


Issuing press releases to local media outlets about how the brand can solve common problems or change people’s lives, can generate interest in your product or service. These short, one-page releases (the most successful are human-interest ones) can also be posted online at web sites that generate news feeds for all different kinds of media.


As your company prepares to launch its new product or service, these are some of the tactics that can help kick start the new initiative. Printed collateral not only complements an online strategy, it is essential to and enhances the effectiveness of it. When used as a part of an overall marketing strategy, relevant and targeted communications that generate excitement about the brand, get the word out to those who care, and generate goodwill among them can help “spring”-board your company’s new idea or product.


By: Ryan Hembree, Principal, Brand & Creative Strategy