How We Use Brand Concepts to Build Better Brands
One of my favorite shows is Project Runway, where fashion designers compete week after week to create their best work. Each week contains a unique challenge, which culminates in a critique session with expert judges. When the judges critique the designers, there's an uncanny commonality across almost every episode.
The designers with poorer showings are pressed to share the specific inspiration behind their work, and almost every time they falter — their concept is vague, or they might not even have one. The winning designers always have a distinct point of view, a rich idea that influences their work. It might be an idea they’re passionate about, a memory from their childhood, or a location that inspires their work. But no matter what, their viewpoint is distinct, and is directly tied to their challenge.
The branding process has a lot of similarities. We have a strong belief in brand concepts here at Focus Lab. They’re something that we bake into every brand project — an inspiration point that guides our work. Why? Because in a creative industry, whether it’s fashion or branding, resources and ideas abound … but they need focus. This is what brand concepts provide: strategic focus that sharpens our inspiration and beings to purposefully array the right resources and ideas that will breathe life into our brand.
What a brand concept is … and isn’t
At Focus Lab, we define a brand concept as a unifying idea or theme. It’s an abstract articulation of your brand’s essence, an overarching idea that engages and influences your audience. As a unifying theme, we define a singular concept to chart the course for a brand, though that is usually brought to life via several expressions (more on that later).
If you Google “brand concept” you’ll notice a landslide of business and marketing jargon. It may sound like a brand concept isn’t much different than a positioning statement or a value proposition. One example even says that fast-food giant Chipotle uses several brand concepts — yikes! Clearly there’s no central definition for “brand concept,” so let’s be clear on how we’re defining it, within our work at Focus Lab.
A brand concept is based on rationale and strategic thinking. It takes all the foundational work we complete in brand strategy and distills it into an easy-to-understand, abstract idea, which is evergreen. Examples of a brand concept could be “community” or “flow.” To quote the great Saul Bass, it's a way to “symbolize and summarize” the brand.
A conceptual theme is important for your visual and verbal identity. A theme is often a broad message about life, one that will resonate with your audience and help them understand and buy into your brand. A brand concept is a strategic underpinning of your brand, one that is rarely seen or heard by your audience but always present to guide and inspire.
A brand concept is a strategic underpinning of your brand, one that is rarely seen or heard by your audience but always present to guide and inspire.
How we develop and deploy brand concepts
Now that we’ve covered what brand concepts are, how do we create them? Brand concepts often come up organically through our brand strategy work — sometimes it’s a recurring term we hear a client utter with passion and conviction, other times it’s a smattering of similar ideas and emotions that we help clients condense into a theme. We aim for brand concepts to always be big, clear, and evergreen — an idea that feels rallying and inspiring to both our internal team and the client partner team.
After the brand strategy process, our Brand Designers use the brand concept to develop unique expressions informed by the concept. Expressions are articulations and manifestations of a concept, expressed visually. Expressions can be drawn or created. There are usually multiple expressions created for each brand concept.
If a concept is “community,” specific expressions could be “gathering place,” “knots,” and “holding hands.” For a concept like “flow,” expressions could look like rivers, contour drawings, and a flywheel. These expressions give rise to specific visual inspiration based on abstract expressions.
Why are brand concepts important?
Plenty of visual brand design happens without brand concepts. So, why do we find them to be so important?
In short, concepts provide focus. Having all the options in the world available to you might seem like an advantage, but it quickly becomes overwhelming. As we learn from Project Runway, the best creative work often grows from a clear concept and focus. Brand concepts set us, and our visual work for clients, up for success.
Once we have this focus, creativity can be channeled deep, sussing out all possibilities and paths within that concept. We have the ability to investigate every nook and cranny in that brand concept, truly developing work that is wide-ranging and detailed.
Outside of providing a venue for focused work, brand concepts also support the ability to tell a dynamic and compelling story. As our team develops a brand concept, a story naturally arises. If the brand concept is “community,” it could give way to a narrative around belonging and empowerment, which is woven into the visuals of the brand. By pairing a powerful narrative rooted in strategic thinking with a visual brand, it creates a one-two punch that’s undeniable — a compelling throughline that connects brand strategy to both visual and verbal storytelling.
Brand concepts are a powerful tool to connect your strategic brand work with a powerful visual identity. They thematically establish a brand that resonates with your end audience, and have a compelling story baked into them. On the design side, they create focus, so the work is stronger, deeper, and more detailed.
Brand concepts not only ensure your work is defensible, but that it will stand the test of time.