How to Choose the Right Branding Agency

If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you’ve invested your heart and soul into your venture. Your business is often the catalyst  for a larger purpose; an extension of who you are and what you believe in, and there’s so much on the line. While there are many facets to growing a business, one of the most critical is brand building.

There will come a time in your journey when you’re ready to develop a new brand or evolve your existing brand — and what you’ll quickly realize is that there are a range of options available. From freelancers on Dribbble and Behance, to small boutiques and large agencies, the choice is overwhelming. How do you know what to look for? How much should you invest? Who will be a trusted partner?

No one wants to invest thousands of dollars into work and a relationship that falls short. Finding the right branding and business partner—the diamond in the rough—is a challenge for any client.

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Your First Steps

When you begin the search, I recommend interviewing at least 3-5 firms and narrow it down to just two or three. You should have a good idea of your budget, goals and timeframe so you make sure you’re talking with people who can accomplish your objectives within your level of investment. Being upfront about budget range is beneficial for everyone involved. That way, no one wastes time if there isn’t a financially mutual fit. On the other hand, many clients don’t fully understand what they’re looking for until they speak to an expert who highlights their issues and needs. So if you need help determining what your budget should be for the work you need, be open-minded to conversations about money to understand what a realistic investment would look like.

Once you have a short list, consider the following questions to help you decide which is the right partner for you:

How do they court you?

You don’t know what you don’t know — and you have little opportunity to experience an agency’s dedication to service until you start working with their team. But, you need to make the most out of those subtle first interactions — first moments between you and a branding partner can be extremely revealing about the experience you’ll have as a client.

1. How do they interact with you before you become a client?
2. Are they timely in initial email exchanges?
3. In the first call to discuss your needs, do they listen and ask poignant questions?
4. How smoothly do the exchanges flow?
5. Do they reschedule or are they late? Keep getting the time zones mixed up?

Sometimes, there will be a natural chemistry. Other times, it will feel like two people set up on a blind date who realize they have nothing in common. Trust your gut. You and your branding partner need to be able to empathize deeply with each other. If you’re not compatible as people, it will show in the communication and work product.

Do they see what makes you unique?

Branding is all about differentiation, yet many design agencies have portfolios that are highly undifferentiated, where the work across clients all looks the same. The problem with this approach is that there is so much more to a brand than it’s look & feel. The resulting visual identity should express your company’s unique voice and solve your specific challenges, not just satisfy the firm’s own design sensibility or portfolio style. A big part of successful branding is the ability to problem solve with a fresh perspective.

Do they have well-rounded expertise and cross-channel brand implementation experience?

Branding is a process that stretches well beyond the creation of a new logo and color scheme. Your branding partner needs to be well-versed across channels and mediums, and able to ideate and implement across various touchpoints.

The seamless intersection of strategy and design can make or break your company’s brand. But just as importantly, once developed, how will the brand live in the real world? Some agencies are strong with strategy but not so well versed with design. Others excel with design but fall short with the strategy.

You want an agency that can deliver on both brand strategy and design at an equally high level that’s in line with your brand’s bigger picture.

Do they provide structure and guidance?

Some designers or agencies will do exactly what you say. But a strategic branding agency is willing and able to lead you. A great agency should be committed to make your business successful. They shouldn’t be afraid to step forward, speak up, and say “Here’s what needs to happen in order to build a successful brand.”

They’ll push you to get uncomfortable and vulnerable, to inspire greatness and achieve greatness. As a client, you may feel frustrated through the process, but that’s a good sign. Branding is hard soul-searching work.

Greatness is built by collaboratively working together to achieve success. Agencies that are client-led often result in poor outcomes. A great agency is built to lead the project, not just to stay on time, budget and scope, but more importantly to push you to a state that will make your brand more impactful.

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Can they articulate their process effectively?

Great agencies don’t focus on design deliverables first. They focus on the strategic path that will take you from where you are to where you want to be.

Many clients approach Motto with a need for a name, logo, packaging and website. We recognize that while these deliverables are a large facet of the engagement, there’s always a deeper business reason that’s motivating the project. We use a consultative approach to fully understand our client’s unique needs and gain agreement to those needs, before we demonstrate how their needs can be met through our process.

As a potential client, if you’re not heavily drilled to answer questions (some of which may strike you as irrelevant) on the reasons behind the branding initiative, then you probably won’t find the results you want with that agency. You should be probed to discuss your problems, pain points, fears, wants, hopes, and dreams.

It’s crucial to establish and stick to a process that is flexible but also aligns with your needs early on. Mismatched workflows are killer and could ultimately destroy the project altogether. How well you and the agency work through those challenges defines the strength of your relationship. Don’t look for a ‘yes’ agency —  look for a partner that will hold you accountable, keep you on track, and help you get to where you need to go.

Do they believe in you?

You’re entrusting your branding partner with a significant stake in your business. They have to believe in your company and most importantly, you as an entrepreneur. Running a business isn’t easy — and often, it’s hard to see what your brand will be beyond tomorrow.

A great branding partner will help you imagine your company’s growth trajectory — beyond what you’ve built to date.

Final thoughts: don’t let price guide you

There’s a saying in the design community — ‘the bitter taste of poor branding and design will long-linger after the sweetness of a low price is forgotten.’

Ultimately, you’re paying for the level of service. You can undoubtedly hire less experienced freelancers and designers who are willing to create a logo for under a $1k, but you can’t expect the care and dedication for that amount. It just won’t happen. They don’t get paid enough to work through the extensive process of strategy and most likely don’t have a process that is built to endure the highs and lows of brand building.

Branding agencies are pioneers in navigating frustration. They’ll always push you — to understand who you are, what you need, and what your vision is. They’ll work with you to articulate your messaging and position it in a way that unfolds through every aspect of your brand. The more time you spend to find the right partner and pay for the level of service and value they will provide, the more likely you’ll be happy and more successful in the long run.

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Sunny Bonnell

Described as a visionary thinker, Sunny Bonnell is co-founder at Motto. Sunny was named GDUSA’s Top 25 People to Watch and has been featured in AMEX, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Inc. and more.

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