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How To Build The Brand Identity Of Your Training Or E-Learning Business.

This training company's homepage takes six … excruciating … minutes … to … resolve … revealing … a twirling, back-lit logo!

Another firm camouflages its communications efforts in deep magenta mice type against a pitch-black background.

Still another firm disguises its messages as visual metaphors of falling leaves.

Narcissistic logo worship, blurred images, cryptic metaphors, content obfuscation - what gives? Are the executives who own and manage these training companies smoking something?

Perhaps. More likely they have fallen under the spell of a so-called "branding expert" who assured them that a costly corporate identity program would transform their company into an industry powerhouse.

Corporate identity and branding "experts" point to companies like IBM, Kodak, Microsoft, GE and Disney as evidence that smart branding can really put a company on the map. Unfortunately, they confuse cause and effect. These legendary franchises were successful long before some graphic arts guru did a facelift on their logo. They earned their reputation through sustained market performance.

Does anybody out there really think Michael Jordan would have any "brand appeal" if he hadn't scored 30 points a game year in, year out.

In the training business, like the basketball business, your brand identity begins with how well you put the ball in the hoop. It's about performance -- not puffery. So in crafting your communications with customers, concentrate 90% of your energies on clearly articulating:

  • what problems you help customers solve
  • what makes you unique and better
  • who besides you thinks so
  • what is your proof of performance

Ok, so brand identity is 90% about performance and pleasing customers. Now let's talk about the other 10%. How can you create a classy and consistent look and feel across all of your customer communications that sets off your unique identity and doesn't blow your budget.

A. Choosing A Corporate Identity Resource

Consider using a smaller firm, or a talented free lancer.

Larger firms tend to develop a "house look." So the logo you spent $20,000 for winds up looking like a poor cousin of an established brand. Also, a larger firm is more likely to relegate you to working with a junior staff member fresh out of art school.

Don't hire a corporate identity resource that doesn't "talk business." Ask them to explain the business rationale behind the work that they've done for others. Inquire about what they will need to know about you before they begin. If they don't ask insightful questions fundamental to the business issues you are facing, then don't trust them to be any more than mechanics.

B. Your Name

If you already have a name, be wary about changing it, even if it no longer precisely describes what you do.

International Business Machines, American Express and General Electric have far outstripped their names in terms of what they have to offer. But only a fool would think of changing them. Their corporate reputation transcends the sum of the words that makes up their name -- and, quite possibly, yours does too. On the other hand, if your name no longer fits and calls up bitter memories of past disappointments, then, by all means change it.

If you're starting from scratch, try and choose a name that describes the value you offer customers. Do think into the future, lest your expanding capabilities render your name too narrowly focused. And don't choose a name that describes HOW you deliver this value -- lest new delivery technologies render your name obsolete (e.g. all the training firms that used to have "CBT" as part of their name).

Avoid naming trends. BetterLearning.com may sound sexy today -- but very dated tomorrow.

Beware of choosing a company name with several words -- lest you be reduced to a meaningless string of initials (a real problem, unless you happen to be IBM). Better Learning Technologies = BLT. Would you like mayonnaise on that? On the other hand, it's ok to try and make up a name by combining two or more words into one.

C. Your Logo

Don't feel you need a graphic symbol as part of your logo -- a spinning ellipse, distended globe, flying wedge or whatever other shape is currently in vogue.

It's just one more thing for people to remember -- or, more likely, forget. Graphic symbol logos are a leftover from the days when butchers hung out a picture of a side of beef, since most of their customers weren't able to read.

Better to consider a stylish rendering of your company name -- but not so stylish that the letters aren't readily identifiable.

If your name does a good job of describing the value you offer your customers, then you won't need a tag line beneath your logo. If you do decide a tag line is a helpful part of your identity, then go ahead. Just don't require it on everything.

Be sure your logo looks well dressed on every occasion. Does it work on your Website? Does it hold together if it's faxed or copied? Can it be easily reproduced on baseball caps and promotion giveaways? Does it look ok shrunk down to business card size? Does it look just as nifty in black and white as in full living color?

D. Your Style

Be sure your corporate style requirements speak to a business audience and support your performance claims.

Leave the bizarre typefaces, boudoir colors and art deco layouts to the cosmetics and high fashion companies.

Think transparent. You want the style of your communications to showcase your message content -- not compete with it. So lay out your business cards in a landscape format -- not portrait. Don't run your logo in 256-point type vertically up the right hand margin of your letterhead. Don't require attention-getting fonts or layout schemes.

Think legible. Don't specify dark background colors with light type. Even if you choose a sans serif typeface as part of your core style, be sure to specify a serif face alternative to improve legibility on long stretches of copy.

Don't apply your corporate communications standards to everything. One training company we know decided to require that all corporate word processors be set to a Century Schoolbook font (instead of the traditional Times Roman). This defeated any attempt to make their promotional direct mail look like personal correspondence.

In designing your Website template, remember that fancy graphics and motion effects will be a turnoff to folks who have to wait for them to download. What's more they will defeat your efforts to have your site be served in the top 10 results from the search engines. Smart companies are moving away from the Hollywood look in favor of text-rich content that helps visitors find the information they need fast.

Bloated Website graphics are a particular problem with training companies who build high production value into their course offerings and want to "strut their stuff." Don't fall for this trap. Your Website is there to inform, not amaze. If you must serve up high bandwidth pages that demonstrate the production values in your course offerings, put them on interior pages and spell out the download time required.

Do publish a "style guide" specifying how your logo and other corporate identity components should be used in various settings. Include an explanation of the purpose of each specification so folks will be more motivated to abide by them. Avoid the Nazi-like imperatives that "police state" corporate identity types like to impose. Circulate the guide before you publish it -- to be sure that you haven't caused hardship to one department or another. Set up an exceptions process with a reasonable person as czar.

E. Your Budget

There's a reason why so many company logos are in blue. That's so when you produce a direct mail campaign you only need to use two colors, black for the text and blue for the logo and the signature. So think twice if you aspire to a multi-color logo -- or a one-color logo in any color other than blue.

If you want to provide a different emphasis for your tag line or your company address, why not simply specify a half tone (or shade) of black or blue. This way you can have 2 colors for the price of 1.

Don't require super expensive stock for your office stationary or promotion materials. Remember, your "image" is 90% about performance. A sound design template should take care of the remaining 10%. We have never seen expensive paper stock improve response to a company's promotion.

In sum, a superior corporate identity program should save more money than it costs.

This is a test:

Sales of your training offerings are down, and your financial outlook stinks. Your course offerings are getting long in the tooth, and a new competitor is eating your lunch. Your key people are demoralized and jumping ship. What do you do?

A. Fork over a small fortune to a prestigious corporate identity firm to overhaul your brand image. Try and disguise your poor fundamentals with elaborate graphics and design trickery.

B. Bite the bullet and deal with your business issues. Rebuild your business reputation based on superior performance. Powerfully communicate your new and improved capabilities in plain language customers can identify with. Use design and graphics to set off your corporate identity -- not define it.

PS: Here's a pet peeve I just have to share. "We're not a training company -- we're into performance management." How often have we all heard that! And then the same "we're not a training company" removes any shred of performance oriented language from its sales promotion efforts and substitutes a bunch of pretentious words and pictures that make their offerings come across as some sort of a corporate cosmetic.

No wonder so many line decisionmakers don't take our industry seriously.

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