In-house Insights: Alina Wheeler looks at branding from the insider’s perspective


Alina Wheeler brings her considerable branding expertise to bear on the specific challenges and opportunities available to in-house designers. The simplicity of her insights actually express a set of powerful strategies that she’s distilled from extensive research and immersion in the discipline of branding. Alina draws firm and actionable connections between branding, marketing and design.


Alina Wheeler is the author of Designing Brand Identity: an essential guide for the whole branding team.Published in seven languages, her book demonstrates the relationship between strategy and design, and illuminates best practices. She and Joel Katz are working on a new book Brand Atlas, branding intelligence made visible. She is a former member of the AIGA National Board of Directors, contributor to the Dictionary of Brand, and a passionate advocate of design.  Her brand lab is in a business and arts factory in Philadelphia, and her soul resides in the Adirondacks.

Given your extensive research on branding, what role do you see in-house teams playing in corporate branding initiatives and longer-term brand maintenance?

In-house teams work to protect, express and grow the brand, which is the most valuable asset of any organization, regardless of sector or size. Internal design teams are often the unsung heroes who work across organizational silos to manage that asset, and help design the customer experience, one touchpoint at a time. Increasingly, experienced design directors are joining senior management teams to oversee and build the brand, manage the design group, and identify specialists needed. Companies that value design as a core competency tend to be more successful in their marketing and communications.

The inhouse team is a vital resource that plays a key role in long-term brand maintenance: Successful implementation of the brand standards is dependent on the internal group embracing and implementing the system.

How can designers (particularly in-house designers) best walk the line between being the brand police and brand stewards?

It’s called tough love. Although the term Brand Police always makes people chuckle, I prefer brand champions.  It’s a lot easier when there is a company-wide mandate from the CEO. It’s critical for all employees understand why it’s a business imperative to have standards.

Short answer: smile a lot.

What are some of the greatest branding challenges corporations are facing today?

The number of brands and the numbers of choices in the marketplace are daunting. Branding challenges include a lack of clarity about the brand, a lack of collaboration, and a lack of disciplined processes: like keeping your eye on the competition and trends in the marketplace. Worse yet, not being customer centric.

When business is in a survival mode during a down economy, there are too many decisions that are made for short term gain and not for life long customer relationships. People are afraid of losing their jobs and are acting very cautious. Sustainability and innovation require bold decision-making.

It’s time to have the courage to say less and the desire to close the gap between strategy and design, to insure differentiation in the marketplace.

Managing expectations is an internal challenge: everyone expects rapid execution. That’s hard when some problems need thoughtful solutions and planning.

Which companies do you believe have, and are, doing an effective job at branding? Any you want to point out which aren’t?

The companies who are customer centric—i.e. they see the world through the eyes and experiences of their customers, have the most successful brands. They view each touchpoint as an opportunity to build trust, extend customer loyalty, and fuel word of mouth. The companies that have really strong internal cultures i.e. employees that live the brand, who believe in the core purpose of the brand, and who are passionate about the brand, are off the charts successful.

The best companies have brand guidelines that help employees and other partners understand the brand and make it easy to apply the standards at each new touchpoint.

The brands that are not doing a good job at branding are the ones who are not paying attention to the customer, and the dynamics of the marketplace.

Do you believe Marketing and C-level executives, as a whole, have a firm grasp on branding? How about designers?

There are a lot of really smart and successful people in this world that do not understand the discipline of branding. They are from all walks of life and from the finest universities in the world. Branding is a fairly new discipline and there is very little good information about best practices. For as many people as there are that don’t understand branding, there is an equal amount of people that don’t understand the difference between sales and marketing, or for that matter positioning. There are unfortunately a lot of fundamental concepts that get lost in the swirl. Oh yes—and all the people who don’t understand how design is the best differentiator.

Inhouse teams have a great opportunity to help their colleagues understand how companies leverage branding to grow their businesses. One of my favorite mantras is “Demonstrate don’t declare.” Designers know how to do that.

It seems consumers are always looking for something new, does that validate the tact that a brand should be continually reinventing itself?

No a brand does not need to continually reinvent itself. Organizations, however, need to stay relevant, continually find ways to engage their customers, and respond to their needs. It’s critical to have a laser-like focus on answering the question: Why should our customers choose us over others.

Do different industries have different branding best practices and strategies? Could you speak about a few?

The biggest differences for me are in the cultures, and how people respect and value each other. Another indicator is how passionate people are about the brand. When people are bored and uninspired on the inside, that tends to be what the customer sees. Companies with compliance needs need to be more diligent. Clarity about the brand is a critical success factor. Companies with leaders that understand the power of branding tend to have best practices and sustainable strategies.

Outside of graphic design, could you discuss some other ways that a brand can or does express itself?

A brand expresses itself in a myriad of ways: the way a customer service rep treats a customer, the clarity of an email, the speed with which problems are resolved, the way a phone is answered, how easy it is to conduct a transaction. Every single experience affects the reputation of a company; there’s a wonderful phrase, “moments of truth. It’s where and when the customer experiences the brand. It’s the touchpoint.

What would you recommend is the best way for a design team to approach creating or refining and ultimately selling a brand to internal stakeholders when asked to do so by their company?

  • Use a disciplined process with key decision points, benchmarks and deliverables. Make it a one page diagram. Always show your team where you are in the process.
  • Make sure that leadership views this as a business imperative. If not, that is the first step.
  • Name your initiative.
  • Create a team that has members from other departments. No one does it alone: work with other brand champions and leaders in the organization.
  • Leverage existing research or make recommendations for gaining additional customer insights.
  • Have 3 simple goals that get used over and over again at the beginning or any presentation or meeting. Stay on course.
  • Interview key players and get permission to quote them. Sell in the process in advance.
  • Know when to bring in outside resources.
  • Create a brand brief before you write a creative brief. Achieve agreement about what the brand stands for, along with agreement about the value proposition, competitive advantage, target market, and positioning before any work is done on revitalizing the brand.
  • Use audits: internal audits and competitive audits to help the organization gain insights and strategies.
  • Always bring a sense of humor and respect for people who think differently. Acknowledge that there are other creative thinkers besides designers.
  • Do road shows. Double up with a non-designer.
  • Document everything.

Excerpts from Designing Brand Identity: an essential guide for the whole branding team.

Essential characteristics of the best inhouse design teams

  • Managed by a creative or design director
  • Valued by senior management
  • Staffed by experienced designers (creative and
  • technical expertise)
  • Multifunctional (experience across all media)
  • Multilevel experience (senior level and junior level)
  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities
  • Clearly defined processes and procedures
  • Commitment to brand identity standards
  • Ability to be creative within a system
  • Ability to explain the rationale behind solutions
  • Open channels of communication with senior
  • management and within the group
  • Systems to track progress and projects

The biggest challenges of inhouse design teams

  • Lack of clarity about the brand
  • Overcoming political hurdles
  • Getting access to senior management
  • Getting management’s respect
  • Overcoming design-by-committee
  • Debunking the myth that high quality means high cost
  • Not being at the table when critical branding decisions are being made
  • Too much work for too small a staff

Alina’s favorite picture of her disciplined process