Cobblers! – Or why you shouldn’t try to brand your own design business

Coach and consultancy Adrian Wheeler looks at why design businesses should seek external advice when trying to create their own branding.


So the old saying goes that the cobbler’s children run around barefooted because the cobbler’s so busy making shoes for their clients (and if cobbling is anything like the design industry probably making shoes for free to show to potential clients who have asked a few cobblers to do the same) that their own kids go wanting.

Of course, any sensible cobbler would fashion fabulous shoes for their children with a distinctive style and a natty little label so everyone who saw them would rush out and buy a pair.

“But what style of shoe will draw people in?”, the cobbler asks anxiously, “Slingbacks? Moccasins? Brogues? How will I know?”.

Subjective and biased internal position

Like the confused cobbler, why, if you are a branding designer, are you probably not the best person to figure out your own brand? Well, because you simply can’t have an objective, unbiased and external perspective when you are in a subjective, biased and internal position.

You protest – “We have a rigorous process. We’ll gather some impartial data and then formulate a design brief with some clearly defined measurables, in just the same way we would do for our clients. We’ll then measure everything we do against those measurables and we’ll know if we’ve cracked it.”

Sounds good in theory, but it’s infinitely harder to do in practice. The best way I can think of explaining why is by referring you to Argyris & Putnam, who created a model called The Ladder of Inference. Here’s their psychology bit:

  1. Everything we think and believe is the result of our experience, which is inevitably subjective. We may commission some impartial research but…
  2. …we will still select the data from that research, however hard we try not to, to suit our needs.
  3. We then add meaning to the, now incomplete, data based on all the things our experience has taught us – what we’ve seen before, how old we are, the market we’re in, where we are in the economic cycle, our mood, our sex, any ambitions or limiting beliefs we have, the size of our business – the list is infinite.
  4. We then start to make assumptions based on the meanings that we have added (Japan is not a rugby nation, people will always prefer to own a physical copy rather than a digital license, white men can’t jump, for example).
  5. We draw conclusions based on those assumptions (this will be an easy win, don’t change the business model, this will be an easy win, for example).
  6. Based on those conclusions, we now adopt beliefs about the world and, depending on the quality of thinking that has gone before. These beliefs can be empowering or limiting and range from preference to prejudice. The point is, if they don’t free us, they keep us stuck.
  7. We then take actions based on those beliefs and the result of those actions will reinforce our beliefs and determine, (the data we select, the meanings we add, the assumptions we make, the conclusions we draw, the beliefs we adopt), the actions we take next time. This is called the “reflexive loop” and the problem is that it is a closed system and you are in it – and you can’t get out – and all your staff are looking at you expectantly waiting for your decision on your new brand positioning.

Breaking out of the closed loop

So what can you do? Well firstly, the Ladder of Inference makes it easy to see how one’s own conscious thinking and unconscious bias can affect and potentially derail good decision-making. It’s a great tool for self-awareness and asking those difficult questions – “What assumptions are we making?”, “Are we jumping to conclusions?”, “Is this belief limiting?” and so on.

But even then there will be limited insight, as you’re still looking from the inside to the outside in an attempt to look back in again. The best way to break free from the closed loop is to get an external view – not your husband/mother/best friend etc, who will affirm the genius of your thinking, (and are still “in” your system), but an impartial thinking partner.

I’ve heard these objections. “People from outside the organisation don’t think like we do, they won’t understand us” (there’s a whole diversity piece waiting to be written right there), “they borrow your watch to tell you the time”, “we tried this before but it didn’t work and we just ended up doing what we’ve always done”, “it’s my baby and I don’t want anyone mucking it up.”

“I can’t do this on my own”

Experienced, clever people with ideas of their own challenge the status quo and it does take maturity, especially for an owner/creative director who’s reason for being is to be head genius, to say “I can’t do this on my own”.

They say that the will to win means nothing without the will to train. Hiring an external consultant is a sign that you take yourself and, to no small extent your industry, seriously and you are prepared to do what it takes to get the right result.

As far as your brand is concerned, an external consultant or, (heaven forbid), a branding consultancy would bring a unique outside perspective that would generate the kind of clarity and insight you need. Non-exec directors, coaches, mentors, consultants are all hired specifically for this external perspective and it’s for precisely this reason that your clients hire you.

Perhaps the discipline required to be a good client yourself might give you some added insight of what it might be like for your clients to work with you.

Discover more:

• Rebranding your design business – sometimes you can’t do it alone

Adrian Wheeler is an action-orientated coach, facilitator, mentor and consultant, partner at The Fairlight Project and DBA Expert. Follow him at @FairlightPjct.

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