No Surprises: Five Tips for Sticking to Your Branding Timeline

With solid upfront planning, you can run a no-surprises project. Here's how.
illustration of timeline

Every branding engagement starts with a determination to stick to the schedule and meet every deadline. But many branding timelines go awry, leading to frustration and delays.

Most often, branding timelines are stalled by scheduling logjams, internal indecision, or last-minute executive bombshells. And delays can be costly. Not only do they represent missed marketing opportunities, but they often result in unexpected agency fees, travel and meeting costs, and many, many additional work hours.

Setting deadlines does not ensure that you’ll meet them. Faithful execution of a project plan requires careful consideration of logistics, communication channels, goals, and decision-making responsibilities. Missed milestones often occur when a key decision-maker is surprised — by the project’s scope, by the nature of the deliverables, or even by their own responsibility to evaluate the work. Here are five tips for planning a “no surprises” branding initiative.

1. Identify decision-makers at the outset

Collectively identify whose approval is a must for a project to move forward. At many organizations, this group will include the CEO and the CMO, but additional team members will vary by company. Does the general counsel need to be involved? The CTO? Human resources? Liaise with the C-suite to ensure no critical voices are left out. Working with executives to define a decision-making body will not only ease scheduling and lessen potential conflict, but it will also make leaders feel included from the start, and thus more likely to provide buy-in later.

While executives may be your “need to haves,” also think carefully about which employees’ opinions are your “nice to haves.” In other words, which less-senior employees may offer an unexpected, on-the-ground perspective of the company’s brand and its future? These colleagues may be valuable “non-voting” additions during evaluative discussions.

2. Brief the team

Whatever the composition of the decision-making body, be sure that participants are educated about their roles and responsibilities, as well as the goals and scope of the project. An unprepared judge is an unreliable one, the kind who can derail a well-oiled machine. The C-suite doesn’t need to be involved in quotidien status calls or emails, but they should share consensus on what’s on the table for change and how that change should be evaluated.

Circulate the project’s RFP, rough timeline, and the agency’s winning proposal. Be available to answer questions about what brand elements are up for grabs, which could be addressed in future projects, and which are sacred. Perhaps most importantly, brief team members on what’s expected of them: are they serving as a final seal of approval or will you be interested in their feedback much earlier in the process?

If your C-suite is not savvy about marketing, this is also an ideal time to educate them on the role of brand: what it is and is not, why it’s valuable, and what you’re hoping it can achieve for your company. Confusion between brand, advertising, media relations, web design, and employee engagement can lead to disappointed expectations and/or uninformed evaluations. Again, the key to meeting your branding timeline is to forestall any element of surprise.

3. Establish a feedback protocol

You’ve experienced it before. A protracted barrage of emails, conference calls, and sticky notes — all containing disparate opinions on a project. Avoid this by establishing a feedback protocol before your first group meeting. Pick a channel, format, and deadline for team members to submit. Communicate what kind of feedback you’re looking for. Too often, critique, particularly of creative work, is vague and subjective: “It’s too soft-looking,” or “It’s just not my taste.” Provide samples of constructive feedback, as well as examples of the kind of descriptive language that’s helpful to designers, copywriters, and strategists. Your agency partners can help you put this together — and they’ll appreciate it!

Designate a point person who will receive, organize, and synthesize feedback for the agency by a defined date. This will help prevent any crucial feedback getting lost in an inbox, and will ensure any proprietary corporate jargon or references are adequately explained to an outside audience.

4. Hold an internal research summit

One of the most common causes of delay is plain old scheduling. A thorough research phase requires one-on-one interviews and in-person workshops to elicit candid and comprehensive perspectives. This often proves a challenge, however. Wrangling executives can be like wrangling cats — particularly across time zones.

If at all possible, an ideal way to speed through research is to gather interviewees and workshop participants in the same place for a day or two. Think of it as an internal research summit. Ideally, this could be during, or adjacent to, an already-planned event that many will attend, such as a sales conference or an executive summit. While it will be a long day for your brand strategists, such an event can compress weeks of intermittent research into a far shorter time, letting your team get to work right away. Note: This article was published during the pandemic; we all hope that live meetings will resume in the future. In the meantime, video calls can stand in for live events. 

For example, during a past DeSantis Breindel project, two strategists embedded themselves in a client’s office — making it possible for them to conduct nine interviews and two brand workshops over the course of only two days.

5. Prioritize the digital

Digital activations are a boon for those with tight branding timelines, especially those who are counting down to a launch event. Physical production takes time — not only for making the actual signs, swag, or collateral, but also for vendor evaluation, material sourcing, and shipping. This is particularly burdensome for brands with a global presence, who have additional translation needs.

One way to lessen production time is to opt for digital materials whenever possible. For instance, if you’re prepping for a big launch event, consider: Do we need posters? Or can we use digital displays? Do participants require physical handouts? Or can we pass out branded thumb drives? Can a speaker’s backdrop be projected instead of hung? Might a brand video be equally — if not more — inspiring than a physical brand book?

Of course, digital applications still require preparation, but they are more flexible — edits can be made more easily and far later in the process. Additionally, they cut out the time and related to printing and shipping. Finally, they can be reused more easily: a digital poster’s life extends far beyond a single event. It can be remixed and reused for months to come.

Get out ahead and set the pace

While going with the flow might be great advice for a vacation or a peloton, that’s not the case for a branding timeline. Upfront preparation is key: defining roles, setting expectations, and simplifying logistics will provide your team with the clarity and structure that helps ensure on-time completion. With careful foresight, frequent communication, and respected boundaries, you can marshal a no-surprises project. Except, of course, the happy surprises of employees and customers when you launch your fantastic new brand.

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