A medieval idea that can surprisingly transform your brand

Whether we are developing a new brand or refreshing an existing one, capturing the meaning of the brand helps people understand why they should care. And we do want them to care. Because when they care, they become loyal customers and even advocates for our brand.

Thoughtfully chosen symbols, colors, and words can capture the meaning, and spell the difference between our brand being instantly adopted and years of time and money trying to explain what the brand is all about. This is why we need to be diligent in defining our brand. An excellent place to start is with an idea that began centuries ago.


The coat-of-arms exercise

It started somewhere in the middle ages. Some person of some stature decided he needed to let the world know who he was and what he was all about. So he painted some symbols on his shield that he felt represented that. Before long, it became a custom. And the use of the coat of arms spread, adorning vestments, castles, and more.

Going through the process of creating a coat of arms can be an enlightening exercise for a brand. It demands that we simplify the expression of who we are. And that forces us to strip away the nonessential and find the most powerful representations. In fact, we're going to limit it to three symbols and a short motto.

This exercise is best run with a small group - 5 to 7 people. Ask each question and write the answer on a big sheet of easel paper. After you get to an answer, ask, "Why?" Then write down all the different rationales on that sheet of easel paper. Here are the questions:

  • Question 1. - What symbol represents how our past has shaped who we are today?
    Great brands are founded on the powerful ideals of the organization's past. It may be in the founders' origin story. Or it may have been re-established somewhere along the way. Identify the symbol that captures this, then ask the group, "Why this symbol?"

  • Question 2. - What symbol represents the best of who we are today?
    This isn't a symbol of what we do or how we do it. It represents the impact our brand has on those it hopes to serve. It must be believable while, at the same time, prove inspiring. Identify the symbol that captures this, then ask the group, "Why this symbol?"

  • Question 3. - What symbol represents what we hope to become?
    What are the ambitions of the brand? What aspirations are we working towards? Great brands set their sites on a Big Audacious Meaning. Identify the symbol that captures this, then ask the group, "Why this symbol?"

  • Question 4. - Looking at the symbols we have chosen, what five to seven words would we use as our motto
    This last question summarizes everything that the brand represents. The limit of 5 to 7 words challenges us to find the most compelling statement.

The transformation

The exercise yields a set of symbols and a motto (just like what you would find with a coat of arms). Equally important is the explanations behind each symbol. Describing what each symbol means takes us outside of the usual language we use to discuss the organization and the brand. This results in insights that will help evolve our brand.

These insights provide the inspiration that will help create the new brand identity – from the logomark and type to the colors and the rallying cry.

By using this exercise, we move from simply redecorating our brand to transforming it. To creating an evolved manifestation that captures the meaning and aspiration that will engage the minds and hearts of those we hope to serve.

That's an impressive bit of enlightenment from an idea that came out of the dark ages.