Branding the Transient: Event Design

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Branding an organization is primarily an exercise in getting to know a person.  When I am tasked with creating a visual identity for a company or organization, I try to get to know—on a personal level—whoever is the main decision-maker for the company.  Usually it’s the president, sole proprietor or in some cases, a board of individuals.  Every company, church, organization, etc has a unique corporate culture that defines everything the organization does.  It’s what makes FedEx different from UPS; Apple different from Dell.  It all goes back to the underlying (or overarching!) corporate culture.  So, when I am trying to translate a company’s vision into the visual language, I can best do that by figuring out what the corporate culture is, and simply representing that using the best tools I have to offer, such as color theory, typography choices, stylistic choice, experience, etc.

But what do you do when you’re not branding an organization? What if you’re branding an event?

Events are transient; they are here one day and gone the next.  Their target audience does not necessarily reflect the target demographic of the organization that’s putting on the event.  For instance, take the Macworld Expo.  It’s main sponsor is Macworld magazine, a periodical aimed squarely at people who have purchased a computer made by Apple, Inc. in the last ten years.  The Macworld Expo, however, is aimed at all technology companies and vendors primarily, and secondarily at technology consumers.  Notice the word “computer” isn’t mentioned.  The Macworld Expo competes mainly against technology expos like E3.  Therefore, the branding of each year’s Macworld Expo is completely independent of Macworld Magazine.

Macworld Magazine Website

Macworld Magazine Website Homepage

Macworld Expo Website

Macworld Expo Website Homepage

So, let’s get down to the how-to part of this article.

  1. Interview someone who carries the vision/mission for the event.  This usually doesn’t have to be the president of whatever organization is putting on the event.  You’ll probably find someone in management or an event planner that understands the core purposes of the event.
  2. Don’t get caught up in the administrative details of the event.  When you are doing the interview, most managers will want to speak about what the conference will do; that’s not important for the branding.  The promotion and branding must come from the vision, the purpose, the “heart” of the event.  If there is a central theme to keynote addresses, these will be more important to communicate than any particular element of the event.
  3. Decide on a central person to highlight in the advertising.  Usually there’s a keynote speaker that’s relatively famous.  You’ll want to make this person central in the advertising. Remember that people connect with people; there’s no greater draw to an event than a human face.  If the event you are branding doesn’t have a keynote speaker, there’s probably some major event or offering that you can highlight.  For instance, if you’re marketing a state fair, you could focus on a favorite competition or a new roller coaster ride.  This “rule” has to be held loosely.  Sometimes it’s best to make a theme the focus of your marketing efforts instead of a person.
  4. Decide on a primary and secondary target demographic.  Hopefully the event organizers already have a demographic in mind.  If so, make sure your visual language fits the audience.  You don’t want to use dark, grunge, death metal imagery if your target audience is women over the age of 65 living in rural Georgia, USA.  Conversely, you don’t want to use pink doilies in your design if the target audience is men under the age of 30 living in London, England.
  5. Your theme should be original enough to stand out amidst it’s medium (direct mail, email newsletter, website ad banner, etc.) but not so trend-setting as to be unrelatable to the target audience.  This is the core of what it means to be a trend-setting designer. You have to push the boundaries—your own personal skill boundaries and the perceptions of your viewers—but you have to keep your design sufficiently rooted in pop culture. That is, unless you’re looking to shock people. ;)
  6. Get a budget figure up-front for all the marketing of the event.  You’ll have to figure in printing costs, shipping for printed materials, domain/hosting for website(s), stock photography, or hiring a photographer, etc. All of that has to be taken into consideration before you quote a price for your part in everything.
  7. Lastly, remember to have fun. You’re branding something that’s going to be here and gone very quickly, so don’t invest too much into the project emotionally.  If it gets too tedious, drop the project and move on!

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