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Branding - In Search of a Visual Hammer

Branding - In Search of a Visual Hammer

December 4, 2020

The book Visual Hammer – Nail your Brand into the Mind with the Emotional Power of a Visual by Laura Ries captured my imagination when I read it back in 2013.

I immediately saw the power that a visual hammer would offer a brand, so I had a graphic designer create a bull icon and add it to the existing Azrights logo. This was tacked on to a logo that had already undergone various tweaks since 2006 when it was initially designed.

That logo had emphasised the separation between AZ and Rights, whereas, by 2013, I wanted the name to be perceived as one word. Also, we had added a new tagline, ‘easy legal not legalese’. This is what it looked like by the end of the exercise. The A in turquoise was supposed to be picking up the branded A on the side of the bull.

I was pleased to have a visual hammer although I realised the logo had become messy. So, when a designer approached me suggesting she refresh my brand, I agreed. It seemed appropriate to rethink the logo as I had been new to business and branding when the logo was initially designed in 2006 and I was not wedded to keeping it if a specialist in visual identity could see a better way to design the brand. However, I did say I wanted a visual hammer.

I do not know how it happened, but I emerged from the rebrand without a visual hammer.

This is despite the branding changing completely (I had been unwilling to change the name Azrights when this was suggested because I had been using it for nearly 10 years after all). All the existing brand elements were discarded (including the tagline, easy legal not legalese, which was a registered trademark) in favour of a new logo, tagline and colours. The designer tried out various ideas to add a visual hammer but said she could not find a basis for adding a visual hammer into the brand. This is what the new branding looked like.

I tend to defer to a professional’s greater knowledge about their discipline when I engage someone, so I naturally deferred to the designers’ greater insight on branding. Even though I did not understand why the logo needed to be designed in a particular way so that it did not provide a basis for a visual hammer, I assumed the designer knew best what type of logo I should have. I agreed the visual hammer ideas she tried did not suit the types of logo she tried out.

Brand Tuned

At that time I had just written my book Legally Branded so I had a little more understanding about brands than most people might have. Indeed, because I deal with trademarks and brand protection I became deeply interested in brands and branding since that rebrand. I learnt as much as I could about branding and marketing by reading widely. And the research for my new book, Brand Tuned – The New Rules of Branding, Strategy, and Intellectual Property has deepened my knowledge further.

Jenni Romaniuk’s book, Building Distinctive Brand Assets had been particularly insightful. Among other things, the book explains in depth how people notice brands, and why it is important to be respectful of brand assets and resist the temptation to ‘fiddle’ with them once they’re established.

In other words, if you get bored with your branding that is not a good reason to rebrand. If you have built some mental availability in the market with your brand assets you could make yourself invisible by making a complete change of font and colours.

Interestingly she cites the example of Tropicana whose redesigned visual to be more premium resulted in the oranges on their boxes being dropped. While the new design certainly created a more upmarket look it also resulted in the loss of a ton of sales.

The design team had done some research before changing the branding, but their research had focused on the wrong questions – instead of establishing how famous and unique the oranges on the packaging were, they had focused on whether the absence of the oranges gave the packaging a more premium look.

Reading Jenni Romaniuk’s book rekindled my interest in adding a visual hammer to my branding.

I was keen to take advantage of the fact that we had closed Azrights Solicitors and transferred the business to Azrights International, and had created the Brand Tuned brand, to do a further rebrand in 2020. I was keen to adjust the branding to make room for a visual hammer.

Adding a Visual Hammer to the Azrights Brand

As the designer I had used in 2014 had not found a basis for an icon despite starting with a complete clean slate I decided to brief a new designer to create an icon to fit with the existing Azrights logo. Foolishly, because I liked and trusted him I was less vigorous in specifying the job to be done than I would usually be if I were supporting a client to brief their designer.

Predictably given designers’ tendency to want to start with a clean slate the designer promptly announced that he thought it was a bad idea to tack on new elements to existing brand designs. He wanted to create a completely new brand, new logo, new fonts, new colouring, the lot. However, he waited till I had paid him half the money to make this announcement.

I have learned about the importance of reigning in designers whose tendency to discard the old in favour of the completely new when rebranding can do more harm than good because such changes tamper with people’s memory structures, so I was very firm and put my foot down about such a radical rebrand when all I wanted was a visual hammer.

He seemed to need a meaningful reason for an icon, and he could not think of one. So, at one point I suggested trying a sextant, which is an instrument for measuring distances between objects, especially in navigation. He came up with some designs, which did not work with the existing logo, so may have necessitated a new logo although I was hoping we could put the symbol inside a circle so the icon would fit with the lower case A in our existing logo.

However, a bigger problem presented itself when we did an availability search on the sextant logo. We discovered an Italian law firm was using a sextant in their logo. They were actually called Sextant!

Whenever availability searches throw up a problem such as this, I advise clients to consider their appetite for risk. Either accept the risk and set aside a contingency budget for litigation, or if you want to avoid a dispute down the line then choose a different design.

Personally, I had no desire to get into a trademark dispute with anyone, so I opted for the latter route.

Given the designer’s real agenda was to rebrand us, there did not seem any point in continuing to use him, so we parted company.

How I Came Up With a Visual Hammer

I decided to tackle the task myself with the help of my existing design team which consists of a talented young designer Iva Michalo and Denise Brady who have been helping me with ad hoc design work for years. Neither of these ladies is bossy and opinionated about what one must do. They are happy to implement one’s ideas which is exactly what I wanted after my frustrating experiences trying to get a visual hammer to add to my logo. In fact, I wonder why I ever went after a different option.

I remembered the bull icon we had previously used had been chosen to denote branding. It was the reason the cover of my book uses cattle too. This led to the idea of a ram as an icon to signify branding.

Rams reflect strength, the power to overcome, and achieve breakthroughs. They denote action, the fifth element of heroism. When you bear in mind that I am an Aries, the star sign of which is associated with a ram, it seemed a perfect fit to use a ram as the basis our icon.

Iva did a great job of creating a friendly looking ram icon which Denise combined with my logo. We made some adjustments to the colours because I never liked orange so much. I like purple more, so I made the orange less significant in the logo.

Here is the icon now. It fits perfectly with the existing Azrights logo, and I took the opportunity to reinstate our tagline because it is a bad idea to hard wire your positioning into a tagline. Lawyers for the digital world may have been a unique positioning back in 2014, but in an increasingly digital world it soon dates. That is why it is generally advisable to not reflect your positioning in a tagline

What made the ram icon even more perfect was that there were no conflicts with any existing logo registrations by law firms or branding agencies!

Meaningless Distinctiveness

As Brand Tuned is an endorsed brand, it needed its own separate branding, albeit one that can sit well with the Azrights branding.

So when it came to choosing what to create as an icon for Brand Tuned I opted for meaningless distinctiveness, guided by the research by Byron Sharp and his team at the Ehrenberg-Bass institute I chose an owl with no rationale for it whatsoever, and Iva and Denise then produced this icon. Here it is sitting alongside the logo:

Personally, I think you can always make up a story to explain why you use a particular symbol anyway, after you have chosen something. So, if you believe you need to have a reason for your choice of icon then by all means make up a story around it once you have chosen a suitable object to use as the basis of the design.

If my experience is anything to go by it is extremely difficult for business owners to achieve the branding they want, and to build distinctive assets gradually. Some designers are quick to suggest a new logo or to want to tinker with them and even to completely change your brand identity. It is important to brief them really well to avoid any misunderstandings. Thinking back I can see there were a few signs that our expectations were misaligned which I chose to ignore. I know better now.

Distinctive Brand Assets

Romaniuk’s book demonstrates that rebranding or “brand refreshes” are rarely the answer even to brand performance issues. She suggests sticking with your assets even if consumers describe the brand as “old fashioned”. The brand assets themselves are rarely a driver of weakening brand image or sales decline. Indeed she suggests adding assets gradually with the passage of time.

We are living in interesting times when it comes to branding because as Romaniuk’s opening remarks in her book puts it:

“Despite advances in our understanding of how the brain, memory and buyer behaviour work, much of the advice on building a strong brand identity is tied up in folklore, pop psychology or based on out-of-date brand strategies. Books on the topic tend to see brand identity as a design exercise, with aesthetics at the core of choices.”

The more I have learnt about the world of marketing and branding the more I have realised just how much bullshit is out there. So beware if you’re looking for branding support that one of the most important agreements is with your branding agency. That determines your ownership rights so make sure you use a good agreement, and choose a designer who reads the new information emerging about marketing science and who updates their methods accordingly.

I have had to understand what branding involves because I am writing a book on it. Most business owners do not know who to believe, and what the right approach is when branding their business and can be held back by using the wrong professionals.


The brand assets you create have intrinsic value to the consumer, and you lose custom if potential customers cannot readily recognise you.