BioBuzz by Workforce Genetics

Rethinking Your Company’s Visual Brand Part 1 – Why it’s Important, and How to Get Started

I’ve done my fair share of life science company brand audits in the past few years, diving into various company websites and racking through their visual branding with a fine-toothed comb, evaluating everything from font type to amount of copy to what kind of pictures they use.

While some companies really hit the ball out of the park when it comes to their visual presence, most suffer from the same common problems. Use of sky or royal blue color palettes. Arial fonts. Textbook scientific diagrams slapped haphazardly on the side, usually in grainy JPG quality.

And this. This stock image. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across some variation of this stock photo while perusing company websites and social media. I think I’ve even seen it in my dreams…

Biotech’s favorite cell image (Source: iStock)

It’s understandable why people use it, though – it matches the blue branding that we so commonly see across biotech websites, so no photoshopping is required. It’s clearly a cell, but is non-specific enough to apply to a multitude of different scenarios. And, importantly, it is really cheap.

In the life sciences space, when it comes to the decision of spending your company’s capital on equipment/lab supplies or creative branding, the choice seems like a no-brainer. And in the hustle-and-bustle of fast-moving deadlines, it doesn’t seem conducive to spend the time to sit down and think about your company’s colors. 

What companies don’t tend to think about, though, is how you’re going to attract the right talent needed to use that equipment.

We’ve seen it all over the headlines – it’s a jobseeker’s market and life science companies are struggling to fill positions. With this in mind, it might pay to spend the time (and a bit of your capital) to help your company’s visual brand stand out among the sea of unoriginality. 

I know, I know – you’re scientifically-minded and think you don’t have a creative bone in your body. The idea of exploring how colors make you feel scares you. You think your time is better spent at the bench or reading through scientific literature. 

Let’s walk through a few ways to start thinking about this so that you too can unlock your inner Picasso.

Take a Step Back and Think About Who You Are

If you’re an early-stage company, chances are you haven’t sat down with your team and thought about who your company is and what it represents. The good news is that whether you’re a team of two or a team of ten or more, you can take a step back and think about this.

Take some time, even if you can only spare half of a work day, to sit down with your core team and work through the following exercises:

Understand the Team’s Values: Even if your company already has values established, this can still be an insightful exercise. Find a list of values, such as this one, and have each member of your team pick the top values that resonate with their own lives (five is a good number). After that, go around the room and have each person explain why they picked those values, taking note of any values that overlap between team members.

Do Exercises That Stretch Your Creative Muscles: If you come from a scientific background, chances are you have a literal way of thinking about your company’s approach. If you work on creating a cell therapy, chances are you’re thinking about how your cell elicits the body’s immune response. If it’s a gene therapy, perhaps you’re thinking about how to correct a mutation that causes a rare disease.

But what if that cell therapy is instead a detective that’s working to solve a cold murder case where it’s trying to track down a criminal that’s left very little clues? Congrats, you just described how a cell therapy can be engineered to detect an immunologically silent tumor! And believe it or not, you can carry this sentiment through in not only your company’s visual branding, but overall messaging. Audiences love analogies – it not only helps them understand complex concepts, but also helps the message to resonate and be memorable.

There are a lot of exercises you and your team can do to help get you thinking about your company and approach in a different way. Here are just a few examples:

  • If the company were a mode of transportation (real or fictional), what kind of car would it be and where would it be going?
  • If the company were a musician, would it be a band or a solo singer? What genre of music would it be, and what type of folks would attend the concerts?
  • If the company were an influential person, who would it be and why? For an extra challenge, think outside of the box beyond Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, etc…
  • For the fellow nerds out there…if you company were a video game series, what kind of series would it be? Would it be a 3D platformer where you navigate a complex world, a more simplistic 2D scroller, or an RPG? Would you only have main games that come out every few years, or a handful of spinoffs games in between?

Another exercise you can do is think about your company’s archetype. Good stories typically have some sort of archetype, whether it be a group that’s going on a journey toward a common goal, a downtrodden hero who finds riches, or someone working to overcome an evil force. 

Thinking about your company’s “archetype” can help you nail down an overall tone for what your company is trying to achieve, which can spill over into visual elements as well as messaging and copy. If your company has more of a “Hobbit” vibe, then perhaps you want to go with visual design choices that are more whimsical and playful, giving a nod to the theme of exploration. If your company is more Star Wars or Marvel movie, where you often have an antagonistic baddie, perhaps your visuals and messaging is more mission-driven. Here is just one list that you can use as a reference, but there are many more out there.

Have fun with this, maybe even over a pint of beer if that helps to get the creative juices flowing. You can even mesh two different archetypes if that’s what fits! Once you have an archetype, take it a step further and think about the tone that archetype conveys. Who are your heroes? Who is your antagonist? What is your prologue? What goal are you reaching toward?

A fun followup for these exercises could be to create a mood board, whether it be a physical board you have in the office or something you make on Pinterest. Do a Google image search for some of the key values and words that came out of these exercises, and make note of some of the imagery that comes up. 

Explore What’s Out There

 Whether it be drawing inspiration or identifying branding gaps your company can fill in, it’s always helpful to take a look at what others are doing.

Have your team come up with a list of websites and/or branding they like and dislike, and have them explain why. Encourage your team to think about this from both a high level as well as granular. Even seemingly minute details such as line spacing and serif vs. sans-serif fonts are informative. You can either pull together a list of general websites you know of, or look for a list of different website designs such as this or this.

Try not spend too much time nitpicking every detail; rather, listen to your intuition and your gut. And no, the websites do not have to be scientific. In fact, you’ll probably get better insight from looking at non-scientific websites, as life science companies often have the same struggles when it comes to vanilla branding. 

With that, it’s also very valuable to also take a look at your company’s direct competitors to see what their visual branding is like. Just like any good research project, it’s helpful to go in with a defined list of questions. Here are just a few examples of things to look out for:

  • What are the main colors in their color palette? Are they cool colors, such as blue and green, or warm colors like red and yellow?
  • Do they have photos, and if so do they have more of a stock image vibe or are they original photos of their team?
  • Do they have their own scientific illustrations that are clearly in line with their branding and color palette?
  • Are the images more of people, or are they more science-focused?
  • Are the imagery and graphical design elements more straight and clear-cut, or do they feel a bit more whimsical?

Once you do this with a few of your competitors, you’ll begin to see a clearer picture of ways your company be unique. For example, if your competitors all have blue and green colors palettes, perhaps you can explore brand colors that are more in the reds. If the company uses a lot of stock images, take the extra effort to capture images of your team in the lab or having fun. It’s all about helping your company to stand out from the typical.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll explore more into selecting imagery and illustrations that pop and give a few examples of biotech companies that weren’t afraid to step out of their comfort zones with visual branding. Stay tuned!