Speaking with one voice: a unified social media brand for The Elders

A new Google+ profile masthead for The Elders

The Elders asked Folk Labs to harmonise their social media brand because they felt the design of their profiles was not accurately reflecting their credibility on the world stage.

An extensive initiative to audit, redesign and document their digital and social media brand led to us also redesigning their logo for use across all social media channels which has made a dramatic improvement to the consistency of their social presence.

Back story

Founded by Richard Branson and Nelson Mandela, The Elders are an independent team of former presidents and global political leaders working together for peace and human rights. Not bound by the vested interests of any nation or institution, they’re a truly independent voice, committed to promoting the shared interests of humanity. We think they’re a fantastic organisation and were delighted when their Communications Team asked us in to review how their brand was being expressed across digital and social media platforms. To gain a complete overview of the situation, we conducted a full audit of their digital brand, including their:

  • website
  • email newsletters
  • printed literature
  • promotional collateral
  • Twitter profile
  • Facebook profile
  • Google+ profile
  • Youtube profile and channel art
  • 12 months’ worth of graphical social media posts

We soon found that their brand had only really been designed for print applications. Documentation was sparse – just a four-page guide which simply could not meet their needs. With no creative support, the in-house Comms team were struggling to maintain consistency across new platforms and channels. In spite of these issues, much of the design work produced by the in-house team was great: individual posts were well-designed (especially considering there were no professional designers on the staff). However, our research revealed several key areas where we were confident we could help the team make significant improvements.

Our audit revealed 15 distinct types of post layout. Combined with the absence of a consistent visual style, this made The Elders’ brand very hard to recognise within each platform’s news stream.
The guidance on how to apply the unusual logo (a constellation of stars and logotype) was vague, leading to a peculiar problem: it could only be positioned over very dark backgrounds (representing the night sky): there was no guidance on what to do if the designer was not in control of background colour and it appeared the original designer had either not anticipated this need or simply ignored it. You can see from the examples here that the stars are impossible to read when placed over a colour other than black and even less when they need to be printed in black on a white background. This was a major problem since the logo needed to be visible in many contexts where background colours and sizing were out of the control of the comms team: typically, on digital platforms like social media or in presentations made by external organisations.
The team were using the whole logo as their social media avatar which also demonstrated another key weakness: at small sizes, the entire logo became impossible to recognise.
At avatar scale, the logo became unrecogniseable
The Elders masthead graphics for each social platform featured different images and graphic styles so that they looked as if they belonged to different organisations. Harmonisation across every platform was necessary.
Profile mastheads were inconsistent
All these issues had led to the in-house team struggling to find a clear, consistent visual presence for The Elders. The overall effect was disorganised and failed to express the stature of the organisation, effectively damaging their credibility.

What we did

The audit proved the need for a complete rethink of how the brand was being expressed visually across all digital platforms and helped direct us to work on a much broader colour palette, approach to typography, the logo and avatar and to then use those components to build out a suite of assets and templates to enable the comms team to build their own graphics.

Colour We developed a logical and simple colour palette. The dark navy blue base colour was derived directly from the original brand guide. The secondary corporate green hue was kept as the secondary colour. But we built a set of four other tertiary hues: a red, turquoise orange and lilac. The red and turquoise were colours The Elders had already been using unofficially. The lilac was derived from the navy blue base colour by increasing its saturation. And the yellow orange was identified at halfway point on the Munsell colour scale between the corporate green and the red.
Revised Elders colour palette
Typography & pictograms We defined a simple typographic hierarchy for both brand typefaces: Vista Sans and Georgia as well as a suite of proposed FontAwesome symbols, pictograms and icons.
New Elders logo for digital applications Our solution to the constellation losing visibility over pale backgrounds was to fix the stars inside a simple square device next to the logotype. The logotype itself is available in both dark navy blue and white.
Avatar Having established the basic design standards, we were free to begin building up a set of core visual assets. First of all we adapted the new logo to also act as the avatar for each user profile, adding a subtle colour wash above the stars to tie it into the new colour scheme and lift it forward in news feeds.

Image post types We simplified the types of basic graphic the comms team could post down from 15 to a more manageable five:

  • Portrait
  • Quotograph (a quotation alongside a portrait of the Elder who originally said it)
  • Campaign message
  • Key message
  • Promotional post

And we developed a ‘content model’ for each post type so that each text element could be assigned a style from our typographic hierarchy. We created a flexible grid system to align each graphical element consistently.

Thanks Twitter!

Originally, we designed a separate wide-format version of our grid, specifically for use on Twitter. Then, one month after we launched, Twitter removed its bizarre (and, frankly, embarrassing) image cropping algorithm, rendering our research and careful design planning immediately useless. While this was really frustrating, it serves as a perfect illustration of just how little control brands like The Elders have over the way social media platforms work.

Profile mastheads

The most prominent area of custom branding for the current crop of social media platforms is the generic profile masthead image. Here’s what we created for Twitter:

Youtube profile masthead

Youtube ‘Channel art’ is more complex than other platforms. The image needs to be compatible with internet-enabled televisions as well as mobile phones, tablets and desktop computers. Each device defines its own individual cropping area, meaning a lot of safe zones need to be taken into account simultaneously.

Templates and graphic asset library Alongside the graphics we delivered to The Elders’ in-house Comms team, we also created a set of Photoshop template files for use by trained staff to create new graphics: each template works in harmony with the overall profile branding.

What happened next

The Elders comms team fully launched their new social media brand programme across every channel in December 2015 and report positive feedback from followers and friends on each social platform. The initial change-over on Facebook has so far attracted over 890 Likes and approaching 100 comments and simply uploading the new avatar gathered nearly 100 Likes. The Elders’ social presence now appears united with a new level of consistency and harmony leaving an impression of professionalism and credibility.

Reflections

Overall, we felt this project went well and The Elders’ Communications Team and stakeholders certainly appear to be satisfied with the results. We certainly are. Social media graphic design is difficult to do well. But we think we’ve really helped to unify and clarify the online expression of The Elders’ values and tone of voice. For organisations like The Elders, social media is now a vital channel for conducting outreach. However, design templates can only take you so far and we believe there is still a gap in the market for a highly usable, powerful design tool to help in-house communications teams produce strongly-branded social media content. Buffer’s Pablo application points to how this might work in future but it’s a long way away from being a professional tool for use by organisations like The Elders. Over 15 years ago, the web overturned graphic design and branding forever. The arrival of social media five years ago has had much the same effect on the discipline once again. Where once, digital branding mostly meant controlling the look-and-feel of an organisation’s website, now brands must create a bold presence within multiple channels simultaneously – web, video and social platforms: each with their own special quirks. This has led us to see the practise of social media branding as a new, distinct discipline, demanding skills in both digital and responsive design as well as a strong grasp of brand management. We very much hope we will be able to continue working with the Elders in future, to support the rest of their online activity.