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9 Crucial Small Business Branding Lessons from Doctor Who

9 Crucial Small Business Branding Lessons from Doctor Who

Doctor Who happens to be one of my favorite television shows of all time. Doctor Who isn’t new by any means – it was on the air from 1963 to 1989 on the BBC and rebooted in 2005 on the same channel. It was the newer series that caught my attention (although I have gone back to visit quite a few of the older episodes), with the Tenth Doctor and his companion Rose Tyler sucking me in.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Doctor Who, the show revolves around the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who is able to travel through time and space in his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), interfering against evil and helping the universe for the sake of good. Oftentimes, the Doctor travels with a companion, generally an adventurous human from Earth, who assists and gets to see more than they expected (and in some cases, can handle).

Since getting into the series a few years ago, I’ve come to some interesting theories about the series and have been able to apply so many facets to different aspects of my life – and now that I work in marketing, there are tons of lessons that Doctor Who can teach us all about small business branding that anyone, whether you’re into the show or not, can definitely learn from.

So what does a British television show have to do with logo design? Read on!

Branding is Not an Equation

“When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all… Grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.”

Branding isn’t a formula. Sure, there are a lot of things that are highly recommended or best practices to follow when you’re a small business. A lot of this advice is really good advice. But like the expectations of life trajectory that many people grow up with, things don’t often times go as planned or expected, with detours and unexpected events getting in the way. Simply put, branding, like life, isn’t a math equation, and there are so many details that require addressing as they come up. As much as you’d like to abide by the best practices, there are different means to reach the ends that we’d like.

You Don’t Need to Have a Perfect Product or Service

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

This piece of advice might go against a lot that’s expected when talking about starting a small business when you’re going to pride yourself on what you’re offering and why it’s better than anyone else’s. But the fact of the matter is, you don’t need to launch the perfect product or service of all time to brand yourself. You don’t even need to pretend that you offer something perfect. What you do need to do is capture the attention of your ideal clientele, and grow from there.

Doctor Who started as a very, very low-budget television show that, while usually considered to be a science fiction show, did not really adhere to the latest and greatest in filming technology.  Even further, the first episode was full of errors, needing to be completely rerecorded. In the 1980s, a perfect storm of declining funding, poor leadership, and redefined television standards led to a sharp decline for the long-running show. But Doctor Who had garnered a dedicated following, and that dedicated following kept fanning the flames of the show, causing multiple networks to take interest in the show, but eventually, BBC agreed to end the show’s hiatus and reboot the series.

So Doctor Who wasn’t perfect. It still isn’t perfect. But it’s tapped into its perfect target audience that keeps the show alive. If this doesn’t convince you, let’s consider these other big brand stories that tap into this – Moleskine, Birkenstocks, Chuck Taylor High-Tops, and Twinkies. All of these businesses were, at one point, virtually non-existent, but brought back with popularity.

Rebranding Is Just Part of Having a Business – Don’t Be Afraid of It

“We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good, you’ve gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”

In the Whoniverse, this meaning is twofold. Relating to the first part, Doctor Who was off the air for 16 years before coming back as a rebooted series. The series learned some lessons, updated its technology, and tuned into its new audience. This is the clearest rebranding of the show.

Now, one of the reasons why Doctor Who has remained on air for as long as it has is a built-in rebranding within the series. When the Doctor is severely injured, he is able to regenerate. Not like grow another set of arms or something, but it is a biological ability of Time Lords to change their physical appearance, personality, and take on a new persona as the Doctor. What started as an accident for the series, when the original actor playing the Doctor became ill, turned into the show’s biggest blessing since it was able to undergo multiple actor changes without losing continuity or forcing the show to go off-air. Each new Doctor brings something completely different to the table, with different personalities, but the mission and goal of protecting the universe remains the same.

The branding lesson here? Rebranding isn’t a failure, but rather a means for renewing your business. As long as you’re staying true to your business goals and what you’d like to bring your customers, rebranding can be a great way to spruce up your visual design and remain relevant when trends and needs change. Rebranding every year is not recommended, as even the Doctor needed time to adjust to the new face and personality, your customers won’t be able to remain loyal to a business that is always adjusting its promise.

Collaboration is Key

“You know that in 900 years of time and space and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

There are tons of instances where, if the Doctor was left to his own devices, it would have been the end of him. There are other times when he knows to reach out and ask for help. Branding isn’t a solo effort. It will never be a solo effort, and if it is a solo effort somehow, you’ll have a hard time being successful. A brand is more than your visual design, it’s your service, what sets you apart from the rest, your promise to your customers, and more. All of this involves action and input from others, including your customers, by taking their feedback and insights into consideration.

Consider the Doctor’s companions and how they’ve been key to the success of the Doctor. Donna Noble literally saves the universe after briefly becoming a Time Lord/Human to destroy the Doctor’s biggest enemy, the Daleks. Sarah Jane Smith stepped in to help multiple incarnations of the Doctor, from both the original series and the reboot. Rose Tyler became Bad Wolf, a being that would leave clues for herself throughout time and space to save the Doctor. Point being, there was a reliance on companions to save the world and the Doctor over and over again. Your small business is no different – work with others and encourage collaboration to expand your brand!

Understand Trends, Relevancy, When to Embrace and When to Ignore

“I’m not running away from things, I’m running to them. Before they flare and fade forever.”

The Doctor and the TARDIS can travel anywhere in time and space, usually by the machine disappearing with a wheezing sound and reappearing where it should be. Oftentimes, this was not where the Doctor and his companions intended to go, but rather where they needed to be. How does this relate to your small business? Understanding trends make sense for your brand, but that doesn’t mean any business owners should become all-encompassed with trends.

Trends continuously change, in the same ways that events around the universe changed for the Doctor. These trends will shape not only the products that you use but how customers will perceive and interact with your brand. Like a TARDIS, know where you need to bring your brand and know when the trend is over and done with and adapt accordingly. Your brand might not go where you intended it to go, but make sure that you’re directing it where it needs to be.

Branding Is Not a How-To Guide, Risks Can Pay Off

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly…timey wimey…stuff.”

Doctor Who is a show full of risks, from companions leaving their lives on Earth to the Doctor needing to calculate the next best steps to save people, the planet, or the universe. As with any show about a hero saving lives, nothing ever goes according to plan, and something new always pops up to deter the hero from their intended course.

There are countless how-to guides, step-by-step analyses, and warnings on what to avoid when it comes to branding, but not every business is exactly the same. Like the Doctor notes about time, there’s not always a linear progression between starting a business and success, and there are bound to be many failures and trials along the way.

Some risky moves by big brands have been exactly what have contributed to their success, based on a number of factors. MTV News handed their Twitter to a different, popular account, bringing a less-branded and more youthful tone to the account. Uber pulls stunts compared to specific, niche holidays, such as driving around with puppies or delivering ice cream. Taco Bell has completely absorbed its brand voice as sarcastic and witty, not differentiating between its website and social media accounts.

Brand Loyalty is as Important as Gaining New Customers

“I am the Bad Wolf. I create myself. I take the words…I scatter them, in time and space. A message, to lead myself here.”

Loyalty to the Doctor runs strong with his companions, but one of the clearest examples of loyalty comes from Rose Tyler. As the first companion of the Doctor Who reboot, Rose Tyler was influential to the newly-launched series’ success. Paired with the Doctor, she helped to bring the series to modernity. Most importantly, Rose stood by the Doctor, even when it meant abandoning her life in London. Her biggest act of loyalty came when Rose became Bad Wolf, scattering the words “bad wolf” throughout time and space to constantly signal to herself that she was linked to the Doctor, allowing the current Doctor and Rose to follow the clues and save the world.

As a newly launched business, your early customers (really, absolutely any customer) will be instrumental in your success. They’ll be the ones to try your product, return to your service, recommend you to their friends and colleagues, and drive so much of your business revenue. Data shows that it costs more to acquire a new customer than to retain an old one, and current customers spend more money than old customers do. Therefore, creating perks and experiences aimed at appealing to and carrying these previous customers through and keep them coming back is of vital importance. Acquiring new customers is only one part of business success- retaining customers will always be key!

Your Brand Story Deserves to Be Told and Carried Through Your Business

“We are all stories in the end. Make it a good one, eh?”

As we’ve said, your brand is so much more than your logo and your product, it’s everything about your small business and its relationship to your customer. Your brand story can, and should, be shown and carried through your business. A brand story is a tale of how your business came to be, what motivates you to continue going, and how you relate to your customer base.

The Doctor is from a place called Gallifrey, which was destroyed in the Time War. When the series came back to air and the Ninth Doctor entered the screens, he was deeply affected by what he’s seen as a result of that war and his new status as the last remaining Time Lord. His relationship with Gallifrey is brought up in conversations with his companions, his drive and rationale for his actions, and even by his enemies. His story, the story of the Time War and the planet left behind, shapes everything that he does. Gallifrey is his story. Your brand story should act in the same manner.

Consider the brand story of Starbucks. Starbucks began as a small, nautical themed coffee shop in Seattle. After one of the founders went to Milan and observed the coffee culture there, he crafted a vision of what Starbucks should be. Starbucks is very far from being the only coffee manufacturer in the world, or even far from being the best coffee company in the world, but what it does have is its rags to riches story. This creates a larger perception of the brand and grows its brand’s influence.

Your Brand is a TARDIS and That’s Okay

“I like the bit when someone says it’s bigger on the inside! I always look forward to that…”

The Doctor travels through time and space in his TARDIS. One of the key features of the TARDIS is that it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. This means that the outside of the machine looks like a small police box, while the inside is gigantic, housing rooms upon rooms, puzzles upon puzzles.

Your brand is a TARDIS. The customer might see one small part of it, and never get the entire picture, but that doesn’t mean that the larger picture doesn’t exist. You’ve poured your heart, soul, sweat, and tears into building up your brand – and it’s likely that not everything will be clear to everyone all of the time. This may get frustrating as you’re building a name for yourself, but your brand will be larger than it seems. Doctor Who may masquerade as a television show, but there are numerous lessons to be learned through this series, branding included!



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by Lindsey Wiltse // Lindsey Wiltse is the Organic Marketing Lead for Tailor Brands, an online logo design and branding agency. She writes on small business, branding advice, and logo design. Tailor Brands can be found on social media as @tailorbrands.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.