Getting Branding Right - Interview with Whaim Studio

by Thida Leiper

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With a booming economy and a digital revolution, Cambodia is rebranding itself as a fast growing country with a blossoming business sector. With so many new startups, brands, NGO's and non-profits entering an increasingly competitive market, many are looking to branding specialists to help them stand out from the crowd. We sat down with Whaim Studio, a team of creatives impacting the branding landscape in Cambodia, to find out about their experience in helping local businesses and social initiatives build strong brand identities through unique design.

How was Whaim founded?

Julie: We founded in 2014, 3 years ago now. The point of it was because we wanted to leave France for Asia. We could still continue to work and do what we do by working remotely for clients worldwide. We worked for several years in design agencies in Switzerland and after a while we felt it was a good time to create our own company and do these things our way.

How long have you been working in the SEA region and what brought you to Cambodia?

Florent: Initially, we came to Asia to travel for a few months in 2011 and we fell in love with the region. When we came back to France we weren’t thinking about moving away but after a few months, we started to imagine ourselves living abroad.

Julie: First we chose to move to Thailand as we thought that moving to a more developed country would be a more comfortable transition. We ended up working in Krabi and although we really liked it there, we needed something a bit more animated.

So we then decided to move to Cambodia and very quickly fell in love with the energy and the atmosphere in Phnom Penh. To this day, we are still very happy about our choice.

What services does Whaim provide?

Julie: We are a multi-disciplinary design studio specialising in brand identity. Other services that we provide are branding integration, web design and we also provide strategic design consultancy. We feel that it is fundamental to implement strategy into design because great designs are only relevant if they are focused on a particular market and target.

In your opinion, why is having a strong brand so important?

Julie: It’s really important because now we have a jungle of brands and businesses and so if you have strong identity or communication strategy, you will be able to make a big impact.

Florent: Yes if you are more visible and more credible, you can stand out amongst your competitors.

Julie: It brings a lot of credibility when you have good branding because people will trust you. If you made the effort to create appropriate designs, people will think ‘okay, this is a company that is established, they have invested in good branding so they know what they are doing.'

Florent: It also gives a professional feeling to your audience while helping people understand what you are selling. In the end, this is a lever to increase your sales. Or if you are an organisation, it can help communicate what you are doing, what benefits you bring, raise funds and make a bigger impact.

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Branding for CULT

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What are some of the most common needs that people bring to your studio?

Florent: Mainly, we have 4 types of requests. The first is from clients that have just started their business and are creating a brand identity from scratch and need advice on the first steps to take with their communications and image.

We then get clients who are refreshing a brand image and want to evolve their branding or change their positioning. So they ask us what they should do to be to be aligned with their audience expectations and be perceived correctly.

Julie: We also help clients that might want to reach a new level. For example, if their strategy has been working well for many years, they might want to change their target or set a new goal. So we help them align their image with their objectives.

Clients also come to us to help them standardise their branding. Many new businesses start off implementing different ideas and designs that might not necessarily work well together, so they need our help in creating brand guidelines so that everything connects.

You have been doing more work with social enterprises, NGO's and initiatives. What attracted you to these projects?

Florent: Recently we worked with CULT, which is a monthly market promoting ethical and environmentally conscious brands in Cambodia, and we have worked with Little Scientist Mag, a bilingual (khmer & english) magazine helping to engage children in STEM. I think what we like most about it is knowing that we work for people that want to be part of a positive change. In the approach of designing for them, we reuse what we know from our past experience of working for different kinds of clients in order to help them communicate a strong image and message..

Julie: We really like to work for brands that are socially involved. Things are evolving but some of them think that because they are working for a social cause their branding is not so important. It’s an interesting process to advise them and explain them how to communicate like an established brand while implementing a human aspect that can convince people to care about their cause.

When you are a social brand, you need to compete with the mainstream brands that have had big funds and are very professional.  So it’s all about finding the right balance.

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Whaim design for Little Scientist Mag

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How high is the competition for brands to stand out in the Cambodian market today?

Julie: In one way it’s great here as there are many opportunities to create what you want since there isn’t an industry standard yet. At the same time, it’s a small market and you generally have to think about extending your product or brand abroad. So the process of figuring this out can take time. Businesses are also starting and dying very quickly so you need to start with a very strong business model, strong communications and strong services or products if you want to survive.

Florent: Yeah, it’s not just about having a good image, it’s the whole package and how everything fits together.

Julie: Also, I think it’s really important that brands focus more and more on having an overall approach. It’s not a good idea to have a message or look that keeps changing all the time. There are so many restaurants, brands and companies being created here, and when people are overwhelmed by messages and your branding is not clear, they will get lost and forget about you.

Florent: Things here are evolving really fast now and people are starting to understand that you don’t need to say everything to get your message across. Now there are more designers improving their skills and know how to be more direct in their message. We are observing that things are changing in this way, even if there are a lot of people doing it themselves for now.

In your opinion, how has the rise of social media impacted brand building in Cambodia?

Florent: You have to communicate on social media when you have a business in Cambodia, especially Facebook!

Julie: It's a big part of communications worldwide, but here in Cambodia it's HUGE. I mean if you don't have a Facebook page it doesn’t exist for many people here. Because of the importance of social media here, you need to understand how to communicate on social media and how to have a consistent message or image on each platform like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and your own website if you have one.

If you could give three tips to a startup thinking about their brand strategy, what would they be?

  • Think about what you goals are and what is the objective with your branding. Designing without a strategy is useless.
  • Good branding means understanding your audience, market, and competitors. So you should really understand all these things to help you make the right designs.
  • Brainstorm ideas on what platforms you want to use, how you want to be perceived and what your needs are before approaching a professional. This will really help them create the best strategy and design to help you achieve your goal.