Autumn 2004

Brand discipline

Branding is not design and it is not marketing. Branding is a discipline we have to define

Many businesses and organisations confuse the discipline of brand with that of marketing, or worse, assume that branding means hiring a designer simply to develop a logo and then burn it on to every inanimate object within reach. Sadly, this is how many designers think as well. Businesses and organisations can claim ignorance but as designers, we should know better.

True, design education rarely broaches the topic of ‘brand discipline’, but it would still seem that many designers are going right ahead and laying claim to this area of expertise, only to find that more often than not they are referring to logo design, identity design, or ‘brand identity’.

These definition inconsistencies are not just relegated to the fresh-faced designers looking to sign up clients by dropping the ‘branding’ buzzword haphazardly – their seniors are just as guilty. At the 2003 AIGA National Design Conference in Vancouver there was a noticeable undercurrent of frustration prompted by so many disparate assumed definitions of ‘branding’, ‘brand’ and ‘brand work’ by the presenting designers, and even the AIGA Brand Experience Council. The latter was discussed in the recent AIGA Brand Experience Newsletter, where Nathan Shedroff, chairman to the council writes, ‘It seems that every conversation we have comes down to a disagreement of definitions at some point. Admittedly, something as complex as a brand can’t be easily defined on only one level. However … If we can’t even agree on a definition of the word brand, how are we ever going to discuss anything else related to brands?’

Branding is not simply a marketing term or a deliverable, it is a discipline – though it is sometimes perceived as one of those mysterious areas, like Tai Chi or Latin percussion, where you need a fundamental, almost spiritual understanding before daring to list it on your business card.

Branding is certainly not a logo, or marketing, or even a positioning statement. It is a foundation, stating who you are, what your association is, what you offer to the world, and how your audience should (or does) perceive you – and it all centres around the increasing necessity of ‘mindshare’ and conceptual ownership. Without it, organisations will find it more and more difficult to survive.

How did we get here?
The average consumer in the western world must deal with approximately 10,000 brands competing for mindshare. This is a far cry from a generation ago, when the total number of news sources, television stations and meaningful cereal choices numbered single digits.

For example, according to statistics from UK’s Small Business Service (SBS), in 2002, over 175,000 new businesses were named and registered in the UK alone. There are 856 organisations in Houston Texas that use the word ‘Southwest’ in their name.

In many instances, designers’ clients need branding discipline more than they need hip, award-winning design. If the client already has a solid brand in place, designers need to know how to not screw it up – possibly by being too focused on creating hip, award-winning design pieces. Yet the client may even encourage the designers to screw it up.

This is not to say that we should all go back to school and major in Brand Discipline (if only there were such a thing). An adequate understanding, however, might help not only to clear the air among our peers, but also raise the level of design quality and relevance for organisations trying to realise their goals. Branding can be viewed as a collection of definitions to form a discipline. For the sake of clarity, let us agree that the term ‘organisation’ can mean a business, a non-profit organisation, an institution, a geographic location or even an individual. We’ll start by exploring some definitions:

Brand identity – The visual elements unique to an organisation or product which may include any one or more of the following: symbolic imagery, stylistic treatment of name, colour, typographic specifications and any other accessory visual elements designed to bring recognition and association. Sometimes referred to as ‘trade dress’, or ‘visual identity’.

As previously stated, this is where most common desk designers usually stop with their conceptual understanding of branding.

Brand personality – The characteristics or traits that describe an organisation or product as if it were a living being (such as ‘dynamic’, ‘sexy’ or ‘aloof’), driving visual and experiential touch points to consistently deliver emotional qualities to the point of association and retention. This is where most small to mid-sized marketing firms stop with their definition of branding.

Brand values – What the Brand stands for, believes in and ultimately where it draws the line.

What can easily be a separate set of traits, brand values neatly bridges brand personality with the brand promise (below), by letting the audience gain a bit more insight into what an organisation or product is as a ‘living entity’. For instance, if The Body Shop could talk, it might say: ‘I am about great products, but you should know first that I am pure and kind to the environment. I have a conscience.’

Brand promise – The supposed benefits, either practical or emotional, gained by those partaking in the experience or consumption of an organisation or a product.

What pleasures are to be enjoyed? What pains will be reduced? How is the bottom line supposed to be affected? This is where it seems the buck stops for most of the big-time agencies.

Advertising legend Walter Landor once said: ‘Simply put, a Brand is a promise. By identifying and authenticating a product or service, it delivers a pledge of satisfaction and quality.’ Many design and branding people still agree with this. To be a relevant force, however, a brand must do more than just promise. Al Ries and Laura Ries state in their book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, ‘What others say about your Brand is much more powerful than what you say about it yourself. That’s why publicity in general is more effective than advertising.’ Steve Hilton’s article ‘How Brands can Change the World’ (Journal of Brand Marketing, May 2003) concurs, ‘… companies trying to tell the world that they are nice are about as likely to succeed in that quest as an individual who comes up to one at a party and says: “I’m a good person – please like me!”’

Advertising a promise simply protects a brand – news is what gives a brand its credibility. News can also take credibility away. Coca-Cola proved this by its famous failed recipe re-engineering decades ago. No amount of advertising could solidify (or salvage) the new formula. It took real action (news) in going back to the ‘Classic, Real Thing’ to re-position Coca-Cola back to the top.

Brand concept – The singular concept or idea to be owned in the mind of your audience, AKA ‘conceptual ownership’.

If there is one core component in the discipline of branding it is this one. Look at history and the exponentially growing stimulus competing for our mental associations (mindshare). And now look at the successful, almost cultish brands, and note their singularity and consistency in the concepts they own in our minds: Volvo – Safety, 3M – Innovation, Nordstrom – Service, Amazon – Expanse. Sure Volvo makes sports cars and SUVs, but look at their commercials. No hair-raising stunt driving, just tidy drivers wearing seatbelts.

Why is this emotional conceptual singularity so important? Because it is the way we think, whether we like it or not. With so much bombardment from an ever-growing number of companies and messages all vying for our attention, mindshare is the only way our brains will have any hope to latch on to what an organisation and / or product wishes us to. Successful brands realise that they’re not going to get everyone, but they will surely capture an audience that thinks the way they do.

To put this Brand Glossary into perspective, it’s all the other brand components – promise, values, personality, identity – that reinforce, accessorise and complement this brand concept. These components can ebb, flow and evolve, but they must not detract from the conceptual ownership for fear of dilution, whereby suddenly that singularity gets washed away by all the other focused concepts vying for our attention. What’s more, if an organisation or product fails to define itself, it will get defined regardless. It’s the nature of the human mind, again, trying to make sense from overstimulation.

Making design relevant
So how is a discipline that is more neural psychology than visual imagery supposed to benefit designers? First, the work gets focused, targeted, uber-relevant and is turned out more efficiently. Second, the savvy designer will know when to steer a client toward a real branding regimen when the problems run deeper than needing a new logo. Several years back, Sean Adams (AdamsMorioka) did that for a music video network (VH-1) that was primarily interested in a new visual identity. His recommendation: conceptual ownership. Adams and his team came back with a tighter focus, new programming ideas and a comprehensive visual makeover. The network wanted a Band-Aid; Adams performed a triple-bypass and group therapy.

And third, if designers are to reclaim their position up the food chain with the other executives, we need to become more relevant – and that means understanding ‘brand discipline’.

Rob Camper, creative director, Times Infinity, Houston

First published in Eye no. 53 vol. 14 2004

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.