Winter 2006

Brand madness

Control too much and it will appear we have something to hide

Nick Bell’s talk ‘Brand madness’ was given at Eye Forum no. 1, ‘Burning Issues’, that took place at the RSA in London, 23 November 2006.

There is a new approach that is building in marketing (and advertising) that turns the old propositional sales model on its head. It is based on fostering long-term relationships with members of a community. Not at all unfamiliar to brand-building graphic designers but brand spanking new in advertising,

founded as it is on the momentary opportunistic assault. Instead of selling you things, it’s marketing’s idea that brands should start giving things away. It seems they’ve finally cottoned on to the fact that ‘commerce is divisive’ whereas, as they put it, ‘gifting is the glue’[1] – it brings people together. The theory is that ‘part of the brand value resides in the interactions, relationships and rituals’[2] of a ‘happening’[3] group of people others want to join. The classic example of this is Fruitstock – Innocent’s yearly gathering in Regent’s Park – an event we are told ‘they don’t even want to make a profit out of’[4]. A place where attendees become advocates for the brand. Perhaps they’ve hit on something here? Other examples of the sharing, give-away culture are rather successful: Wikipedia and YouTube many of us look at every day.

What is the challenge to brand identity design when the need for ideas is not so much to create beautiful surfaces for the brand but to imagine events, interactions and experiences that rejuvenate the brand relationship and keep it alive? When visual consistency is superseded by the coherence of the programme. If brand identity is more about designing experiences, how do we set about doing that? Visit the blogspots of the marketing gurus and you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled across a debate about sustainability or service design – so close is the approach (or at least the language) of brand experience design. Apparently, if you want to increase the level of attention you receive from current and prospective customers, you must create capability in them by providing a platform for engagement that meets their interests, expectations and needs. Where am I? On the Doors of Perception blog, the Design Council’s RED blog?

Genuine service designers say that you can’t design experience. Only use design to ‘elevate the likelihood of us making certain kinds of choices’[5] by co-designing services around the user, with the user. Choices that are in the user’s own interest as a human being. Nevertheless, some level of service design coming from a company after they sold me a product, I would appreciate I think. As part of brand identity, designers can consider how customer support, through a carefully planned system of touch points, can genuinely help people use their new product and guide them in navigating other information in relation to the product that could be of interest to them. Engagement marketing calls these ‘timely offers from an old friend’[6]. Rather scarily, one cited example, to engage owners of the fuel inefficient, military style Hummer brand of SUVs, is HOPE, the Hummer Owners Prepared for Emergency programme that will contribute million to the American Red Cross to assist with disaster relief efforts. Another rather more gentle, friendlier example of engagement marketing is the ‘pattern of interaction’[7] created by the conveyor belts in Yo! Sushi restaurants.

For an existing company with a dodgy track record, a brand identity overhaul that focuses on playfulness can work wonders. A strategy of self-deprecating cuteness can, temporarily at least, detach a company from its unflattering history. How BP would love to appear so sweet and innocent as Innocent, for instance. When good design has become the badge of the corporate world, no wonder it can be better to be naive and goofy. But just like any real human relationship it can be damaged by calculation and deceit. After all (and it’s stating the obvious I know), but brands are what they DO, not what they say.

Being overly controlling is not a good thing when it comes to a long-term relationship. Control comes to mean to reduce, diminish, denude – and especially when exerted from within a design culture so predicated on Modernism, as ours still is. It leads to representing only a part of a constituency and disenfranchisement of the rest. Better now, perhaps, to see brand identity as working only by association, as a vessel onto which people can project their own opinions. One that remains open enough to carry an array of points of view and in turn mean something slightly different to everyone. Branding should not simply be about pinning things down. Increasingly, brand identities will have to negotiate the degree of flux that users desire if they are to continue to appeal to many. The challenge is to achieve this without losing coherence. Control too much and it will appear we have something to hide. We all want to present our best side, divert attention away from our weaknesses and to our strengths. But to err is to be human and to be human is a quality we all cherish.

1. John Grant, founder of St Luke’s advertising agency, London.

2. John Grant, founder of St Luke’s advertising agency, London.

3. John Grant, founder of St Luke’s advertising agency, London.

4. John Grant, founder of St Luke’s advertising agency, London.

5. Jennie Winhall, senior design strategist, RED, Design Council, London. Is Design Political,

6. John Grant, founder of St Luke’s advertising agency, London.

7. John Grant, founder of St Luke’s advertising agency, London.

From Eye Forum no. 1, ‘Burning Issues’, RSA, London, 23.11.06

Nick Bell, designer, former Eye creative director, London

First published online to coincide with Eye no. 62 vol. 16 2006

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 and single issues.