thinking: a brand is not something you can design.
You may be saying to yourself: “But we hear about branding all of the time. Lots of companies do branding.”
They might think they do, but they don’t. No one company can do branding, for themselves or for anyone else.
So if branding is not a service anyone can offer, but branding is indeed something applied to a company, then who does it?
To a degree, you do. Your friends do it, and everyone else in the world for that matter, each in their own way. We do it too, not as a company but rather as individuals just like you. We certainly wouldn’t dream of billing for it, that’s for sure. Here’s why:
A ‘brand’ is a person’s perception of a product, service, experience, or organization.
(Marty Neumeier, “The Brand Gap”)
A ‘brand’ lives not in the hands of a given company, but rather in the minds of the public. A brand is an abstraction, a fuzzy notion shaped in individual minds by an unaccountable variety of preconceptions and ideals that we – anyone – can’t possibly predict or control. We here at eleven-seventeen specifically avoid the term ‘brand’ when talking about our work for this very reason, and stick with what we actually do design: identity.
We design identity in two parts, one following from the other: first, we craft the various verbal expressions of who the group or company is and aspires to be, what we call a core identity; and then we design the graphical expressions of that identity, a visual identity. The result of a thorough identity development process will no doubt be a brand in time, though after persistent, consistent and directed communications, interactions, and experiences. But even then, no company brands itself; rather, it’s the public that does the branding.
Having said that, a relevant and expressive identity properly communicated can have a powerful affect on public perception and therefore branding, we completely agree. Many companies go to great lengths to make sure that they are perceived as a certain ‘kind’ of company to a well defined demographic, and you may be surprised at just how successful this has been. The Coca-Cola Company, for example, owns one of the most highly respected brands in the world (and the most highly valued), and yet is at the same time considered to be one of the most egregious corporations in modern history.
actions speak louder than words
Despite the most strategic planning and measured control, a company’s brand is often trumped by their actions, good or bad, intentional or not. Think of GAP last decade. Or think of BP more recently. For a truly complicated and divisive brand, think of the Roman Catholic Church. For a curious example, think of Timberland boots and their completely unintended adoption by hip-hop culture (which has always been ignored by Timberland, who has never, ever actively catered to the urban African-American demographic).
Some companies try to change market perception (or, more generally, public perception) by taking on a new visual identity to varying degrees of success. Think of Philip Morris, who sought to avoid the effects of strong negative public opinion after being found guilty of suppressing the carcinogenic effects of cigarette smoke by ‘rebranding’ itself as Altria in 2003, which of course didn’t work; Philip Morris had been more accurately ‘branded’ by the public as a blatantly dishonest corporation who knowingly manufactured and sold a carcinogenic product, and changing their name and logo wasn’t enough to make anyone forget. Ironically, the move devalued their brand even more. Obviously, this is an extreme example of branding as deeply unethical.
branding is unethical?
It depends. Take marketing for example. The ostensible purpose of marketing is to simply tell people about a product or service from which they might benefit, and from an ethical standpoint that’s a good thing – you’re potentially helping people while greasing the wheels of commerce.
But, if ‘telling people’ moves beyond that simple goal, things could become ethically fuzzy. For instance, if a product is being marketed merely to increase sales volume while not providing anything of value (think of, well, most things on store shelves), some might argue that you’re crossing an ethical line. If the marketing communications are making false claims about the capabilities of the product, most would call that unethical. If the marketing effort is an attempt to convince consumers to buy something actually harmful to them (the Altria example above is obvious, but you could also include junk food, fast food, and some pharmaceutical or industrial farming companies along with them), well I don’t think anyone could reasonably deny that as unethical.
If branding is defined as an active attempt on the part of a company to influence public perception, then it is, like marketing, coercion. Coercion isn’t unethical in and of itself; we do it all the time and is a perfectly reasonable means of getting things done. Heck, paying people to work is coercion, and that’s a fundamental basis of our economy, society, and culture. But branding could be considered unethical if what’s being communicated is an intentional attempt to characterize a company as something other than what it actually is.
Altria is an extreme example, so let’s consider a relatively harmless example, like your average clothing store in the mall. If that store wished to attract, say, a youthful, fashion conscious (and therefore ‘spendy’) demographic, there would be a strong temptation to ‘rebrand’ itself as a the right kind of store for that group. That brand identity could easily be crafted, no problem. But if what the consumer actually experiences in-store (e.g. the clothing selection and quality, the decor and music, the staff and customer service) doesn’t line up with the way in which the store presents itself, then we have a problem – a real ethical problem. The store had intentionally misled a targeted group of people into thinking it was a certain kind of store for their own gain. Sure, no one gets cancer or emphysema, but misrepresentation of anything breeds distrust in the marketplace. If you think of the marketplace as part of our larger community, as we do, then it becomes especially insidious because you now cannot trust certain members in your own community. That’s not the kind of community in which anyone wants to live.
Ultimately, where the ethical line is drawn depends on what you’re comfortable with and what the audience will expect or even tolerate. That’s a complicated and complex problem that hasn’t been ‘solved’ per se (and probably never will be), but it should be a consideration of those who consider themselves to be involved in the work of branding – even if you think you can brand a company, you should consider well if you should try to brand a company.
warning: impending Postmodern philosophy tie-in
vive la ‘differance’
Ethical dimensions aside, there is this larger problem of actually thinking a company can successfully brand itself. The problem, ultimately, is one of the impossibility of real meaning.
Jacques Derrida said some silly things. However, what he had to say about the interpretations of the things people put in front of each other, of the signs we make – the things we say, the things we write, the various ways we communicate – is generally considered to be bang on: no one controls interpretation – not even the ‘maker’ of the sign, the communicator in question. True meaning and communication is impossible. It’s that gap between implication and inference people fall into several times a day; just think of the last argument you had with your friend or partner. The best we can hope for, and what human beings do naturally, is to infer just enough intent in a sign to get by. It’s like any other sense we have – we filter, fill in gaps, draw conclusions without enough data – we ‘make do’ simply because if we didn’t, we’d become overwhelmed and die.
Derrida coined the word ‘differance’ to shed light on this phenomenon. It refers (in an intentionally vague way) to the gaps in interpretation between the intentions of the communication, the communication itself, the deferring meanings of words, the inferences of the receiver, the further confusion of meanings, and a host of other cascading deferrences and irreconcilable differences. If communicating certain truth is your goal, Derrida would say you’d have more luck teaching an apple to drive a car.
Granted, there are heroic attempts at this communication goal every day in the ‘branding industry’, and many of these are pretty successful. You see, understanding some these vagaries of interpretation and nuances of ethnography will get you far; you can game the system, but it’s still not a guarantee. Ask BP. Of course, we must always come back to ethics. Ask BP about that too.
warning: impending Hellenistic philosophy tie-in
know who you are, say what you know
One of the great lessons of the Stoic tradition of philosophy is to know what your limits are and work within them; control what you can, and don’t even try to control the rest because it’s a waste of effort. Applied to design, and more specifically to identity, a company can indeed control what ‘kind’ of company it is, how it ‘behaves’, how it presents itself, and the various channels it chooses to communicate to its ideal demographic. Beyond that, any sense of control is ultimately illusion, any desire for control is ultimately folly, and any promise of control is ultimately a lie. No one can completely control what your market thinks, and that’s especially true among younger demographics who are now being taught critical media studies in grade school as well as being naturally more media savvy due to their immersion in a near-total media environment. Now, more than ever, branding is being proved a myth through its increasing impotence and irrelevance.
The best and most assured way to gain the respect of your market – and hopefully encourage a brand to be proud of – is to focus on your core identity. Know what you do and where, who you’re doing it for and when, why it matters, why it’s better (or isn’t), and then go from there. If you say these things clearly, honestly, and with deep understanding, you’re off to a good start. Build communications that matter, execute them well, and over time build a community that you trust and who trusts you. Then maybe – just maybe – your company will be branded the way you had hoped.
But there’s no guarantee. //