Brand Blindness

I'm at our New York showroom meeting with John, creative director from the licensing division of a major entertainment conglomerate, to discuss the packaging for the introduction of an antique version of a well-known cartoon character. John's passion for the character is inspiring, and I'm hoping that the designs I'll be responsible for will meet his expectations. Halfway into the conversation he locks me in his gaze and declares, “For the packaging to work you have to be the character!” Whoa—for a second I feel like I'm in a Lee Strasberg acting class. I take his impassioned advice to heart and create an award-winning box, although the product fails in the marketplace.

Jump to eight years later: my company's senior VP of sales, our marketing analyst and I are discussing a sub-brand of our baby line. Named M.V.B. for Most Valuable Baby, it's a line of sports-themed infant items. The VP asks me what I think of the name and the trade dress. I tell him I think it's clever and that new fathers would be attracted to the sports-like graphics that my team created for the packaging and POP. Very diplomatically, they disagree.

There are three key points to their rationale. First, our company's primary purchasers are female, and too masculine a display design could turn them off to the product. Secondly, they argued, most women probably wouldn't get that the M.V.B. moniker is a play on the sports abbreviation M.V.P.—Most Valuable Player. Finally, there may be resistance from the retailer to placing a display and packaging with a primary color palette in their primarily pastel retail environment.

I put aside my ego and acknowledge the validity of these arguments. I also realize that I've been guilty of something I instinctively responded to eight years earlier in my meeting with John: brand blindness.

I define brand blindness as the tunnel vision that results from a creative being too close to the product, message and culture of a company. Especially vulnerable are in-house designers, who end up forming unrealistic assumptions about how their company, its product and its services are perceived by the public, leading to flawed strategy and design. Another result of this affliction is that those same designers tend to abandon research, ignore their audience and create designs that pay homage to their brand instead of successfully leveraging it.

John's near-fanatical devotion to his brand has resulted in huge successes for his company. Under his watchful eye the quality and consistency of the product and packaging has been excellent. But in his and his company's zeal to create the perfect brand, they have often forgotten the wants and needs of their audience and many product lines have missed the mark and failed as a result, as illustrated by my company's misadventure.

As an in-house creative, I too eat, breathe and live my company's brand. There are obvious advantages to this when either my team or I set out to develop a new design that represents our company to the public. Less obvious are the pitfalls I've mentioned. In order to address this problem, our team has adopted a previous presidential campaign slogan with a slight change as our motto: “It's the customer, stupid!”.

Specifically, we now ask a set of questions before starting any new project: Who buys the product? Where is the first point of contact made? And, is the brand message clearly communicated in the design? Though these are obvious criteria to establish before taking on any project, our brand blindness has forced us to be more rigorous and disciplined in addressing these issues.

Ironically, when we started asking these questions we found that not only had we been jumping to conclusions about our audience but we had been making fatally flawed assumptions about our brand as well. When we evaluated our counter displays we saw that we had actually been giving too little real estate to our logo. In inflating the importance of our brand we mistakenly kept the logo smaller because we felt it was so powerful it didn't need to be that large. In looking at the point of contact we also saw that our displays were lost in a sea of product in poor conditions, further diminishing any brand presence we had in the retail environment. Our team is currently working on a consistent trade dress to improve our brands visual presence in the marketplace.

There are numerous other examples of how I've been a victim of brand blindness, but the main point I believe that needs to be stressed is that we all have to be aware that we harbor assumptions about our brands. What's obvious to us about our brand's attributes may very well be hidden from the consumer, and creating self-indulgent tributes to our brands is a surefire way to miss the mark in connecting with consumers. Questioning each project, its audience and its objectives is the best way for us in-house designers to beat brand blindness and “see the light.”

About the Author:

Andy Epstein started his career as a freelance designer and illustrator with clients as varied as Bacardi, Canon, Bantam Books and Merck. Jumping into the world of in-house in 1992, Andy created and grew in-house design teams for Commonwealth Toy and Gund. He later restructured and expanded the hundred-person creative team at Bristol-Myers-Squibb and consulted at Johnson & Johnson. After a three year stint at Designer Greetings leading an in-house design team responsible for the company’s product lines and Point Of Sales materials, Andy moved back into pharma heading up a 65+ managed services team at Merck.

Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative”, a book on in-house design, in partnership with F&W Publications in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, an association dedicated to providing support to in-house designers and design team managers. Most recently he was head of INitiative, the AIGA program dedicated to in-house outreach and support where he expanded on his efforts to empower in-house teams and raise their stature in the design and business communities.