Who’s Afraid of the Big Brand Wolf?
There was Milton Glaser, on stage at the recent Gain conference, saying how he despised the term branding. We all laughed, partly because of the mock dramatic way he said it, but also because there’s something in all of us that despises the term branding. Then he added, with lip curled, that branding reminded him of burning things into animals.
And why shouldn’t it? The roots of the word brand go back to the old Norse brandr, meaning “to burn”, and its meaning hasn’t migrated much. Even today, the thought of a white-hot poker searing living flesh can make any number of body parts curl.
Rewind to last year, at the AIGA national conference, to a Brand Experience breakout session. More of a breakdown session, really. Instead of being a dialogue about the ways designers might harness the power of brand, it turned into an argument over its moral right to exist. It looked like branding might be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. Like a fool, I stood up and said, “There’s no way branding can be used for evil!” Shouts were hurled back and forth across the aisle, and within minutes the authorities arrived to close the meeting.
As the ruckus moved into the hallway, one of the combatants pointed at me: “It’s that word brand. I’m sick of this marketing jargon. We should just use a normal word and be rid of brand once and for all.”
So a group of us stood there and made a list of alternatives—name, reputation, promise, trademark, perception, story, community, identity—all jargon-free words, but none that encompassed the fullness of the concept. Well, we could try to mint a new word. Something with no prior meaning, like blurfel or noitapitsnoc. Or we could construct a classy neologism from Greek or Latin morphemes, like signetics. But we all agreed that language doesn’t work that way. What we needed was not a new word, but a new definition of the word we already had.
The brouhaha over brand, it seems to me, may well be based on a series of irrational fears. I’d like to take a moment to bring them into the light and examine them more closely.
Fear #1: Brands are erected by evil companies to disguise their bad behavior. We immediately think of the executives at Enron, who hired Paul Rand to design a handsome trademark for the front of the building, while in the back room they conspired to bilk their shareholders out of millions.
Question: Are brands created by companies—or by customers? The most current thinking on brands is that customers create them out of the raw materials issued by companies. The company doesn’t own the brand, but it can help build the brand by keeping its promises. The “brand” that customers have of Enron is that of a lying, cheating sonovabitch who used a respectable corporate image to trick people into investing large sums. Is this an example of branding—or unbranding?
Fear #2: Branding is commercializing our lives. It seems as if we can’t go anywhere these days without fighting off billboards, slogans, commercials, logos, and other examples of selling, selling, and more selling.
Question: Is this branding—or advertising? Branding is about building long-term value by setting and exceeding customer expectations. Advertising, on the other hand, has been about driving short-term sales with attractive promises. One of the reasons the advertising industry is under pressure right now is that customers are demanding accountability in addition to salesmanship. So isn’t branding, by virtue of its built-in accountability, a welcome counterbalance to advertising?
Fear #3: Global brands are the Trojan horses of creeping cultural imperialism. Here we might think of Disney or McDonald’s, contaminating other cultures with lowest-common-denominator American values, their influence spreading like a virus through children whose parents are nearly helpless to resist.
Question: Isn’t the term global brand a misnomer? If a brand resides in the mind of a customer, then Disney or McDonald’s is a significantly different brand in each culture. In the long-term, the competitive forces of branding will sensitize companies to individual cultures, or else risk abandonment as people begin to reclaim their cultural authenticity.
Fear #4: Brands will become more powerful than countries. As corporations use branding to merge and grow rich, their power will become more centralized until they can manipulate entire governments. Soon we may be living in the United States of Sephora.
Question: Are brands about centralized power—or decentralized power? The modern view of brands is that they emerge from the interactions of customers, employees, and media—not growing from the top down, but from the bottom up in a distributed social network. If brands become more powerful than countries under these circumstances, I’ll eat my hat.
These irrational fears remind me of another time when the design community resisted change. It was around 1985, when many designers thought computers would put all the best practitioners out of business. It took about ten years for the industry to adapt to this “threat”, We not only survived but thrived.
Now, twenty years later, we’ve reached a similar inflection point. This time the perceived danger is the professionalization of design, a change that seems to threaten our individuality. Yet we now realize that to play a meaningful role in any significant project, we’ll need a seat at the table. That table, in my opinion, is labeled brand. My only fear at this point is a coldly rational one—that the seats may be taken by the time we get there.
Think: What’s to stop other brand-building specialists such as marketing executives, business consultants, positioning strategists, advertising agencies, and research firms from taking over the design industry? Didn’t we do precisely that to the typographic industry twenty years ago? Will we soon reach a point where design is perceived as too important to leave to designers?
Last year, after the “breakdown” session, I was convinced that what we needed was not only a better definition of brand, but a complete dictionary of brand. I rashly appointed myself its editor, gathered a council of leading brand-builders from ten related disciplines, and together with fellow board members from the AIGA Center for Brand Experience compiled 211 interrelated definitions and published them in a little book called The Dictionary of Brand. Ann Willoughby and her excellent staff volunteered to do the design, Smart donated the paper, Metropolitan Printers produced the book, and the AIGA funded the first edition.
The Big Idea of the dictionary is simply this: to establish a level playing field by agreeing on a common language, so that brand-builders from every discipline can collaborate as equals. Does the dictionary include jargon? Yep. Will many of the terms be obsolete in five years? Absolutely. Will the language of brand buy you a seat at the business table? That depends on what you’re afraid of most—branding, or going the way of typographers.
Note: If you went to the Gain conference, you received a free copy of The Dictionary of Brand. If you didn’t, you can visit Amazon in a month and buy a copy for under ten dollars. Proceeds will go toward future printings.
About the Author: My favorite role is organizing creative collaboration within brand communities. I've been described as a brand coach, and my firm's knowledge base has been described as the "glue" that holds brands together. The three accomplishments that best illustrate my commitment to brand design are my ex-magazine CRITIQUE, my recent book THE BRAND GAP, and my upcoming book THE DICTIONARY OF BRAND, to be published by the AIGA. I'm a national board member, as well as a board member of the Center for Brand Experience. My fondest hope for the AIGA is that we can grow from a craft organization to craft+strategy organization, allowing us to take a leadership position in the design of business, government, and culture.