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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.
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
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
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
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.
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