Name brands, off brands, house brands, brand Nu?

The designer Jessica Helfand wrote that her “wish for the New Year was to get through meetings without someone mentioning ‘branding.’” That was a few New Years ago. With the move from brand consciousness to branding consciousness, her wish needs updating. The problem is no longer the inescapability of meetings where branding is mentioned, but the near inescapability of meetings where branding is the entire agenda. And not just meetings. Lectures, seminars, websites, conferences, panels, Power Point presentations and, for all I know, meditations, abound with titles like “Your Brand as the Heart of Your Business,” “How Brands Became Icons,” “Product is Brand,” “The Branding of American Design” and “Branding Your Way to Globalization.”

Those are merely titles and may have substance behind them. But titles are names, which also may have substance behind them. I suppose that is what brands are ideally, names with substance behind them: Apple, Patagonia, Hohner, Smuckers.

I once worked for a humor magazine where my first assignment was an article on nomenclatural panic in the pharmaceutical industry. Researchers were inventing new medications faster than copywriters could dream up names for them. Computers could do it faster; but were subject to inhuman error, generating brands like “Booboomycin,” that met program criteria but did not carry market credibility.

The magazine’s offices were on New York's Fourth Avenue, which at the time was itself being rebranded and reclassed as Park Avenue South. Was the change important? It was to letter carriers. For slightly different reasons, the American Craft Museum in New York has changed its name to the Museum of Art & Design.

Some names, like some sticks and stones, can hurt enough to justify considering change. Serious institutions with funny names have always suffered derision. I wonder how many earnest high school students resist applying to Bob Jones University because it sounds like a fast-food franchise. All of my high school teachers were alumni of either Slippery Rock or Indiana State Teachers College. Although Slippery Rock was no football powerhouse, sports announcers unfailingly reported the scores of every Slippery Rock game, for laughs. Indiana State Teachers College was not a funny name, but a confusing one, considering that the school was in Pennsylvania. Another Pennsylvania institution, Beaver College, has renamed itself Arcadia University, to eliminate Animal House jokes. As a native of Beaver County, for which the college was originally named, I fear the rebranding of my childhood.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” She was of course wrong. Names influence perception and can enhance experience. But they need support. A global brand strategist, citing McDonald’s as an example of regional adaptation in branding, writes that “In India the brand caters to a largely vegetarian and non-beef-eating population where its leading burger, the Maharaja Mac, is made with chicken and local spices.” Well, sure. But the operative change there is not the patronizing name of the sandwich, but the ingredients in the recipe. That’s not branding. It’s cooking.

Branding is more than naming, but the process of branding aims to burn the positive perception of a name into a product, a product line, a company, and public consciousness. The subject, both real and imagined, may have seemed innocuous at first. After all, except for Harry Potter when he is wearing the invisibility cloak, everything and everyone has an image of some kind. Image is the chief, and often the only, salable element in products like fragrances and fashion. Its inflation in those realms is innocently deceptive; any harm done is limited to ego and discretionary income. But image is not reality, an obvious but necessary mantra when it comes to brands, “FEMA,” the agency’s former chief-of-staff Jane Bullock laments, “was once a brand name.” Stripped of the reality of performance, the brand went under with the levees. Branding becomes socially dangerous when offered up, and bought, as an approach to problems beyond the marketplace.

When the city of Fayetteville, North Carolina, struggling with its image, hired an image consultant, they were advised that, because Fort Bragg was their most conspicuous, and their only nationally known, feature, their most exploitable marketing commodity was patriotism. “Patriotism,” the consultant told them, “can be Fayetteville’s most successful deliverable.”

It unnerves me to hear about deliverables from anyone who doesn’t work for FedEx or UPS, or about branding from anyone not in a John Wayne western. Patriotism can’t be delivered. Brands are product shorthand for trust. That isn’t a deliverable either, which is why cattle rustling, the world’s oldest organized form of identity theft, led to the gallows.

The Department of Defense, seeking to revitalize a troubled brand called the Army, has engaged the Leo Burnett agency to make its case. The choice is inspired if you believe the agency’s claim that it “creates ideas that inspire enduring belief for many of the world’s most valuable brands and most successful marketers, including McDonalds, Disney, Marlboro, Nintendo and the U.S. Army.” I don’t. The enduring belief that an ad agency can “create ideas that inspire enduring belief” is what gives branding a bad name.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.