REVIEW COPY: Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman

REVIEW COPY: Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman

REVIEW COPY: Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman

REVIEW COPY: Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman

In Debbie Millman’s latest book Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, she interviews 22 well known designers and other people with opinions about brands. The conversation about brands varied quite a bit from topic to topic. When the topic about the future of branding and implementation of new social technology came up, people recognized it’s importance but they didn’t really talk about how they’re taking advantage of it. The people being interviewed tended to feel the most comfortable talking about their past branding experiences. I would have liked to have read a couple interviews with digital natives to round out the book. For me, the context of the digital native is someone that is changing and creating behavior through interactions without the traditional use of print and packaging materials. Aside from that point the book is worth reading for those interested in branding. Below are some points from each of the interviews that I took note of.

ROB WALKER: My view is that branding is the process of attaching an idea to some object, or to a service or organization. That idea can be fairly straightforward: This brand of oats (or car or hammer) is of dependable quality. Or the idea can be extremely ambitious: This brand of mobile phone (or denim or yogurt) possesses and reflects a maverick and creative worldview.

DEBBIE MILLMAN: Branding is a history in flux, and my hope is that this collection of conversations can provide a time capsule of the second decade of the 21st century. Coca-Cola is seeking to create new experiences through redesigned vending machines; nations and niche products are striving to brand their own individuality. Where we’ll be in twenty years is uncertain.

WALLY OLINS: Of course they will. Television didn’t kill radio; film didn’t kill theater. There will certainly be huge changes. But one medium doesn’t kill another. Each new medium actually makes the previous one better. Radio no longer resembles what it was before television. Television no longer resembles what it was before the Internet. All these things will change, but they give us a multiplicity of choice.

GRANT McCRACKEN: Sometimes I hear designers speaking in generalities such as, “We had to freshen the brand,” or, “We had to make it more dynamic,” and so forth. What I don’t hear designers say is, “We chose this brand, this particular meaning and that particular meaning, and we got rid of that meaning.” We can be much more particular—we must be much more particular—about the meanings that we think matter. What I’d rather hear from designers is, “These are the twelve cultural meanings at issue here, and this is where the world is—this is what the world wants. This is how we’ve crafted the brand out of these twelve meanings. This is how we’ve combined them, and this is how we’ll manage them over the next six or twelve months.”

PHIL DUNCAN: A design firm needs to bring some interesting, innovative ideas on how to validate the work, so the client is convinced the proposal is the right approach. One strategy is to show the work in the context of an unusual competitive setting. If the designers show their work in the context of brands that have done breakthrough work in other categories, they can demonstrate how their design is picking up that same feeling and will be able to break through in its own category.

DORI TUNSTALL: The fact that you’re connecting with other people who think the same way you do actually makes you feel more optimistic—because you’re not alone. You can then build a coalition and get things accomplished.

BRIAN COLLINS: We say we want information, but we don’t experience the world through information—we experience the world through story.

VIRGINIA POSTREL: Brands like nike or apple associate themselves with a lot of cultural benefits in addition to promising consumers certain brand attributes. And that’s where conscious branding comes in: how do you make these cultural benefits cool at a given moment?

BRUCE DUCKWORTH: I think it’s because about 98 percent of all the work we do is rejected. It’s a very wasteful process. If you think about all the concepts that don’t get through, you think we would be used to rejection. Also, as a designer, the first thing you tend to look for is the problem.

DAVID BUTLER: There was actually a design brief—and it included two objectives: One, they wanted a package that was so unique and so differentiated that you could find it in the dark. The second was even more surprising. they wanted glass that was so distinctive that even when it was shattered on the ground, you could still tell that it was once a Coke bottle.

STANLEY HAINSWORTH: Being a part of nike or Starbucks is like being part of a religion. You learn all the tenets of the religion. Our job, as brand evangelists, is to gain converts to the religion. But as much as I believe in this, I also realize that no one has to have those products. You can live without them—they’re not essential to life. I’ve probed deep in my soul to see if I felt bad doing this work, but I never have. I have never felt guilty.

CHERYL SWANSON: The functional pillar, the sensorial experiential pillar, and the emotional pillar. It’s the emotional pillar that actually transforms a product into a true brand with a compelling story. This then creates the bond that convinces consumers there is no substitute for it.

JOE DUFFY: I think an awful lot of people working with bad clients start out believing that during the project, they can convince the clients to understand great design. They think great design will convince them. Bullshit. Ask the right questions before designing and listen to the answers, and nine times out of ten, you’ll know whether or not you’ll be able to do great work that you’ll be proud of.

MARGARET YOUNGBLOOD: I think there are different reasons why consumers revolt. A key reason consumers are so opinionated now is that they want to be able to trust what they’re being told. If the visual language of a company is not trustworthy, consumers now push back and say, “You’re lying.” Initially, I think the intent of BP’s repositioning was very noble. It was authentic and honest. After chief executive John Browne left, the vision became something else, and that was a problem. Now the logo has become a metaphor, or an emblem for people’s lack of trust.

SETH GODIN: I’d like to answer a different question, which is, “What’s the designer’s role in helping brands leverage memories or create experiences that people are seeking out?” If I were to ask, “What kind of brand does the Catholic Church have?” there would be all sorts of design answers to that, but, in fact, for someone who has never encountered the Catholic Church, there is very little brand awareness of it. For someone who has been involved in it since they were a week old, it fundamentally has a very different meaning.

DAN FORMOSA: The way to think about “everybody” is not to think about the average person in the middle, but to think about the extremes. Think about people at the edges of your potential buying public and think about people who are most challenged. Also, you have to look at people who are experts. In the case of OXO, we looked at chefs and cooks. We wanted to understand both ends of the spectrum—those who are challenged and those who are experts.

BILL MOGGRIDGE: As designers, we can create solutions and synthesize results to improve people’s lives and make things better. I think the context of design is changing and expanding. And you can think of that in three concentric circles. Think of the inside circle as the individual. The second circle is the built environment, and the one around that is the overall, holistic environment. Each concentric circle is changing and moving in a design context that is itself expanding. In the past, we thought about designing things for the circle at the center. So your PDA, for example, is something that you use as an individual. The slightly more expansive context is to think about the health and well-being of the individual, rather than the specific things the individual uses. This more comprehensive view requires broader thinking about people. Rather than thinking about the things in isolation, we’re thinking about the whole person. Similarly, when you think about the built environment, we historically have thought about architecture. But as we move towards an expanding context for design, we find that we’re thinking more about social interactions and innovations as well as buildings. It’s not that one is replacing the other— it’s that the context is simply expanding. Now we’re thinking about social connections as well as the built environment we’re living in. And then when we think about the larger circle, sustainability is the big issue. In the past, we thought of sustainability as being about materials: choosing the best material and designing for disassembly. But now it’s absolutely clear that a sustainable planet is one that’s completely connected. Globalization has shown us that the effect of industrialization on the world is of planetary concern. We can’t just think about designing materials, we have to include a consideration of the entire planet. And that, again, is an expansion of context.

SEAN ADAMS: Collectively, we make something work, we make something look better, we make something more attractive or seductive, and someone wants to acquire it. Or there’s a political party or movement that someone wants you to believe in or join. The part that bothered me about all this was the idea that it was all negative. I wanted to start talking about the fact that consumerism is not necessarily a bad thing.

DANIEL PINK: I do think that transactions between companies and individuals—or between brands and individuals— are in their own ways conversations. A promise can be one element of a conversation. It’s what draws people in. I think that’s why the dynamic is different when you look at this conversation after someone has bought the product or the service.

DEE DEE GORDON: It isn’t, but you don’t really have to see an Apple logo on an iPod to know that it’s an iPod. You can put it next to four different MP3 players and instantly recognize the iPod. The brand provides such a strong visual language that you don’t ever need to see an Apple logo on any of the products. I can identify an Apple monitor from across the room. This is a testament to the brand’s design and visual language, and I think most of the brands that I’m interested in have a similar sensibility. You’re able to identify them without ever having to see a badge, logo, color combination, or any type of sign.

KARIM RASHID: (designocracy) It’s my term for the democratization of design. Honestly, this is the only real way to work in the design world. If you really want to make an impact, if you really want to make people’s lives better, if you really want to make change, and if you are concerned about this planet on every level—you have to make democratic things. Because, frankly, if you open up a magazine, or go to a museum, or buy a book, you can see some chair that everybody knows represents a certain image. But no one ever gets to sit on it. This doesn’t make sense to me anymore. It’s bullshit.

ALEX BOGUSKY: In advertising and design, there are usually two things going on. One is the effort to propel the discipline forward. The other is the effort to refine the craft as we know it. Both camps are important. I think you can look at people’s work and identify which camp they’re in. There are those who refine the craft as it exists, and they create, in many ways, the most beautiful work. They make the work that is the easiest to like. Those who are trying to undo the craft or destroy a piece of it—or push the discipline into a new place—that’s important too. And as soon as this type of work is successful, then the craft gets applied to what they’ve done.

TOM PETERS: In today’s environment, you’ve got to stand for something. You might not have to do this if you’re a nineteen-year-old shift manager at McDonald’s, and we certainly aren’t talking about those folks who are working at Google. But the guy who was the faceless person in the faceless purchasing department is either going to be outsourced to India or outsourced to software. The great race is between the two. To stay employable today, you’ve got to have some sort of signature.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: Right now, we’re focused on scale when it comes to the realm of sharing information with people. In previous generations, the focus was on intimacy. So, there’s been a trade. The kind of information sharing that we have now is really, really great for innovation, for the adoption of new ideas, and for forming new coalitions.

Brand Thinking Cup

Title: Graphic: Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits
Author: Debbie Millman
Publisher: Allworth Press

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