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Brand Thinking with Debbie Millman

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Brand ThinkingThere’s a lot of talk about “brand” lately and, while I can’t claim this to be a new phenomenon, with the rise of social media the notion has extended beyond the walls of advertising and marketing meetings. Now that nearly everyone is on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and a host of other online forums, the term has come into public consciousness. People are asking how they want to present themselves to the world: what do I stand for? What should be public and what should remain private? What will build a reputation and what might destroy it? In essence, what is their “brand”?

There are many skeptics when it comes to branding. Those who view it negatively see it as insincere, disingenuous, and manipulative. But it doesn’t need to be this way. There’s a case for genuine marketing, a way of creating a strong, decided presence in order to connect with an eager audience.

I work in book publishing and constantly have to remind myself that not everyone knows what an imprint is: a subdivision of a larger publishing house. For example, Vintage is an imprint of Random House; Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster; Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin; and St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan.

For some who live within this bubble of publishing it can come as a surprise that not everyone looks at the spine of a book (where the name and logo of the imprint is located) when they walk into a bookstore; to us insiders it’s practically second nature. However, knowing what an imprint is and becoming familiar with what they publish can be incredibly useful to the general public.

Oftentimes you can tell the tone and quality of a book based on which imprint publishes it. If you’re looking for a business book, Crown and Portfolio are good bets; if you’re looking for something more literary Farrar, Straus and Giroux or Knopf might be the way you want to go; or if you are looking for something quirky in paperback, Harper Perennial, Three Rivers Press, and Plume will probably do the trick.

For those steeped in book culture these imprints are shorthand or, for those who like an air of exclusivity, secret code. It is this subsection of the book buying community that publishers—through social media and traditional advertising—can use branding to connect with and expand their audience.

What marketing naysayers might not know is that there are a number of professionals who are passionate about their branding projects, think deeply about their craft, and who don’t approach awareness-raising with cynicism.

In Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, Debbie Millman, partner and president of the design division at Sterling Brands, President Emeritus of AIGA, and chair of the School of Visual Arts’ master’s program in Branding, sits down with leading thinkers and designers in the field to get their thoughts on advertising. Throughout her interviews, Millman asks poignant and tailored questions. These unique conversations allow for a diverse range of definitions, anecdotes, and views of the industry.

In her introduction, Millman explains that “branding is a history in flux, and [her] hope is that this collection of conversations can provide a time capsule of the second decade of the 21st century.” Throughout Brand Thinking, humanity and storytelling are common themes; nearly everyone who creates campaigns has a desire to explore what brands are and what brand awareness means.

Debbie MillmanOne of the participants is Dori Turnstall, an Associate Professor of Design Anthropology, an area of study she explains has two components: the practical dimension, how to design products based on our understanding of people, and the theoretical, understanding how “the process and artifacts of design help define what it means to be human.”

From cultural critics Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell to designer Karim Rashid to entrepreneur Seth Godin to a number of industry executives, Millman asks her subjects to explore the notion of “brand.” Each come to varying conclusions while sharing years of experience and knowledge.

Here are just a few excerpts from a book full of fascinating answers.

As mentioned, marketing expert Seth Godin was interviewed for the book. Here he defines brand:

I believe that ‘brand’ is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day.

Wally Olins, Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants of London, Madrid, Mumbai and New York, and author of a number of books on branding, has this to say about different mediums throughout the years (something to keep in mind as we’re flooding with information about the Internet and mobile devices):

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.

Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken, formerly a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and consultant for Coca-Cola, Chrysler, and Kraft, says this about understanding culture:

Designers—or indeed anybody who’s interested in business change or social change—need to make a knowledge of the culture and the social world in which they work the first condition of their provocation.

Regarding storytelling, former Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather Brian Collins, who now runs his own communication and branding firm and whose clientele history includes Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft, says:

I think the secret to working with existing brands is to help them find their intrinsic story. And then amplify the stories for new generations to share. Brands have become the best device for perpetuating mythic archetypes. …

We say we want information, but we don’t experience the world through information—we experience the world through story. … Stories are how we give meaning to what happens to us. When we call upon them, they activate archetypes—”archetypes” as defined by Carl Jung. They remind us of eternal truths, and they help us navigate through our lives.

Stanley Hainsworth former VP of Global Creative at Starbucks and Former Creative Director of Nike says:

For me, it’s all about having a story to tell. This is what will enable you to create an experience around the brand. … You go back to the essence of the brand. Why was it made? What need did it fill? Go back to the origins of a brand and identify how it connected to consumers and how it became a relevant, “loved by families” product. What were the origins of this story?

And Cheryl Swanson, founder of brand consultancy Toniq says:

A brand is a product with a compelling story. … The brands are totems. They tell us stories about our place in culture—about where we are and where we’ve been. They also help us figure out where we’re going.

President of Innovation at Sterling Brands, DeeDee Gordon, discusses the need for the audience to feel like they’re a part of brand:

It’s not enough to produce great creative work. Consumers won’t automatically like an idea just because a brand says so. They need to be part of the creative process—a process that is fluid, organic, and on their own terms. A process like this produces the most useful insights and allows designers to think about products in a whole new way—oftentimes, they’re introduced to entirely new ideas. Consumers can be designer’s biggest advocates, but only if designers will let the conversation happen and give consumers the respect they deserve by allowing them to have a say.”

Whether you’re in an industry that sells books, food, clothing, or some other object with numerous competitors, Brand Thinking will start you on a path to exploring a way to differentiate yourself from the pack, one that’s light on cynicism and heavy on passionate belief.

When you’re finished reading, Debbie Millman hosts a podcast on Design Observer called “Design Matters” where she speaks with innovators and creatives in the design field in the same manner featured in Brand Thinking. These thoughtful and stimulating conversations are an excellent compliment to her books and will keep you tide over until the next one.

::[Links]::
Buy Brand Thinking from your local bookstore
Visit Debbie Millman’s website
Listen to Design Matters

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Written by Gabrielle

July 23, 2013 at 7:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. I like the comment about brands and mythic archetypes. They steal stories from where they’re at their most powerful. How about an ice cream names Nirvana? I cringed when I saw that the first time.

    Mira

    July 23, 2013 at 7:40 am


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