I have a confession to make.
When I first started working in brand strategy, I had no idea what I was doing. On my first brand architecture job, I was literally Googling “brand architecture” and phoned a friend to ask what the heck a brand architecture diagram looked like.
To the horror of brand strategists everywhere, for most of my career, I spent much of career disengaged with the idea of ‘branding’. I was heavily in the digital world of clicks, conversions, and prototypes, and what brand work I did see was always presented in unbearably long Powerpoint decks. Brand guidelines were brandished over partner agencies as long lists of “don’ts.” Brand agencies I met were smug and unapproachable.
And, can we just take a moment to talk about the language surrounding branding? That’s a rant in and of itself. By and large, I saw brands fail to operate as an inspiring compass for creative and interesting work that solved people’s problems. But…that was before I met Debbie, Robert, and Michael. (And by met…I mean that I read their books / listened to their podcasts).
My erstwhile Googling wasn’t incredibly fruitful, and whilst my phone-a-friend experience was slightly more illuminating, I was, by the end of that call — no brand expert. Fortunately, I worked with an ace team who knew exactly what they were doing and were gracious enough to help me learn on the job as I raced to learn and contribute as we went.
Now that I feel like I’ve got a handle on this brand business I felt it was my Karmic duty to share my findings with the world. Perhaps some other strategist madly googling ‘brand strategy’ the night before her first brand project will find it useful.
Falling in Love with Branding: A Crash Course
A very kind mentor gave me a bunch of people to check out, books to read, and things to think about as I sashayed naively into the world of brand design. What follows is my cliff notes on the crash course in branding that I’ve undertaken since joining For the People.
Debbie Millman. Debbie Millman articulates design and brand in a way that helped me marry our human need to make meaning out of the world around us and the commercial impact of branding and design. She’s also an incredible interviewer.
Michael Beirut. Michael Beirut was recommended as a must-read / must-listen for his ability to articulate design. I found reading his piece on designing Hillary Clinton’s logo incredibly illuminating. As a strategist, it’s incredibly helpful to learn how designers think. And few write as well as Michael Beirut.
Robert McKee. Robert McKee is a creative writing instructor who is most widely known for his “Story” seminar. McKee is a screenwriter himself, and his former students include 63 Academy Award winners, 164 Emmy Award winners, 30 WGA (Writers Guild of America) Award winners and 26 DGA (Directors Guild of America) Award winners. His advice to “write the truth” is something I’ve taken to heart as a strategist, and his book, while technical, is full of gold for helping storytellers weave universal truths about the world and humanity.
Believing in brands: A New Perspective
Here are conclusions I’ve come to, that help me understand what difference a brand can make to an organisation — when done well.
Brands help humans and organisations signal what they believe to the rest of the world.
Whether you believe that well-made products can inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis, that suffering on a road bike in the wee hours of the morning is a noble pursuit, or that handcrafted denim can breathe new life into an old town: brands help us signal these beliefs about the way the world should work to the people around us.
Ask: What do you believe about the world?
“Though some observations may seem esoteric, it’s inevitable that our ideas about who we are and how we relate to the universe help us decide between Patagonia and Prada when we shop.” — Debbie Millman
What a brand believes in helps people hold mental space for a product, service, or experience in their minds.
These strong beliefs about the way the world should work is an exciting place from which to create products, services, and experiences for customers. Whether you’re creating apps that help connect the world’s athletes, a physical home base where women can advance their pursuits and build community together, or reimagining the gym as a religious practice, belief drives interesting brands that their target customer remembers.
Ask: If you really believe [insert belief], what would you create in service of that belief?
Brands guide how an organisation behaves within it’s own walls.
Belief is an inside job, too: brands are culmination of tiny gestures, engrained behaviours, voice, feeling, look and attitude of a person or organisation that signal what they believe to the rest of the world. It starts with employees, and organisational culture. How does what you believe manifest within the walls of your organisation? How do you speak to your employees? How do they speak to each other? How does this help you attract the right people to your business who also believe what you believe?
Ask: If you really believe [insert belief], how would your organisation operate on a day-to-day basis to reflect that belief?
Brands help us answer the question “Do I belong?”
It’s why we might feel at home in certain stores. Or imagine that we might get along with a certain type of person because they wear the same brand of sweater as we do. We know that we belong — or don’t. And as highly social creatures, this is incredibly important to us, whether we acknowledge it or not. I like what Debbie Millman has to say about this:
“Psychologists such as Harry Harlow and John Bowlby have proven that humans feel happier and better about themselves that humans feel happier and better about themselves when our brains resonate with those of other like-minded humans. Perhaps our motivation to brand, and to be branded, comes from our hardwired instinct to connect.” — Debbie Millman
Ask: What would someone need to see from your organisation in order to determine whether they believed in the same things — and thus — felt like they belonged to that organisation?
Brand strategist as….anthropologist?
Part of my struggle was understanding what my strengths were and how I could use them to help brands find their story. The single biggest implication of the above observations was that it wasn’t my job to come in and dictate to an organisation what they should do. Rather, it was to help them see the truest thing about them: by observing them and finding the story that only they can own. My role is not as a consultant but as an anthropologist. One of my favourite tools on a project is to interview existing employees. I aim to answer the question “What’s the truest thing about this organisation?” You’ll find out amazing things from clients, if you listen.
One of my favourite questions to ask to generate ideas about brand behaviours is — if we, as an organisation, really believed [insert belief here], what would we do?
But I also, now, try to pay attention not only to the truth, but to story, and feelings. These are things that can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet or captured between a set of quotation marks. It’s visceral, the reactions we get or the feeling an organisation can create.
This, again, is not new, but an oldie from Wally Olins.
“What I really, hugely, and antagonistically dislike is the attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. And if you are a branding consultant, you have to accept that there are a lot of things you just cannot quantify.” Wally Olins
Where to, from here?
The most exciting thing about going on a journey to really develop my own understanding of branding is that I’ve learned new ways to engage with clients. Instead of answers and deliverables, I search for stories. Instead of structuring my work around political approvals, I structure my work around getting people’s eyes to light up (although formal approvals are certainly necessary, too!). I don’t come up with one big brand idea, I try to come up with lists of 100 ideas that stem from a single belief. “If we really believed [insert belief here]…we’d answer the phone like this, greet people in reception like this, throw celebrations like this, etc.”
Once we know who an organisation is, what they’re trying to do, and what they’re willing to do in support of that belief — we can design a distinctive brand that evokes a response from people and creates a commercial or social difference in market. But this work on uncovering belief and truth — it has to come first. Because belief is the basis for a strong brand.
“Branding is a process of meaning manufacture that begins with the biggest, boldest gestures of the corporation and works its way down to the tiniest gestures. This is one of the reasons that design matters.” Grant McCracken
How did you wade into the world of brands? How would you change it to make it more accessible to people?