Branding is…

I did a panel discussion last week organised by the DBA, the star of which was Michael Wolff of Wolff Olins fame, though neither he (or Wally Olins) has had anything to do with the company for quite a while now.

To be totally honest I wasn’t completely at ease with the format, which may have been blatently apparent to the audience – Michael in the chair and four of us ‘local’ designers asking pre-scripted questions – so I felt more like an actor than a designer, and as anyone who witnessed my turgid performances in school plays will testify, the former is not a pleasant experience.

Michael was a very pleasant guy, and an entertaining speaker, seemingly able to combine a real passion for design (whereas many of his peers often seem slightly cynical), with the humility to be able to position design within the broader context of a world with bigger concerns.

There was one interesting point he made, which I felt wasn’t really resolved, and I flag it up as it relates very closely to much of the brand work for which Michael is famous. He talked about ‘four rooms‘* of design and aspiring to move between these rooms – the first was a place where appropriation ruled and the drive for your work as a designer was to emulate what you consider to be ‘good design’ – the second was a place where research drove how you designed, the third a place where reason and ‘process’ led what you did and the fourth was where unfettered ‘creativity’ was the order of the day.
He seemed to be advocating that the place to be was in the latter room, and this was the place where the best design would happen, and to which we should aspire. However 90% of current brand-related design (outwith the initial design work – the fixing and defining of the identity) pro-actively forces designers to occupy the first two rooms. Rather than approaching design tasks with creative carte blanche and an ability to design specific pieces of communication with their own logical and creative design rationale, brand (and the structures that support it) pre-determine appearance, tone and content. So rather than saying who is this for?- How can we reach and move them? – How can we create something distinctive and memorable? – we frequently find ourselves in a situation where the first design question we ask ourselves is how can I make this look like all this other stuff?

We are, thankfully, with the more advanced thoughtful agencies at least, moving away from a place where brand is about fixing identity. Prompted by the Olympics hoo-haa, I took a look at the new Wolff Olins site (which, as I write, seems to have been mysteriously replaced by the old one? SITE ) and their current interpretation – The Brand is a Platform – prompted this rather unscientific audit of what a brand is (or might be… or isn’t). Further contributions welcome.

Brand is a Platform
Brand is not what you say it is – its what they say it is.
Brand(ing) is about coherance, not consistency
A Brand is nothing, wanting to be everything
Brand is a purpose idea
Do is a Brand
A Brand is a promise
Brand is the last refuge of the ignorant

* Apologies for any errors in the re-telling of this story. The general gist is as accurate as I can remember, but it’s possible that some of the terms are of my own imagining.

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