John Spencer: “Let’s get over our obsession with branding”

John Spencer: “Let’s get over our obsession with branding”

- in Design

Offthetopofmyhead’s founder and creative director says there’s no such thing as brand design and much of what the design industry says about brand is incomprehensible, pretentious and just plain daft.

The design industry is addicted to brand. Everyone’s a branding “expert”. But ask anyone to explain what it’s all about, and you’ll get a different answer every time.

In his book Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design, Wally Olins explains what brands used to be when he says: “Once upon a time brands were simple household goods – soap, tea, washing powder, shoe polish, boring everyday products that were used up and replaced. The brand was a symbol of consistency. At a time of product adulteration, unreliable performance and variable pricing, it stood for standard quality, quantity and price”.

But all that’s been stood on its head. Nowadays, brand is defined as the perception people have of an organisation – what they think, feel and believe about its products and services. Author and speaker Marty Neumeier nailed it when he said: “Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is”.

Meanwhile in a recent piece for Campaign, creative director and author Dave Trott wrote with characteristic unambiguousness: “We can’t tell the public what our brand is, the public don’t take dictation. The public look at our product, what it is, how it behaves. The public then decides what the brand is based on that behaviour. The public isn’t stupid, whatever we may think. We can decide what brand we do or don’t want, but the public will decide what our brand is for themselves”.

There’s no such thing as brand design

Branding is what designer Bill Dawson describes as: “the business equivalent of alchemy, the mythical practice of turning lead into gold”. When designers say they design brands they’re doing more than reaching for the stars. They’re claiming they’ve got stardust for sale. They’re promising something they can’t live up to.

We can’t design brands because they exist in one place and one place only – in people’s minds. I design logos and identities. I don’t claim to design brands. I work with strategists who lay the foundations for design and shape communications, so I’m confident my work is on the mark. But like everyone else, I can’t know for sure what impact it’ll have on people’s perceptions, because people are emotional, irrational and unpredictable.

Incomprehensible, pretentious and daft

Much of what the design industry says about brand and branding is incomprehensible, pretentious or just plain daft. Here are a few masterpieces. I’m naming no names.

“We create, restore and evolve iconic brands.”

“We’re a branding agency for people who care less about how things are, and more about how they could be.”

“Our brands reach into the heart to challenge attitudes, change minds and inspire action.”

“We are a brand equity design company.”

“We create monopolies for brands by employing supercharged creativity with memorable and adaptive executions.”

“We design meaningful, memorable brands that trigger a direct response from consumers.”

In the real world, nobody’s really bothered

Bob Hoffman, author of The Ad Contrarian blog says: “I promise you, if Pepsi would disappear tomorrow, most Pepsi loyalists would switch over to Coke with very little psychological damage. Nike devotees would throw on a pair of Adidas without having to enter rehab. McDonald’s faithfuls would cheerfully eat a Whopper without the need for counseling”.

According to Havas Group’s 2019 Meaningful Brands Study: “77% of brands could disappear, and no one would care”. The global study looked at 1,800 brands in 31 markets with 350,000 respondents.

Despite the design industry’s obsession with brand, in the real world, nobody’s really bothered. People don’t have a passion for brands. They don’t want to have meaningful relationships with them. They just want to pay sensible money for things that work well and look good. Brand loyalty is a myth. In truth, it’s not much more than habit and convenience.

To design is to transform prose into poetry

I’ve said it a million times, every single day designers create eye-popping, thought-provoking work, but brand bullshit is getting in the way of people understanding its significance and recognising the massive contribution design makes to their lives.

Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand said: “To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit; it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry”.

That’s the enduring value of design. And it’s what we should be putting our minds to. Brand is a distraction. Let’s get over our obsession with brand and get on with making good, honest design. We’ve no need to claim we’ve got stardust for sale. We just need to show up and get to work.



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