Do we design, or build a brand?

What's your favourite brand?

What's your favourite brand?

I’ve been playing a part in building brands for a long time. I’m grateful to have had a role in the development of a number of brands that sit in the public conscious of the country I live in. I’ve also been privileged to mentor a number of design professionals in that time — some of whom have gone on to work in strategic design and brand strategy roles. 

I'm most interested in meaningful brands — brands that are purposeful, solve problems, are lead by visionary leaders and create some kind of positive impact in the world.

Regular readers will also acknowledge that I'm also a keen observer of the peculiarities of our industry — some might say it's the mundane that I find interest in. 

They may be right in thinking so — when it comes down to the little details of the very day life of a creative leader, you can easily assume that I'm interested.

I visited a local design studio recently and the owner proudly displayed a wall covered with logo ideas for a large Architecture practice his team was working with; telling me that "we're going to design a great brand for these guys" he pointed to the wall of logos.

He went on and on about the power of the logo ideas his team had developed and I could've easily have been listening to Charlie Brown's teacher. 

He had lost me. 

I once overheard another Designer telling a client that her 'brand' was in the finished art stage and will be sent to her in a 'zip file' later that day.

In the many mentorship and networking engagements I take part in, I listen to many Designers tell me that they want to do 'brand work' and that "designing brands" was the career they want for themselves.

And one night recently, I shared a meal with a small group design business owners and the discussion turned to the recent American Express 'brand refresh'.

Needless to say the traditional graphic designers in the group were passionate about the Pentagram-designed system for the iconic Amex brand — often referring to the refreshed logo and design system as 'the brand'.

All of this got me thinking — interested in the mundane as I am — it got me thinking about the way that some people interchange words incorrectly and inconsistently, and how much of a disservice we do to ourselves when doing so.

Maybe it makes them feel more important?

Maybe it makes them feel like they're doing important work?

Maybe they're simply over reaching in an effort to take more territory?

Maybe they think a logo is a brand?

Well, it isn't. A logo is a logo and the act of designing a logo is the act of designing a logo — not a brand.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, gives us one of the best definitions of brand — "A brand is what they think of you when you leave the room."

A sum of all experiences and interactions. A collection of meaning and a by product of behaviours, symbols and artefacts. What they think of you when you leave the room.

Altogether defining a distinct difference between a brand and it's identity.

Which brings us to my conversation with my friends the Graphic Designers and their discussion of 'the new Amex brand'.

Industry trade publication Ad Age launched the new Amex rebrand headlining with 'Amex Rebrands With First Work From McGarryBowen' — acknowledging at the bottom of their article that Amex also works with 'Ogilvy on international markets' and 'Pentagram on logo efforts'. 

The article begins with the summation of the brand strategy in its first line:

"American Express is moving to modernise its venerable brand with a focus on consumers who balance work with living life' — expressed distinctly in tag lines to illustrate its new positioning and new campaign theme of 'My Life, My Card'.

The sum of experiences.

Huh Magazine talks of the new design system and logo as a 'makeover'.

As I mulled over this week's topic and thought back at these discussions. I asked myself some questions:

  • Do we design, or build a brand?
  • Is the logo the beginning or the end?
  • What's the single most important piece of creation when it comes to building a brand?
  • Why do Graphic Designers over reach?

In my experience, brands are built, not designed. The visual design of a brand is important, but it's not the brand itself.

The successful brands we see in our lives, the meaningful brands, are purposeful (Patagonia). They hold values that are strong and give us something to believe in (YWCA); whilst they solve problems in the world we live in and embrace innovation (IBM). Their leadership are cornerstones of their organisations, paving a way towards the future and exploring, respectfully their own heritage (Space X). The consumer and product experiences are delightful, pleasing and keep us coming back (Apple); and their identity is human. The symbols and artefacts we see, hear and touch are intrinsically part of our lives and allow us to relate to them as we do with other human beings (Alexa).

We don't design brands, even though brands can be designed. We build brands strategically, through experience and by shedding things that don't work in favour of the things that do. We build brands through our version of leadership and how that influences the behaviour of our people — all of our people. We build brands through experiences and yes, these can be designed too but don't always go to plan. 

We build brands by how we clean up after we've fucked up.

A brand is what they think of you when you leave the room.