Brand Design

I’ve got a new column up at BusinessWeek, focusing on the process of creating a brand. It’s causing me no small amount of grief trying to serve up functional value in 900 words. Opinions are easy in that amount of space, but functional substance is difficult, unless you spread it over many installations. It’s humbling that in my 3rd year of writing that column, I’m still learning how to work the medium effectively.

My biggest fear is that the column was more interesting to write than it is to read. I’ve had the tremendous privilege of working for the past seven years with two of the best strategic designers in the brand game–Russ Baker and Kenichi Nishiwaki–and learning firsthand just how strategic design can be in crystallizing the value a company provides to its customers, not to mention galvanizing the corporate culture. For so many of the clients we’ve served, the aesthetic process of determining their corporate or product brand was a seminal experience–a rare opportunity for the company to look in the mirror and make critical discoveries about who they are, as well as choices about who they want to be. There’s very little patience for that kind of process these days.

Let me know if the column stands on its own. If not, I’ll push on some the ideas a little more, and maybe even rope Russ and Kenichi into offering some of their own thoughts.

13 thoughts on “Brand Design

  1. Tom Asacker

    I guess the article stands on its own, because right up front you defined “brand” as “the symbol that distinuishes one company’s products from the competition.”

    So, in essence, your article is about creating an effective symbol. Correct? An image to represent the “business fundamentals, product platform, and value proposition” that are already in place?

    You wrote “Plenty of crummy brands are plastered on successful companies.” Isn’t commerical success the measure of a brand? Or are you proposing “expert” assessment? Should TIAA-CREF invest in a new name and logo (a.k.a. a new “brand” in your book) because some design consultancy thinks that they should?

  2. Peter Flaschner


    You clearly know your stuff, so I criticize with care. I’m a designer with a strong interest in identity design. There are few things I appreciate more than a great logo.

    But a logo is not a brand. Sure, if we use the traditional defintion of brand you can quite easily dismiss my statement. Brand in the modern sense though has a far greater meaning. I think you’ve done your readers a disservice by defining brand so narrowly.

    I’ve written a bit about the subject of branding as a collection of memories. This approach to idea opens up a number of new ways of thinking and talking about the elements that make a brand. If you’re interested, you can read the article at


  3. /pd

    No, the column does not stands on its own !! Please push on some the ideas a little more, and maybe even rope Russ and Kenichi into offering some of their own thoughts to your thesis.

    What you wrote about is a lot of CorporateSpoke in well Crafted Words.. which means zippo to me. There is no such thing as a brand in todays world. Markets are conversations. Thats the brand. One brand process for all Products for every darn corporate entity out there. Thats will be the brand attributation and value propositions.

    You say “As you might expect, most marketers, designers, and brand consultants champion the latter approach, because it makes them a valued partner in the process” -So true. What values are you trying to bring to the Customer and the brand ?? The value propisition is simple; “lets lie and make it sound like it looks bigger” – Which its not – correct ?? So why dont you speak the truth the unvarnished truth always first. Then, i’ll poke my head out of the echo chamber and take a look at your products and your brand.

    “the Superios manis easy to serve and difficult to please” – confucius

    Now try and please me with some truths for a change..

  4. David Wolfe


    Here is a piece I recently posted at soflow — with some minor changes — “branding problem” to paraphrase philosophers and scientists who talk about the “mind problem” in referring to inscrutable consciousness:

    I don’t think defining “brand” and “branding” in a marketing context is all that complicated — certainly not so complicated as to have had volumes and volumes written on the topic in which untold incidents of conflict and muddle-headed propositions exist.

    First, let’s go back to the origins of the term “brand.” A “brand” was originally “a piece of burning wood.” The word comes from West and North Germanic “brandaz”, a derivative of the same base that produced “burn”, “brandy” and perhaps “broil.”

    In the 16th century, the term came to be applied to an identifying mark made with a hot iron. In the 19th century, the term was first applied to a particular make of goods. In other words, a brand was a signifier of a specific product’s identity.

    How many books can you write around that?

    Well, in any event, if we adhere to the linguistic (and semiotic) foundations of the term, a brand is a product presented in a way to facilitate its distinctiveness from other products in peoples’ minds. But we must not forget that a brand’s minders do not entirely define a brand. Wwe know from recent research involving brain scanning technology that brands are mentally processed primarily in the emotional, subjective right hemishpere of the brain. That means anything brain minders say about a brain is reprocessed by each consumer who internalizes the results in an idiosyncratic form. So — as a story has as many versions as there are people hearing it, so also it is with a brand even though veins of common inference streak through consumers’ mental models of the brand.

    I like what Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson say in “The Hero and the Outlaw” — to my mind one of the most useful books ever written about branding — on what branding should be about. They say branding is (or should be) about “meaning management.”

    Thus, I define a “brand” as “a product that bears the marks of a unique identity,” and “branding” as “actions related to the management of the meaning a brand stands for.” Fulstop! Period! Finis! So let’s find something more useful than arguing over how many brands can fit on the head of a pin!

  5. /pd

    I just may agree with David :)-

    “unique identity” = Truth
    “actions related to the management of the meaning.. ” = Promoting Truth

    theres my 2cents..

  6. Anonymous

    Christopher, I think several commenters have offered elements that complete your original (and perhaps underemphasized or underutilized) use of “Symbol.”

    Symbolic of what? That’s what I want clients to get to: their innate hope and ambition for the business. Faking it, by often superfical measures and inevitably wrong reasons never works. David’s right, Mark and Pearson do angle in on branding from an archetypal inner-meaning that’s universal. Not deep enough in my view. They also note how many deeply valued and successful archetypal brands are accidental (i;e; Not managed, just became so after sheer luck or many fits and starts.)

    But back to symbolism. What many branders/marketers miss IMHO is that they are really Jungian minstrels; writing tunes, stringing together stories that — when done well (or accidentally) — resonate with us in deeper “gotta have it; that’s me!” ways.

    And that brings us full circle through “make us look bigger” to Apd’s “unique identity = truth.” Truth is fluid, but it always derives from the Self — an indivdual’s or colective, company consciousness. (Proof of good branding is that both single and plural find each other and like the connection, like receptors and Dopamine in the brain. The proof comes in how many mistakes a brand “junkie” (consumer/employee) is willing to overlook from their brand “pusher” (company, etc.)

    Note Ascend didn’t ask: “Make us/me feel bigger”? Feel is what they wanted; mass equalled competence in their eyes, for purely irrational but very valid reasons. But Ascend’s innate curiosity and drive is what made them “big” in the true “valuable brand” sense because that explorer”s ethic is universal and powerful.

    Nothing wrong with insecurity or narcissim in branding – just make sure it’s measured in frequencies and song your employees and customers want to march or dance to. And can hum with the slightest prompting.

    [Apd: if you’re inclined to jibe with David’s thoughts and any of my mumbling above, you might want to peruse… ]

  7. jens

    i have been working in the business for 12 years now. long enough to remember the times were you just had a logo (created by the corporate design agency), business cards, packaging and an annual report (also created by the graphic designers), a product (by the product design team), the ad-campaigns to sell the stuff (by some ad-agency) and some pr to keep the newspapers busy (by some pr specialists).

    after my mba i joined a fmcg company only to leave it in less than a year. for somebody who really wants to give shape to things this was not the right place. so i joined a small management consultancy focussed on product design strategies. by that time the company had only one client who was in the furniture business and a friend of my boss. in the following years we also worked for companies in the automotive industry, in the transportation services industry, in the capital goods industry and so on and so on…
    the brand had landed. and it fuelled us with an incredible demand for our services. first we favoured a strict bottom up approach (brand starts with products – we do the product design strategy and bring the right design team on board). being asked to maybe also bring the right graphics design team on board and the right ad-agency and coordinate the stuff a little bit, we never turned down a request… and when the internet bubble exploded it took with it 90 percent of the company – but by that time i was already working on the client’s side.

    when the whole brand-thing started, my friends in this company and i looked at it with somewhat mixed feelings.
    first of all it was great to be important. very great. we all felt like the proverbial md sitting in an aeroplane and suddenly hearing through the loudspeakers: “…one of our first class passengers is not feeling well, is there a “brand consultant” on board…” “keep calm. help is on its way…”:)
    on the other hand-side – being well aware of its necessity though – the whole brand-talk sometimes had something strange about it. – we were no followers of any strict philosophy, we were not in favour of a certain style, never – still, i remember the day when one of our heavy first class passengers asked us to compose these very detailed brand-guides for his brand- portfolio strategy … lifestyle, lifestyle, disney-style – diversified style-dictatorship with the ultimate stretch … we came back to our office, we looked at each other … “this is taking the whole brand-idea too far” one of the friends said “this request is the sign of a completely misled movement – it is (as we say in germany) the first messenger of war…”. we did it. – we are professionals.

    soon after this “messenger of war” got a popular name: “branding”. “ok, so we are in the `branding business´ now.” if that is how our clients see us, if this is what the newspapers say…
    much easier than organizing corporate aesthetics or design consulting or whatever…
    hurray, we are “branded”…

    so, why am i telling this long story here?
    because: in my years of service i have learnt to read the clients’ requests for a “branding-job” – be it the mere refinement of a logo or the creation of whole worlds.
    i learnt how to listen “branding”, i learnt how to speak “branding”.
    it is all requested under the same name. it is all delivered under the same name.
    a stupid name? hey, you tell me. we adopted it because the european marketing world so keenly looks over to the states where “marketing” (quite a great word too) was born…
    and after all, it is also a word that the CFO had learnt to understand.

    i could not care less for “brand-definition-discussions” – although i am very curious to read tom asaker’s new book – because we are all in damn need of a clear eye (love the brand, by the way) and: never say never…
    but really, for the moment i could not care less for “brand-definition-discussions”.

    the magic lies in the doing.
    and that is why i like chris kenton’s switch.
    i like it even more, because i do agree with everything he says.
    does it stand out? well, i am not a regular to the business week, nor would i really know what kind of stories the american market likes to listen to…

    still, personally i think, that your column this time is too packed, chris. too much information – no story.
    or maybe: not enough story to bring all messages across.

    for example:
    “make us look big” – wow, the whole new economy in 10 lines. yes, i know, four words are enough… “make us look big”!!!
    still, … big, why?
    because the new economy was strictly about the future. these companies were nothing but a promise. “hey, trust us, we will still be here tomorrow.” – “i hear what you say young man, but can i really trust you? can i FEEL your potential?”
    what is potential? potential is the promise of a performance in the future which has not fully come to its realisation in the present.
    how do you sense potential?
    easy: you are in a bar and this red-hair catches your attention. wow. you look away. you look again. the way he/she moves the arm. wow, can it be? you look again. a smile. you meet. and then the way he/she is unable to pronounce the th properly… that’s it!!! you’re my baby!!!
    how do you sense potential? by gathering surface information and putting it together to a picture.
    and as weird as it is: when you judge potential – iow: the promise of a future performance which has never before come to its realisation – the last you want to have is definite proof. because there is no definite proof. it is just the future, you and me for the first time.
    it is the surface information that counts.

    now that’s a story:) – or at least part of it.

    and then:
    “don’t hover” – full points for this one.
    yet again: this last mini paragraph holds the most important message that there is on the whole page.
    if i look back at my projects and if i would have to name the single most important factor for brand success, the answer could not be clearer: process.
    what you are saying can sound like: let the freaks do their thing.
    what i would say is: classical business processes are linear processes. remember scientific management. and yes, we all know that control is a good thing. still, creative processes are somewhat different. creative processes are open processes. means: once you have started a creative process you cannot control or measure it until the result is delivered. now what does that mean for you, dear client?…
    and so on and so on and so on…

    thanks for all that space here.
    sorry for so many words.

    you have got the voice man, make it sound.
    (sorry for stupid punch line)

  8. Stephen McDermott

    Whew. Did anyone read that?

    I have to disagree with the brand being a symbol. It’s the name. It’s not a collection of memories. That’s a childhood.

    A brand is an identity for a commercial entity. Every person has a name. It’s the way we identify each other. A person is an entity, their name is their identity. If that entity (person) becomes a commercial entity (business), like Martha Stewart or Donald Trump, their name becomes a brand. No symbol is needed.

  9. jens

    sorry friends,

    i forgot to put a title on my ultra-long post.

    here it is: “why i hate brand-definition-discussions / in defence of ck, not that he needs it…”

  10. Chris


    Actually, yes, I am proposing “Expert” assessment on the quality of a brand as a symbol. If you think that’s an absurd idea, tell it to Kant, or Hume, or Burke, or James, or any one of the giants of Western thought, almost every single one of whom wrote extensively on the concept of aesthetic judgement.

    Economic success is a perfect measure for the success of a company as an entity, but the factors that contribute to suchy success go far beyond the quality or integrity of the symbol that (yawn) differentiates the products and services of one company from its competitors. Just so you don’t think I’m blowing sunshine, I’ll dig for a brand analysis guide that I created with my partners Russ and Kenichi, and post it as a main entry.

  11. Jano

    I’m sorry for my english, but I need to post few words about branding…
    Brand is symbol of product or service. Brand is result of using some product or service. If you use Coca-cola for refreshing drink and you love it. Then after time when somebody ask you what you want for refreshing – you said Coca-cola. Logo and design is idea how designer see the products. Marketing is idea of how to increase the need for specific products on the market. And the Brand is when market use the products and identifine with this product for decreasing needs.
    I don’t need more refreshing drink – I need Coca-cola. I don’t need more fast car – I need Ferrari. I don’t need more sports shoes – I need Nike.

    Brand is not blink of design and good marketing.

    Montecarlo & Las Vegas is Brand for Casino life.

    ACME is Brand for bad product.

    and… Donald Trum is Brand for milioner

  12. Jano

    and please,

    do not use Brand in every day language.

    Use design, logo, PR, marketing…

    Brand is something much, much more

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