Design Seminar: Branding

Creative experts from across the industry sit down to discuss branding. As a much misunderstood and misused term, how can designers make sense of it?

Portrait Photography by Gareth Gardner

Words by Toby Maxwell

Taking part were

Nigel Bunclark independent director of workplace strategy & transformation

James Burke Creative director, Acrylicize

Simon Jordan Director, Jump Studios

Luke Miles Founder & Director, New Territory

Joe Parry Director, global marketing, Universal Fibers

John Regan Creative director, FITCH

James Silver Director, Landid

Jon Tollit Principal, Gensler

Paul Tynan 3D director, I-am Associates

Theresa Dowling Chair and FX editor

Anyone who has been involved in the development of corporate branding will be familiar with the resistance to change, which all-too-often afflicts such projects. The more daring and creative the project is, the more criticism it can attract.

A particularly stark example of this effect can be found in one of the most high-profile examples of bold branding in recent years.

Wolff Olins’ design for the London 2012 Olympic Games centred on a logo that was initially met with huge criticism and even national ridicule thanks to one or two of the national tabloids. But such a reaction should not discourage risk-taking and creative thinking of course, and Suzanne Livingston, Head of strategy at Wolff Olins, who would have borne the brunt of criticism at the time, said afterwards: ‘What was for us a disaster at the beginning became a job of which I am most proud. The whole thing has been wonderfully, extraordinarily high stakes from start to finish. May the mission to do “like never before” go on and on.’

John Regan Creative director, FITCHJohn Regan Creative Director, FITCH

The logo was one of the starting points for this special FX Design Seminar, which took place recently at the offices of I-Am Associates in central London and included a panel of branding experts from various corners of the creative sector industry.

James Burke, creative director of Acrylicize, said of the London 2012 logo: ‘It said a lot about the brand of British design. It was very progressive and took a consciously different approach. It flew the flag for Britain as a leader in doing things differently and I felt quite proud about it.’

Paul Tynan 3D director, I-am AssociatesPaul Tynan 3D director, I-am Associates

John Regan, creative director at FITCH, added: ‘Four years later we still talk about the London Olympics logo – but can anyone remember last year’s Rio logo?’

I-Am’s 3D director Paul Tynan agreed: ‘That emphasises the “legacy” aspect of the Olympics in some ways. Four years on, the logo still has a resonance. For me, the strength of branding is in provoking a reaction.’

Theresa Dowling Chair and FX editorTheresa Dowling Chair and FX editor

Discussion moved on to the distinction between branding as a strategic tool versus the logo-led visual aspect that most people think of when using the ‘B’ word. Nigel Bunclark, an independent director of workplace strategy and transformation, said: ‘Branding is far more than just a typeface.

Simon Jordan Director, Jump StudiosSimon Jordan Director, Jump Studios

Practices such as Wolff Olins were one of the first agencies to articulate that really well. It’s not so much about the execution of a logo, colours or visual styles, but more about the thinking behind that.’

John Regan Creative director, FITCHJohn Regan Creative director, FITCH

Jon Tollit, principal at Gensler, said: ‘The strategic upstream and the transition into design is what can often be a problem. A lot of time and money is spent on strategy and that is often then put on the shelf for a designer to pick up and turn into something visual. I think in some ways we’ve lost the interaction between the strategy and the design. We should front-end some of that real stuff a little more in order to establish what a brand should really look like, smell like, and taste like. That’s where designers sometimes struggle.’

In the Beginning

So, how did branding get its place high up on the agenda of pretty much every business in the world? It has some of its earliest origins in quality assurance, with food manufacturers using their name as a guarantee of quality over other unnamed alternatives. Participants around the table suggested that other starting points were the appearance of the family name above the door of a shop or factory, and also the need to clearly label the provenance of produce that had been distributed during an age of improving transportation of food and other goods.

Paul TynanPaul Tynan 3D director, I-am Associates

Each of these elements were fundamentally about gaining the trust of customers. Simon Jordan, director at Jump Studios, said: ‘The idea that it is “just” a logo is really a 20th-century idea, where you needed to differentiate from other competing products. It had an emotional side in the industrial era, which we’re in some ways moving away from now. We’re moving into a different world that has seen a huge rise of tech companies, many of which don’t want to be a brand, they want to be seen as a utility.’

Simon Jordan Director, Jump StudiosSimon Jordan Director, Jump Studios

Gensler’s Jon Tollit agreed: ‘Taking the form of a utility means they can evolve. People are changing brands rather than brands changing people. A business’s customers and staff are its biggest advocates, and organisations like Mozilla are even using crowdsourcing to help develop their online brand – asking people what they want their offering to become, not telling customers what they can have.’

Luke Miles Founder & Director, New TerritoryLuke Miles Founder & Director, New Territory

Acceptable in the eighties

The Eighties were something of a boom time for the notion of branding, as consumerism blossomed and businesses of all kinds looked to get their messages across. Jon Tollit said: ‘It was also the start of true globalisation and a time in which a brand had to have a huge amount of gravitas.’ Joe Parry, director of global marketing for Universal Fibers – sponsor of this FX Design Seminar – said: ‘It was a very materialistic time, and it’s hard to drive materialism without a brand.’ Luke Miles, founder and director of New Territory, said: ‘I remember working on physical product and its “design language”, using design as a tool to help people at board level to get in tune with the idea of valuing things that were hard to value. Less of my work is about “mark making” and more to do with articulating the values of a brand into their service, either on an external level or internally on an employee journey, and how that should feel.

Joe Parry Director, global marketing, Universal FibersJoe Parry Director, global marketing, Universal Fibers

‘Sometimes, I feel that a brand can be “rested upon” quite a lot, without improving or enunciating what that company is really about. The branding “mark” is way down the list of potential outputs and channels for achieving an aim.’

James Silver Director, LandidJames Silver Director, Landid

Simon Jordan added: ‘A good definition of a brand is the combination of all your experience of the business, and that’s not just about consumers – it also includes employees and other business partners as well, so in a holistic sense it brings into focus every single touch point.’

James Burke Creative director, AcrylicizeJames Burke Creative director, Acrylicize

I-am’s Paul Tynan believes that standing out from the crowd has become increasingly difficult as a result: ‘There is such exposure to the formula today for any brand in any marketplace, that being the “stand out” guy or the one that goes ahead of the pack is the big challenge. Everyone is saying the same thing about their business and their values, so the real aim is to establish what the unique point of difference is that will really set you apart in the marketplace.’

Jon Tollit Principal, GenslerJon Tollit, Principal, Gensler

Simon Jordan responded: ‘It’s become about purpose. That’s what has replaced logo or identity. Companies can be good at what they do and how they do it, but they rarely think about why they do it. What do they exist to do? That’s the compelling thing that consumers want. A good example is Nike.

As a brand, it is really good at articulating its purpose of liberating the inner athlete in everybody, and that plays across everything that it does. Google is obsessive about its approach to making information accessible. Having a clear understanding of these key underlying aims has become so important.’

Nigel Bunclark Independent director of workplace strategy & transformationNigel Bunclark independent director of workplace strategy & transformation

He adds that it is also part of a bigger shift in how businesses target consumers from making people want things, to making things that people want. ‘It is classic marketing,’ added Simon Jordan. ‘Understanding people’s needs and their wants, and then build the products or services that meet them.’

Corporation Street

Some of the highest-profile brands in consumers’ lives are arguably on the high street, in the media, or in the hospitality sector. Are corporate clients any different to the retail and hotel sectors though, particularly in terms of how they address the physical business space?

Jon Tollit  Principal, GenslerJon Tollit  Principal, Gensler

James Silver, director at Landid, said: ‘When we started about 10 years ago, it was all very formulaic; typically, projects would feature blue carpets and suspended ceilings. There was always one eye on the corporate that commissioned it and rarely on the actual people who would be using it. There was no “homeliness” about the spaces. And yet over time, the more we’ve been doing these kinds of projects the more it seems that businesses want their spaces to reflect character.

It’s not about the trademark or the “on brand” colour scheme, it’s more about creating cool spaces that allow your business to grow. The character of the space has become more important than simply how it is branded.’

Joe Parry Director, global marketing, Universal FibersJoe Parry Director, global marketing, Universal Fibers

Luke Miles said: ‘You often see companies looking to incorporate public seating within a scheme. That can almost be a nexus of what that brand stands for, and how such seating might allow serendipitous moments.’

It is the notion of character that has led to a greater propensity to use alternative ideas to help achieve a business objective. Acrylicize’s James Burke explained: ‘We’ve recently completed a design for the Relay building in London that features a Tube carriage as seating in the reception area, and it was really about making a statement on the brand of the building. It spoke about the clients that were going to come into the building and take space in the offices above, and also about their clients. It says a lot about the personality of the place, but also from a developer’s point of view it added an extra differential.

James Silver Director, LandidJames Silver Director, Landid

‘Developers are increasingly prepared to take a bit of a risk in order to do something different because there is so much competition. It makes for an amazing opportunity to do some fun and exciting stuff.’ James Silver agreed: ‘There are fewer soulless spaces as a result, with landlords saying “this is our character and we want the property to reflect that”.’

Simon Jordan believes there are two factors at play here: ‘It is shifting on its head in that it used to be very top-down with institutions and investors driving things. Now, it’s more likely to be the occupiers who are demanding the kind of spaces they want to use.

Nigel Bunclark independent director of workplace strategy & transformationNigel Bunclark independent director of workplace strategy & transformation

‘Secondly, we’ve become more urbanised as a society. I think it was in something like 2008 that for the first time more people lived in cities than in rural communities. Places like London are fairly dense and that has pushed culture to the top, and you see more of a prevalence of cultural activities. With this shift towards, art, going out, “street food” – buildings somehow need to reflect all that – and developers are giving more thought about what that ground-floor reception space really needs to represent in that context.’

Paul Tynan said: ‘Also, we work differently nowadays. I have a desk upstairs that I typically will spend around an hour a day at. I have a 2.5 sq m space that I only use for an hour a day, because I’m more likely to be found having conversations like this, drawing things on walls in the studio et cetera. Spaces have to be able to adapt to how people need to use them, whether it be a work, retail or restaurant space. Developers have to be able to adapt them so that they have the flexibility to meet this changing requirement.’

Jon Tollit pointed out that people need the right tools to be able to do their job effectively, and widespread mobile working changes those requirements quite drastically. But Nigel Bunclark countered: ‘Don’t go too far with that one. I consider myself a huge advocate of agile working, but there will always be some people who need desk space. It’s much more about finding the right space, done in the right way for what that particular person needs.’

‘It comes back to what good design is all about,’ added Simon Jordan. ‘Good designers are agnostic – they don’t have any kind of fixed beliefs when they first meet a new client or start a project.’

Motivating Minds

Of course, trying to define what branding really is becomes increasingly difficult as its application and implementation evolves. In the future, brands may well be far less about their logo or mission statement, more about a much wider set of values to which its various stakeholders might be able to relate, especially where these values acknowledge and reflect the individuals own priorities. Nigel Bunclark said: ‘We tend to put a lot of energy in the workplace into trying to translate the values and behaviour statements, and try to recruit people who subscribe to that set of values or behaviours. Many companies put a lot of store by that, but the reality is that there is only really a need to be aligned with it rather than to completely consume it, because we’re all individuals.

‘If I was to tell you that my greatest passion was “teamwork” and that everything at work had to be “teamy”, the reality might be that my values and commitment towards my children or friends outside of work are far stronger. If I can find a median between those values and the work that I do then they will be far more motivating than being told I need to be “teamy” at work.

‘I think it’s possible to broadly subscribe to a set of values because they’re inoffensive – understanding that if you work in banking, the idea that you have to subscribe to truth and trustworthiness would seem perfectly plausible and acceptable – but the true values might need to be something more personal to them. My own personal values, and what motivates me to work every day, is that I want to give people great spaces to work in. I can go into other organisations and not be offended by their own set of goals and values because I have my own that mean a lot to me and are sort of sacrosanct.’

The challenge in making sense of the true nature of branding is that the true characteristic of a brand goes far deeper than the colour scheme, the choice of plush seating and the logo. The ethos and company mentality can have a far greater impact on the fortunes of a business and how it is perceived, not least by the staff who work within.

Theresa Dowling Chair and FX editorTheresa Dowling Chair and FX editor

Nigel Bunclark explains that he has worked with business locations that, in terms of office smartness versus productivity, defy some of the established logic. ‘I’ve worked with an office in the UK’s far North West, which was a run-down Portakabin in which the employees were selling insurance. It wasn’t an easy place to work, and yet their productivity was exceeding expectations. By contrast, one of the best-equipped offices I’ve worked with, in Ipswich, was achieving a far lower productivity rating. It leads you to conclude that the behaviours, leadership, purpose and values, and the belief in the process and what’s being done in a building is as important as any infrastructure. Sometimes, the constraints and the environment can drive team performance and creativity, and giving too much in the way of facilities can create a sense of entitlement.’

The idea of the brand as a “spirit” rather than something that can simply be printed gained general agreement around the table. Jon Tollit suggested that the challenge has widened further though, as the prevalence of social media has led to the creation of the “brand of me” – with individuals creating brands of their own through Facebook and blogging and creating a scenario in which company identities are almost just a collection of individual personality brands. ‘Increasingly, people choose where they want to work – as employees, they will interview us rather than the other way around, which is kind of the way it should be,’ he added.

So, it seems traditional branding as a means of reaching out to consumers has already evolved in a multitude of ways, and today extends way beyond a brand mark or logo to encompass the company’s ethos, character, purpose and personality – all presented in a way that appeals just as much to staff and business partners as it does to customers. Understanding what future direction this creative puzzle has in store will be the next big challenge, and overcoming it will doubtless require an entirely holistic and adventurous outlook.

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