Let’s think about Design for a moment. What’s the most exciting thing that has happened to this discipline over the past, let’s say 10 years? Well, design thinking got really big, becoming the staple of success for any disruptive business. Service and experience design introduced a holistic view of who we’re designing for. Innovation took a turn for human-centricity. Graphic design became algorithmic, embracing systems-thinking. Industrial design evolved with a huge range of new prototyping techniques. Editorial design boomed with self-publishing tools. Take any discipline to which you can add the word design after, information design, motion design, spatial design, software design, interface design, organisational design, rocket design, you-name-it-design, I can keep going. All have evolved significantly with new tools, methods, processes that made them relevant for today’s individuals, organisations and society.
Now. Branding. What’s been the most breakthrough idea you’ve heard recently. 5, 10, 20 years, since the Corporate Personality. Mmm? No, brand onions don’t count, sorry! Ok, I’ll give you time to think ‘till the end of the article (i’m still struggling with concision, so you’ve got plenty of time).
Irrelevance is the problem
Branding has grown into a pretty common practice — for big and small organisations, for products and persons, for consumer products and enterprise solutions. Everything needs a brand, and everyone is doing it, one way or another. But the reality is that, as a stand-alone practice, it’s becoming more and more irrelevant for those who used to pay big $€£ for it. Or outdated at the very least. More and more designers design for other designers instead of for clients and client’s clients. Strategy is convoluted and wrapped up in frameworks and jargon. Services sell proprietary tools instead of actual benefits (remember, customers buy the hole, not the drill). There are, of course, examples of consultancies with refreshing approaches that bring new ideas to the table. My intention is not to generalise, by any means, but these exceptions are only a drop in the ocean, and not enough to make a difference for a whole industry.
It’s only understandable that branding budgets have been diminishing in favour of building in-house capabilities or the integration of branding into other design-related projects. Or in favour of €5 logos, apps that generate purposes, names or slogans for free. Or the dyi-ing that startup entrepreneurs increasingly prefer. Seems like brand might not be seen (anymore?) as the powerful business driver we have been advocating for.
Branding has a brand problem.
A few things in the branding industry I’ve been taking note of over the last few years. Tier 1 brand consultancies are moving into innovation, service design and other adjacent disciplines to make up for the relevance they’ve been losing on the “pure” branding front. Others are integrating their offer to optimise their resources and consolidate diminishing client budgets. Tier 2 now has a much wider choice of small and medium-sized studios offering either integrated services, or using a fast-forward, minimum-viable-anything approach. There’s more and more in-house design studios like Samara, Google Design, Space 10, U-Studios, operating somewhere at the intersection of brand creation, brand expression and brand experience. And while none of them are 100% overlapping with what a brand consultancy does, well… they are offering an alternative to traditional consulting. And, last, but not least, the freelance market now offers a more agile, relevant and cheaper alternative, fuelling a fast growing gig economy.
My hypothesis is that the discipline of branding is losing relevance because it failed to evolve at the speed of all the other design disciplines. It’s not as cool. It’s not as agile. It’s not massively insightful. It’s doesn’t always provide a new way of looking at things, thought many of us claim it does (guilty as charged!). It can’t promise RoI. It’s hard to explain to people who are not familiar with it. It’s somewhat fuzzy.
Why haven’t we — as an industry — developed new tools, processes, and methods for understanding, defining and expressing a brand? Tools that reflect the new reality of businesses, organisations, the people working for them and the people buying (into) them? Why haven’t we managed to make branding relevant to our clients and clients’ clients? Sometimes I feel we’re stuck in a Shirky principle, but let’s not go there just yet.
- Branding discipline is pretty siloed. There is much less cross-disciplinary collaboration than in most other design sectors. It rarely happens that branding people work alongside social scientists or software engineers. Or other design disciplines for that matter. All that stuff usually comes after our work is done and we tend to not get involved.
- Branding professionals are pretty siloed. The environment is very competitive, agencies are protective of their tools, processes and people. Perhaps because there is not that much differentiation. So guarding what we do is way more common that sharing it with our peers.
- Branding research is pretty siloed. The evolution of design disciplines (thinking, service, experience, innovation, all that) has happen due to rigorous and extensive research–a healthy mix of both academic and commercial. Branding seems to have benefitted from little of either one of them: the little research being carried out is either too theoretical or too agency/client biased to make a difference.
Well. I guess not as many people as I’d like to think. But. I believe it’s very important. I believe that brand consultancies (agencies, studios, whatever you call them) have always been in a very important business. The business of identity. And I believe identity is one of the most important issues of our times. How identity is shaped at an individual level, at a community level, at a society level is what defines all the interactions in our lives, and even, I dare say, how humanity will evolve. The relationships with other people. The roles organisations play in our lives. How businesses behave. How cities expand. How culture is shaped. It’s all down to identity. And identity today is more complex, and faster evolving than it has ever been. Think of the dimensions of personal identity: race, religion, age, sexual orientation, cultural background, family history, education. Think how the understanding of each one of them has been changing over the past years. Then think of how much more complex a community of individuals is in this context. No longer restricted by geography, status, or even cultural background. Amplified by new symbolism. New human needs. New interpersonal communication. New technologies. New life forms. It’s pretty complex. And we are yet to know how to understand it all, how to express it, and how to empower it. We just can’t claim that we know how to brand it.
Who else is better placed to tackle this challenge if not the branding industry? But, like any other brand that’s drifting into irrelevance, it needs to rethink itself. On one hand, it has to do with how we will operate with the concept of identity and how we help build relationships between individuals and organisations. On the other, it implies rethinking the dynamics of our own relationships with clients and peers, and finding better tools, methods and processes to tackle the understanding, definition and expression of identity.
I believe branding will evolve not by merging into other disciplines, but by becoming a more relevant version of what it originally set out to be.
A starting point
The task is far greater than any one individual, or any one consultancy. But I’m proposing starting somewhere. In order to evolve, branding needs to:
- have platforms for in-industry collaboration
- start asking harder questions
- develop new tools and methods in a rigorous way
- learn from and share knowledge with other disciplines
So I’m taking a first step.
I’m starting Brand+Bread, a thought collective asking (and hopefully sometimes also answering) tough questions about the future of branding. It offers the time and space for conversation and knowledge exchange on the issues facing this discipline, hoping to evolve our thinking and practicing of it. The project comes from my personal need to better understand what exactly is that we’re doing when we say we do “branding”. And perhaps also from the fear that I might not still have a job in 10 years. But just as much, from the belief that a collective of people joining their forces can change the mindset of a whole industry and help evolve a whole discipline.
The first iteration of B+B is a monthly meet-up for professionals interested in exploring this challenge. In Madrid for now, at IED Innovation Lab. There are plans for it to grow, but I’m taking it one step at a time. First I want to see what’s the potential of something like this, whether there’s enough interest and what the framework for collaboration would be. And then we’ll figure out where it can go beyond talking about stuff and writing down ideas.
How to join
- Come to the monthly meetups. Sign up here.
- Write an article in response to the topic of the month and send it over to be added to the monthly B+B publication.
Great things can come out of a collective brain that keeps challenging itself to get better and I’m excited about seeing — and practicing — better branding.