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Want To Reclaim The Word “Brand”? Ban It From Your Vocabulary

Overusing terms like “brand” and “design” saps their meaning. Here are three ways to re-instill value in these essential concepts.

This year roughly 12,000 delegates from 94 countries attended the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which had a record number of 40,133 jury entries. But while we fête the creativity in our industry, I’m worried we may be operating in a bubble of our own invention—one in which some of us celebrate brand and design, while others question the very relevance of these terms, feeling that they may have been hijacked by the marketing world.

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The words “brand” and “design” have been drastically overused and convoluted, rendered meaningless to the point where a new generation of people questions their fundamental value. And many of the people doing the questioning are at the forefront of creating new products and experiences, people in roles where ten years ago brand and design would have been viewed as vital assets. Have we lost the original spirit of the terms and the distinction between them?

Take “design.” There is a widespread oversimplification of what we call design. Industrial designer Dieter Rams sums it up best: “Particularly in the media, design is being used as a ‘lifestyle asset.'” Design in the world of marketing is often pigeonholed to mean wallpaper or superficial dressing that takes the form of something like a re-skinned corporate identity and templates.

In the same respect, “brand, ” which has distinguished itself from advertising, is now synonymous with a company’s name and a series of strict guidelines. People say, “Our brand is doing this,” or argue that something isn’t “in line with the brand”; but what they really mean is, “That’s not in line with the PDF I have that tells me you can’t put that logo there.” This misses the whole point of what a brand is, and how it can drive thinking about what the company does next.


At the highest level, brand is the expression of the idea that inspired a product, team, company, or organization to exist in the first place. And design is a creative mechanism for solving problems and building better experiences that answer the customer need that inspired that idea. Here are three ways to stay true the concepts.

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1. Earn your brand. Don’t dictate it.
The challenge is no longer telling customers what your brand means; instead, it’s defining the idea you want to be known for, and then thinking, looking, and acting in a way that makes your customers believe in you. Some agencies and companies get the first part right—articulating what they’re offering, what problem it’s solving, and for which segment of people. But many don’t then put the brand idea to work where it’s most important: at the moments where they actually engage with customers. If your brand idea isn’t a guiding force that threads all efforts together and guides every single decision you make–about the business, the products, the customer experience, and, yes, the communications–then your brand won’t translate to a coherent experience you create for your customers, and you’ll have failed at earning their attention and devotion.

Take Nest, for example. Founded by famed Apple designer Tony Fadell, Nest is clear on its mission: To create “a home that’s thoughtful—one that takes care of itself and the people inside it.” This idea is omnipresent in every product, package or purchase experience the home automation pioneer brings to the world.

2. Ban the word brand. Get specific.
If brand has become superficial, it’s because it has been relegated to a general concept. For brand to actually work, the specific brand idea needs to be internalized and embraced by everyone in an organization—from senior leadership to customer service to the sales force on the front-line with customers. One way to help reinforce that is to stop referring to “our brand” or “the brand” generically once you figure out your brand idea, and replace that word with the idea that’s really driving your company.

Our client Cornell Tech is reinventing graduate tech education in the digital age and exemplifies this approach. When they think about the type of students and faculty they want to attract, the industry partners with whom they want to collaborate, and the types of classes and programs they create, they don’t ask “is this living up to our brand?” They ask, “Are these people who have the potential to be builders, creators, and pioneers in today’s world? Is this a way of teaching and researching that will help make their ideas a reality?”

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3. Use design to refer to a process, not wallpaper.
Design is a problem-solving mechanism, and technology has allowed it to become more iterative, exploratory and disposable than ever. We’re able to test concepts and theories through design, quickly disregard the wrong ones, and dive deeply into the ones that are moving in the right direction. Using “design” to describe this process, not a lifestyle, makes the word more relevant and powerful in today’s world.

Think about a light-bulb manufacturer considering developing a new Wi-Fi connected light-bulb product. The company is debating three different concepts for the light-bulb. Instead of debating those conceptually, they could think about what that would mean for product features and functions then design a sample app interface and package to illustrate what each direction would mean for customer touch points. While none of those designs would be final, they’d help make a decision about which direction felt right for the company. This view of design makes it as much a means to an end as it is an integral part of an end-user experience.

It’s time to reclaim what these two important constructs, brand and design, represent and to start applying them to what we do as business leaders, designers, technologists and marketers. Something needs to change by next year’s Lions.

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About the author

John Paolini is a partner and executive creative director at Sullivan, a multi-disciplinary brand engagement firm.

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