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DMI Branding Conference – Brand Smackdown

Robert Wallace, of Wallace Church, and Frank Nuovo, Nokia’s former design chief, offered intriguing presentations this afternoon. Wallace focused on bringing simplicity and clarity to branding, offering ten cogent steps for building brands and drawing examples from the brand revamps he’s done for Lean Cuisine and Heinz products.

Robert Wallace, of Wallace Church, and Frank Nuovo, Nokia’s former design chief, offered intriguing presentations this afternoon. Wallace focused on bringing simplicity and clarity to branding, offering ten cogent steps for building brands and drawing examples from the brand revamps he’s done for Lean Cuisine and Heinz products. Nuovo, who left Nokia in April after eleven years at the helm of the design department, lead the audience on a long, colorful exploration of Nokia’s brand strategies over the past decade. Some of it was rather candid – he apologized for the N-Gage (“You had to remove the battery to replace the game cartridge! I should have been out of a job.”) and admitted he now uses Skype, not Nokia (“I had five different mobile phones around the world. My monthly phone bill was $5,000-$6,000!”)

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The most provocative presentation yet came from James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, in the UK. I should have seen Woudhuysen coming – he made his first public appearance at the conference earlier in the day, when he stood up during IKEA design chief Lars Engman’s Q&A session. The audience was basking in the glow of all of Engman’s smart Scandinavian design when Woudhuysen, whose hand was the first in the air, approached the mike to ask what Engman had to say about the design of IKEA’s instruction manuals. This bit of humor was lost on most of the audience.

Later Woudhuysen stepped to the podium…

In a sweeping speech that drew on the wisdoms of everyone from Maslow and Hegel to the Grateful Dead and Martin Sorrell, Woudhuysen critiqued earlier speakers for “patronizing” consumers with superficial, misguided branding efforts. IKEA’s Engman took a hit for lauding experience in his stores but not addressing the pissed-off customer stuck at home, trying to assemble one of IKEA’s DIY products with shoddy directions. Nokia’s Nuovo was taken down a notch for claiming that consumers don’t want to know how their phones work (“infantilizing”). The heaviest criticism fell to Darrell Rhea, who spoke yesterday (very well, I might add) about brands aligning themselves with meaning. While Rhea argued that consumers draw meaning from experience, Woudhuysen spoke at length about how production, not experience, was more likely to lead to meaning.

Woudhuysen’s central argument revolved around the idea of “play” in Western culture. “Brands are more and more about experience, which is more and more about play,” he said. “But experience and consumption and play cannot lead to freedom; Play exalts the moment to moment. Isn’t production more likely to lead to meaning?” For example, he hailed improvements in engineering and science that have improved lives, such as inexpensive homes shipped around the world in container ships and pens that understand and store what we write, while we write. Said Woudhuysen, “We have an ethical responsibility in the design community to stand up for science and technology.”

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