John Spencer: “Let’s get over our obsession with branding”

Offthetopofmyhead’s founder and creative director says there’s no such thing as brand design and much of what the design industry says about brand is incomprehensible, pretentious and just plain daft.

The design industry is obsessed with brand. Everyone’s a branding expert. But ask anyone to explain what it’s all about, and you’ll get a different answer every time.

In his book Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design, Wally Olins explains what brands used to be when he says: “Once upon a time brands were simple household goods – soap, tea, washing powder, shoe polish, boring everyday products that were used up and replaced. The brand was a symbol of consistency. At a time of product adulteration, unreliable performance and variable pricing, it stood for standard quality, quantity and price”.

But all that’s been stood on its head. Nowadays, brand is defined as the perception people have of an organisation – what they think, feel and believe about its products and services. Author and speaker Marty Neumeier nailed it when he said: “Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is”.

Meanwhile in a recent piece for Campaign, creative director and author Dave Trott wrote with characteristic unambiguousness: “We can’t tell the public what our brand is, the public don’t take dictation. The public look at our product, what it is, how it behaves. The public then decides what the brand is based on that behaviour. The public isn’t stupid, whatever we may think. We can decide what brand we do or don’t want, but the public will decide what our brand is for themselves”.

There’s no such thing as brand design

Branding is what designer Bill Dawson describes as: “the business equivalent of alchemy, the mythical practice of turning lead into gold”. When designers say they design brands they’re doing more than reaching for the stars. They’re claiming they’ve got stardust for sale. They’re promising something they can’t live up to.

We can’t design brands because they live in one place and one place alone – in people’s minds. I design logos and identities. I don’t claim to design brands. I work with strategists who lay the foundations for design and shape communications, so I’m confident my work is on the mark. But like everyone else, I can’t know for sure what impact it’ll have on people’s perceptions, because people are emotional, irrational and unpredictable.

Incomprehensible, pretentious and daft

Much of what the design industry says about brand and branding is incomprehensible, pretentious or just plain daft. Here are a few masterpieces. I’m naming no names.

“We create, restore and evolve iconic brands.”

“We’re a branding agency for people who care less about how things are, and more about how they could be.”

“Our brands reach into the heart to challenge attitudes, change minds and inspire action.”

“We are a brand equity design company.”

“We create monopolies for brands by employing supercharged creativity with memorable and adaptive executions.”

“We design meaningful, memorable brands that trigger a direct response from consumers.”

In the real world, nobody’s really bothered

Bob Hoffman, author of The Ad Contrarian blog says: “I promise you, if Pepsi would disappear tomorrow, most Pepsi loyalists would switch over to Coke with very little psychological damage. Nike devotees would throw on a pair of Adidas without having to enter rehab. McDonald’s faithfuls would cheerfully eat a Whopper without the need for counseling”.

According to Havas Group’s 2019 Meaningful Brands Study: “77% of brands could disappear, and no one would care”. The global study looked at 1,800 brands in 31 markets with 350,000 respondents.

Despite the design industry’s obsession with brand, in the real world, nobody’s really bothered. People don’t have a passion for brands. They don’t want to have meaningful relationships with them. They just want to pay sensible money for things that work well and look good. Brand loyalty is a myth. In truth, it’s not much more than habit and convenience.

To design is to transform prose into poetry

I’ve said it a million times, every single day designers create eye-popping, thought-provoking work, but brand bullshit is getting in the way of people understanding its significance and recognising the massive contribution design makes to their lives.

Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand said: “To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit; it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry”.

That’s the enduring value of design. And it’s what we should be putting our minds to. Brand is a distraction. Let’s get over our obsession with brand and get on with making good, honest design. We’ve no need to claim we’ve got stardust for sale. We just need to show up and get to work.








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  • Simon Sedgwick July 19, 2019 at 2:27 pm

    I couldn’t agree more and just to set the cat among the pigeons: why are all we so in love with mac products when microsoft works just as well at approx. one third of the cost? Especially given that the components for both are largely identical… perhaps a classic example of an industry’s obsession with a brand where design triumphs over functionality.

  • Scott Christie July 19, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    Yes. Finally. Thank you. I don’t agree with every point you make, I for one would cry if Coke, Apple, Fish, Pentel did not exist.

  • Robert Speechley July 22, 2019 at 8:18 am

    A very interesting collection of varying points of view on this subject. A good read.

  • Emily Penny July 22, 2019 at 8:38 am

    Branding is design for the long-term. Which needs a bit more planning. That’s all. It’s nonsense to say you can separate the two. Brand strategy is about making design effective. And it works. Otherwise you end up with smile-in-the-mind design-for-designers created mainly to win awards. Planners, designers, let’s find ways to collaborate more not less, and serve clients better.

  • Laura July 22, 2019 at 10:27 am

    I appreciate some of the comments here, but the argument that brands don’t matter because if one disappears, consumers would just move to an alternative brand doesn’t sit right for me in this discussion as it doesn’t prove anything.
    The importance of brand relates to the fact that people have choices, and you want them to choose your brand, over all other options.

    Removing one of the brand choices isn’t evidence that that particular brand doesn’t matter. You’ve removed the possibility of them choosing it, and then listed other high-profile brands that they’d go to, which would also have been a choice between various brands.

    I think it’s also really important to point out that a brand is so much more than just a logo. There’s brand indentity and brand personality – how a company and its employees behave and communicate. This is what keeps consumers loyal, the brand is initially what draws you in.

  • Steve Lasko July 22, 2019 at 1:43 pm

    “77% of brands could disappear, and no one would care”.

    I’m curious how Mr. Hoffman came up with that precise a percentage of how a group of people would “care”. Does “care” kick in if 78% of brands disappeared?

    This whole article is a lot of pointless semantic hair splitting. Vague, daft, and pretentious in its own way.

  • Terry Moore July 22, 2019 at 6:28 pm

    I find myself mostly agreeing with the thrust of Mr Spencer’s argument here… The design industry is choc-a-block with brand jargon and bullshit, which is somewhat ironic since we are mostly in the job of simplifying, clarifying and making communication easy. The industry generates this fluff and nonsense, clients play it back and nobody really knows what anybody is talking about.

  • MH July 23, 2019 at 3:34 pm

    The design industry’s use, overuse and misuse of the term ‘brand’ in itself has got to the point that it has become ‘pretentious and just plain daft’.

    However to state that ‘no one would care’ or be would be ‘really bothered’ if brands were to disappear is equally ‘pretentious and daft’. They may accept they have to change, but to assume they would not care is naive.

    A consumers passion, relationship and loyalty for a particular brand or product often prove vital to whether it will succeed or fail, something companies utilise and use to drive sales. How often is the name of the product used as both an indicator and descriptor of its worth in place of what it actually is and who they are for buying it – this is because it matters to them (&/or they think it matters to others).

    I’m sure the thousands of consumers who queue for days outside an Apple store for the latest product launch (which was probably only updated six months prior) would disagree about not being bothered, lacking passion, or not having a meaningful relationship with the brand (and only wanting to pay sensible money for that matter!)

  • Ilan Volovich July 25, 2019 at 12:29 am

    It reminds me of the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, in this case, the brand acts as the emperor.

    I think is an interesting point of view to consider.

  • Steve Tatler July 29, 2019 at 1:02 am

    Thank you for such a refreshing and timely piece on ‘branding’. It was an element of corporate identity in my early days… product image. Its purpose was presentation – to portray a product or service in a way that the target audience would find favourable and identify with. I think a tendency towards self-obsession seems to have emerged in parts of the design industry but weaving a psuedo-scientific mystique around a creative process can of course be very profitable. Some clients will pay handsomely for thirty odd pages of research, analysis, design rationale and justification for what may be a mediocre design that demonstrates less creativity than the report itself.

  • Jonathan Walker August 5, 2019 at 3:15 pm

    As a brand agency, we could hardly let this go unanswered!

    Agreed, designing a logo is not the same as designing a brand. But a logo or identity designer still has some responsibility to the overall brand. Saying “I design logos, not brands” is like a novelist saying “I write sentences, not stories”. The job of synthesising all the different elements and interactions (logo, written content, products, staff behaviour) into the brand takes place in the audience’s mind, sure, but those elements and interactions are designed with a particular effect in mind. The desired impression and the actual impression the audience gets might not always turn out the same, but that doesn’t mean you’re not designing a brand, it just means designing and communicating a brand effectively is hard.

    We’ve got more to say than it’s fair to put in a comment, so we’ve replied at more length on our website:

  • Richard Maennling August 12, 2019 at 9:56 am

    After almost 40 years in the design and communications business I’ve seen the word ‘brand’ help give what was a cottage industry more credibility, and customers a reason to buy.

    Let’s not let the minority of agencies who have jumped on the brand bandwagon, who fake the true meaning of brand, diminish the progress made by those agencies that have embraced a genuine passion to change perceptions and influence behaviours.

    Creating a strong brand really does make a difference to business performance and adds value – surely that’s the whole point. Brands make business sense.

    If anyone wants to the know what brand means and why it matters – here’s my take on it:

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