We must clarify what is meant by branding

Not that long ago “branding” was just the smart word for packaging. There were brand-leaders, identified by distinctive packs – Bournville chocolate bars, for example – and there was a bit of strategy thrown in. But a brand was purely a commodity, without the cultural values of a company, and an own-brand product was more a cheap and cheerful alternative to the brand than a big statement about the retailer which commissioned it.

Back then you knew where you were with the term “branding”. But some time over the past couple of years that has changed. Design groups have not only adopted the jargon of marketers dealing predominantly with fmcg promotions, they’ve applied it to companies and organisations. Where once we used “corporate identity” to describe even the lowliest letterhead and talk was of design’s crucial role in expressing a company’s culture visually, now “branding” has crept in. So everything from airlines to the Spice Girls has become a brand, with the possibility of “brand extensions” and merchandising deals.

Some say it’s a case of the design community learning the client language and telling marketers what they want to hear. To an extent that’s true, and it does open up the possibility of creating a persona in the mind of the consumer that is far bigger than the products or services that are a company’s main business. But to a large extent it’s still little more than “packaging” – creating an aura around a company that is more about positioning, brand values and sheer commercialism than any innate culture.

The peak of our obsession with branding has to be the Government-backed bids to rebrand Britain (see News Analysis, page 7) and worrying reports that Peter Mandelson would give his eye-teeth to be brand manager for the nation. What a fundamental mix up between the needs of business and those of a nation.

We can and should strive to better ourselves to become a genuinely caring society and a top-class global performer, with innovation at the heart of our endeavours. But we shouldn’t encourage the view that you can change perception instantly by changing Britain’s name or slapping on a new symbol. This superficial approach signifies too narrow an understanding of what design in its broadest sense can do to really change perceptions of Britain.

We should support any move to boost the image of Britain, but let’s counsel Government to do it through the quality of our products, environments and services rather than yet another logo to rival those of the British Tourist Authority, the British Council and British Airways.

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