Time to rebrand the spade as a spade

In a world awash with buzzwords, are designers justified in wanting to be ‘brand consultants’? Robert Jones and Adrian Shaughnessy compare notes

Define your terms We all use the same vocabulary: architecture, essence, brand model, personality and so on. But I suspect many brand specialists find this barrage of verbiage a comforting wall to hide behind. Personally, I hate these pompous and slippery words. The trouble is, we all mean different things by them. For example, what exactly does ‘positioning’ mean? Some people use it to mean ‘value proposition’, some to mean ‘competitive differentiation’. But what exactly does ‘competitive differentiation’ mean ? You quickly get into a giddy world where every questionable definition depends on another one. Worse, the jargon falsely implies that what we do is a semi-science, where everything can be put into a named category and success means being able to tick every box. Got an architecture, an essence, three values and a couple of value propositions? Then the job’s done. And the ‘brand’ word itself has no fixed meaning. Five years ago, we all told our clients that a brand was a promise – now that definition feels tired and outmoded. To the outside world, ‘brand’ still means something superficial: name, logo, packaging. Does this matter? Maybe not: branding, after all, is not the only profession to use imprecise language. Do bankers agree on what exactly ‘private banking’ means? Do publishers agree on what ‘trade titles’ are? No – but they get on with their business quite happily. Yet it does matter. It doesn’t help any of us that the media can’t quite grasp what we do. More importantly, we’ve all suffered the results of crossed wires, particularly with clients outside Britain whose understanding of our arcane vocabulary is often different from our own. So what’s the answer? A precisely defined language? With, perhaps, some equivalent of the Académie Française to police our use of it? Obviously not. Much better to speak plainly and naturally. We can help our clients, and ourselves, by avoiding jargon when we can – and, when we can’t, to define terms as we go along. And what will be the fate of the ‘brand’ word? The truth is that branding is not a science, and never will be. It’s a human endeavour, where attitudes and tastes change over time, and language changes too. Buzzwords come and go: for now, ‘brand’ continues to be the favoured word. One thing doesn’t change. What a company stands for matters, whether you call it ‘brand’ or something else. The future of an enterprise will always depend on its ability to define, communicate and live up to a sense of purpose. And that’s why the work we all do, at its best, will always be valuable. Eradicate the B-word I’d never criticise anyone for trying to earn a living. We live in a cruel world in which there are no prizes for failure. If you’re a graphic designer and you can make more money by calling yourself a ‘branding consultant’, good luck to you. However, I agree with Tim Rich on this one (Private View, DW 1 August): if you are engaged in the practice of graphic design, you might actually be better off calling yourself a graphic designer. The reason branding gets laughed at (‘savaged’, to use Rich’s word) in the media is because sharp-brained commentators have rightly identified it as one of the modern black arts, alongside spin-doctoring, bully-boy PR and the hype of celebrity and make-over culture. The Consignia rebranding was doomed to failure not just because it adopted an ungainly new name and a bland new corporate marque, but also because it was a blatant piece of spin. It was a crass and transparent attempt to persuade the nation that a familiar British institution was a now a dynamic global player. It tried to do this at a time when many of us get our morning post at lunchtime. I’ve eradicated the B-word from my vocabulary. I don’t deny that there are such things as ‘brands’, or that there is work to be done on the visual identity of brands. It’s just that most brand-related thinking is grindingly formulaic. Current branding philosophy has led to the mass standardisation of products and services, and resulted in a flavourless, vacuum-packed world of sameness. Even more damagingly, it has led to the widespread assumption, among branding experts, that people are merely consumers and not thinking human beings. You won’t hear members of the public talk about ‘branding’. They’re much more likely to call a spade a spade, rather than an ‘expression of the Spear and Jackson brand’. As designers, we should do the same. We should talk in plain English and impress upon our clients the simple power of good graphic design. Of course, the whole question of dodgy nomenclature was exposed a long time ago by a great TV presenter and semiotician, Jim Bowen. During an episode of Bullseye, one of the contestants told him that he was a dustman. ‘Oh, I see’, noted Bowen. ‘So you’re an executive in the tin trade, are you?’

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