Blank Sheet Branding — Giving Birth

David Ogilvy once wrote that "any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand". In eastern philosophies there is the idea of the “beginner’s mind” which is the ability to approach a situation without your preconceptions.

Great branding requires vision, nerve and commitment. Creating a brand can be like naming a child, at first it seems unfamiliar but very soon the child "owns" the name and the idea of giving the baby another name is unthinkable. From this all white space in your head comes a feat of excellence.

The brands we love, speak to us. We have developed expectations of them and they rarely let us down.

The brand identity makes promises and if they prove to be correct, they become trusted as part of our lives. We used to think that language and images did the job completely, but no longer. Experiencing the brand, now means engaging in the product, how it works and what is now so sexily named "the user experience".

We have always talked about the brand's voice but this simple definition of written content falls well short of how brands need to be constructed these days. We’ve come a long way in 25 years in the design industry. Beyond copy and unique messages we are now conversing with a much more savvy consumer.

The landscape is saturated today and everyone claims to have a “brand”, but so few are clear in what they stand for. It is not enough to have a good looking logo, you have to have character and personality. You have to have a culture which is clear to all who work for or experience your brand.

"I don't know the rules of grammar. If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language" — David Ogilvy

"I don't know the rules of grammar. If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language" — David Ogilvy

The brand expression used in your language and tone of voice must be consistent over a long period of time. It means thinking well ahead of the market and how your customers will evolve. 

It's also not enough to create a style and tone that suits the current conditions or just reflects the company's heritage. 

Do not look at the short-term year you are facing, its more like a 10 year horizon you should be thinking about. Your brand expression has to be ahead of its time, it has to speak of a positive future without devolving into superlatives.

When you are aware that somebody is speaking and choosing their words carefully you will listen more intently, and often you will find yourself cutting off people who don't.

This is no different to the concise way you should talk about your brand. Brevity, clarity in word and image is critical in a busy world of clutter. These days photography, illustration, motion and info-graphic are vital tools to get right. The physical experience must also deliver what you promised right down to that soft hotel pillow.  

Your brand has to avoid just being fashionable but it needs to still be forward thinking. This means you have to be prepared to craft messages and use a style that is ahead of its time.

Iteration and plagiarism is today's biggest challenge.

Because of the high level of visual literacy these days and the speed of knowledge transfer, being truly original is becoming increasingly challenging.

Branding is an intellectual process and not a style one. No one needs another brand in their lives, it's what people want in preference to what they already have that is now the critical part. This means that we need to know more than we’ve ever known about consumer behaviour. Avoiding the stereotypes and looking at customers in depth, gaining much more intuitive insights into how they live work and play.

I often see companies undertaking research with zero empathy, trying to put themselves in the frame first. Empathy requires great skill and in the right hands it can be achieved incredibly fast by using well evolved discovery techniques.

The hipster approach to branding is great for current commentary, they’re trend affected and highly influenced by the media, but when it comes to branding they’re more myopic than most. They will fight their corner with mountains of knowledge wearing down the fainthearted in the room and usually reigning supreme. Shouting from a supposed visionary without empathy is how many subsequent failures got through the gate and often wasted millions.

If you are developing a brand and you can't see beyond your own familiar archetypes in your research and observations you will end up with a mirror image of what you like. If you are a fashion designer, then designing for yourself is great, in that they are the ultimate arbiters of taste and we love them for it. It’s rare to find people who can look at the branding challenge from the outside-in putting themselves completely in the customer frame.

We all come with some prejudice and you need a mix of uniquely different colleagues around you in the development process.

It's the wit and discourse which delivers the best difference

between your business partners. It also valuably builds an internal resolve to walk the talk.

Steve Jobs, pictured here in the 1980's with an early version of the Macintosh, managed to retain his child-like optimism.

Steve Jobs, pictured here in the 1980's with an early version of the Macintosh, managed to retain his child-like optimism.

Many people think they have a brand when it's all about them. They deliver it in "we" language i.e. we do this and we do that. Delivering your brand through the eyes of the user, means talking about yourself in "you" language. Who is “you”? Your customer, what would they say about your brand? Can you see, hear and then capture these moments of joy?

From swimming pools to software one can construct emotive take-out messages which resonate both visually and intellectually. It requires enormous restraint and insights into understanding the different customers you are talking with. It's the conversation you want them to have with you and not the reverse.

I like to call these things the brand’s echoes, being able to hear and reiterate the customer's sentiments and not your own.

I have often thought there is never enough time to think about the human condition, to peel the onion all the way to the inner self of the customer and rebuild the brand’s logic as if everyone was an individual coming to something for the first time.

When a very young child engages in something new to them they touch, shake, lick, chew, look etc. A child uses all of their senses in the process of initial engagement and understanding.

‘‘Blank Sheet Branding’’ takes enormous courage. To strip down to the absolute essentials and build a perception as if you were talking to a baby.

It requires monk-like disciplines of quietness and focus to distil down that which truly matters as opposed to that which is mere style.

There are no longer dark rooms in the world of the photographer, no longer the big reveal as the image emerges from the chemical bath and you see things that you didn’t see through the lens on the street with all its distractions. Like the strategist, the designer, the writer, we are all on the street speedily soaking up stuff and guilty of making more stuff with iterative slivers of new meaning but nothing fundamentally different.

‘Blank Sheet Branding’ requires great courage — to overcome the phobia of staring at a blank page.

‘Blank Sheet Branding’ requires great courage — to overcome the phobia of staring at a blank page.

I think this sameness persists because branding is often just skin deep and the soul of the business is seldom found, or if it is, it’s impossible to understand or be appreciated and valued by the customer.Overloaded pre-conceptions and well disguised prejudices are the biggest challenges in the multi-media age where most people know a little about a lot but have no time or interest in really peeling the onion to learn something new.

Great brands are built by child-like thinkers who never deal in the constant counter-arguments which confuse and dull their driven intensity.

Steve Jobs was such a person. I’m convinced that his study of eastern beliefs helped his purist thinking. In a student fraternity address shortly before he died he quoted "Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."

Marketers blog about Jobs’ brilliance from a brand perspective, but the real learning for me was the child-like innocence and optimism with which the man came to his conclusions.