Over the past few years the idea of graphic design has become rather complex. With the advent of digital mediums over the more traditional ones, graphic design now covers a much wider variety of practices than it ever did before. A fresh graduate of the discipline has a multitude of opportunities waiting to be explored, opportunities which were non-existent to earlier practitioners. Yet through this time branding has remained to be one of the more popular choices for those trying to establish themselves in the field. I too, like many others, had started off my professional life doing mostly branding projects. But with time I started distancing myself from them. I assumed my interest in it was waning or perhaps the other offerings of graphic design had caught my fancy. However, one of the things I have done rather religiously over the past several years is track branding projects on popular online forums (www.underconsideration.com/brandnew being a particular favorite) with a regularity and enthusiasm that stood contrary to my theory of waning interest. On some reflection I have come to believe the problem lies with the lack of a common understanding of the term branding between me and the clients I have worked with.
For most, coming up with a name, a logo and throwing together some colors and fonts to go with it constitutes branding. Unfortunately, I just can’t seem to subscribe to this idea. To me that is equivalent to saying what you were named and what you choose to wear defines who you are completely. While I agree that it forms a part of the picture, it surely is not the whole.
Take the often repeated and clichéd example of Apple (for those thinking- oh god, not again!… bear with me)–Each year Apple launches a newer version of the iPhone with a kind of success that overshadows it’s own superlative achievements from the previous year. Competing smartphone brands cram their phones with larger screens, greater pixel density, more processing power and even lower prices. Yet the iPhone has managed to, more or less, stand alone. No other phone can boast of making intelligent, smart, mature adults stand in long queues from the night before it’s launch akin to teenagers waiting to get a glimpse of Justin Bieber.
Apple has steadfastly focused on the experience of using the iPhone. It has distanced itself from fighting the war on the grounds of the specifics of the hardware it packs into the phone. Most iPhone users wouldn’t know the pixel density of their phone screens, nor its processing speed or the amount of RAM it carries. Yet they would wax eloquently about its ‘retina’ display, its smooth transitions and animations and the general ease of using it. So when other brand try to win you over with their 42 megapixel cameras and quad core processors, Apple simply tells you how using the iPhone is going to be a wonderful experience. The more you think about the more this approach makes sense–Why should you as a user care about what’s inside the devices you use? They just need to do what you want them to do without throwing a fit.
Everything about Apple from its actual products, to its television ads, to its packaging follows the ‘less is more’ philosophy. When they moved to the newer ‘unibody’ design for their laptops, they did it with the idea of reducing the number of individual parts. Their industrial design teams seem to be constantly asking themselves what can we remove or merge to make things simpler. Their packaging has very little other than a photograph of what’s inside. The products themselves sport little more than the Apple logo. One could even argue that the glowing Apple logo is put on the laptops serve more as an element of style than anything else. In fact with the more recent retina Macbook Pros they even stopped badging them as Macbook Pro on the bottom of the screen as they previously did. Yet I suspect not many would struggle to recognize them as Apple products. It is to Apple’s credit and the strength of their branding that lets them confidently remove logos and text references without fearing that they may be mistaken for being products of any other company but Apple.
It is the same reason why Nike can open stores in most part of the world with little more than a swoosh on its name plate. This sort of progression in branding happens over time and is similar to people wearing name tags identifying them by their name and the organizations they belong to when they attend conferences. It makes practical sense as no one knows each other. But let us assume that the conference is on for a significant period of time during which everyone gets to know one another. Initially, they would know each other just by their names and the associated organization but with time they would know each other as people with recognizable traits, characters and temperaments. At this stage the name tag becomes irrelevant, in fact might even start to look a little silly- imagine walking amongst friends with a name tag for the fear of being mistaken as someone else.
That to me is branding–Earning a space in the minds of consumers over time by speaking consistently in the same language, assuring them of a level of quality and finish they can expect every time they use your products and services. The exercise of choosing this language carefully and then pursuing it till it becomes an intrinsic part of the product itself is the kind of branding that I would love to do. So think of branding as a cumulative communication of almost everything associated with a brand told in a consistent language that a consumer comes to recognize over time. It goes without saying that the products then have to stand up to the promises made without which no amount of branding can save a brand.