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Design discussions: Debbie Millman on Brand Thinking

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October 11 2011

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, the latest book by author Debbie Millman

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits is the latest book from Debbie Millman. In this ‘Design discussions,’ we speak with the author about the book, her time as president of the AIGA, and her thoughts on the most important aspects of creating a brand.

The name Debbie Millman should be familiar to most idsgn readers. Former president of the AIGA, Millman hosts a weekly online talk show called Design Matters and is the author of several design books, including How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer. She is also a contributing editor at Print Magazine, chair of the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and president of the design division at Sterling Brands. And I could go on and on.

In her 16 years at Sterling, Millman has worked on the redesign of over 200 global brands—an impressive list which includes the likes of Pepsi, Nestlé, and Campbell’s. A brand expert in her own right, Brand Thinking rounds up 22 of the most knowledgeable and diverse people in the industry, from marketing guru Seth Godin, cultural critic Malcolm Gladwell, designer Karim Rashid, and branding legend Wally Olins for a series of interviews on the subject of branding.

The notion of the ‘brand,’ like any concept that dominates markets and public consciousness, is a challenge to define. Is it a simple differentiator of the cereals in our cupboards, a manipulative brainwashing tool forced on us by corporations, or a creative triumph as capable as any art form of stimulating our emotions and intellect?

—Excerpt from the Brand Thinking book jacket

We are delighted to bring you this interview with Debbie Millman, someone who is usually in the opposite seat.

IDSGN: From Wally Olins to Malcolm Gladwell, the subjects in Brand Thinking are an intriguing group of people. What makes a brand thinker?

DEBBIE MILLMAN: I think that being a brand thinker is someone who is interested in why, as humans, we seem to be universally compelled to make, mark, organize and acquire things. Humans have been using emblems of all sorts—whether they be religious icons, flags, shields, clothing, make-up, hairstyles, etc—to telegraph who we are as a species and where we stand as individuals for almost as long as we have been on this planet. I believe that “brand thinking” helps to reveal and make sense of the cultural, economic and spiritual implications of this behavior.

This is a question you ask several times in your book, so it only seems fair that I ask you the same thing. What is your definition of a “brand”?

I think humans use brands to project who we want to be in the world, how we want people to perceive us, and how we want to communicate what we feel about ourselves and our place in society.

How did you get started in branding?

My love affair with brands began when I was in the 7th grade. I looked around and everyone in school was wearing pants with a little red tag on the back pocket and polo shirts decorated with little crocodiles: Levi’s and Lacoste. But my mother didn’t understand why we had to pay more money for the tag and the crocodile when clothing without them was the same quality, only cheaper. Furthermore, my mother was a seamstress, so she was very proud of the fact that she could hand make me the very same clothes and simply stitch a red tag into the back pocket of the pants or glue a crocodile patch from the Lee Wards craft store onto one of the polo shirt’s I already owned. While that plan didn’t quite suit my aspirations of being a seventh-grade trendsetter, I eagerly pored through the racks of Lee Wards in search of a crocodile patch to stick onto the front of my favorite pink polo shirt. Alas, there was nothing. The best I came up with was a cute rendition of Tony the Tiger, but that really wasn’t the brand look I was going for. She finally relented and surprised me with a pair of Levi’s she bought on sale at the Walt Whitman mall. I had a minor issue with the fact that they were a pair of lime green corduroy bell-bottoms, but I quickly brushed it aside. After all, they were Levi’s! I was cool. My reign of logo worship had begun.

Later, when I got a little bit older, I realized I loved brand design when I created the “visual identity system” for the over-the-counter products in my father’s pharmacy in upstate New York. Thirty years ago, I handmade the signage using oak tag and magic markers. Given that they are still there (faded, ever so slightly crinkled, yellow-taped and all), I think they were rather successful.

Humans use brands to project who we want to be in the world, how we want people to perceive us, and how we want to communicate what we feel about ourselves and our place in society.

You mention “branding is a history in flux,” and you hope this book will provide a time capsule of the current decade’s brand ideas. In your professional career (which spans over 25 years), have you seen branding evolve firsthand?

We are now living in sensory overload. Our mass consumption of brands, technology and information has changed the way we relate, perceive and live. Brands are no longer static, internally managed “objects.” They are constantly in motion, and managed and by consumers (er, people) despite what a company’s P&L or annual report might otherwise state. Brands have become a reflection of the culture in which it participates. This evokes a unique composition of sensory perceptions, and the extension of any one of these impacts the way we think and act. When these perceptions change, people change; culture changes and brands change yet again. It is cyclical, just like most everything else.

Stanley Hainsworth says storytelling is the most important aspect of creating a brand. Do you agree with this?

I think genuine storytelling is important. However, it worries me that everyone from Snooki to the Kardashians to Rick Perry, along with 85 brand consultancies, the MTA, and my neighborhood veterinary hospital are now looking to define their brand via storytelling. I would hate for storytelling to become just another eye-roll inducing tactic to get more people to buy more stuff. And it is coming perilously close…

I think the most important aspects of creating a brand are as follows:

  1. Single-minded confidence in the brands mission.
  2. Deep understanding of human behavior.
  3. The ability of the brand to make a difference in someone’s life.

Creating brands isn’t about “branding.” There is no more “mass market” in which to target a product. There is no one demographic picture of the planet. I saw cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken speak wherein he proclaimed that while lifestyle typologies have expanded to first 3, then 6, then 9 and then 12 typologies—there is now too much variation and we have reached categorical exhaustion. As a result, I have come to believe that the term branding is a catchword for the perfect, meticulously crafted balance of cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, economics and design. It is about cultural anthropology because what we do in our culture—whether it is an obsession with reality television or weapons of mass destruction, this has a major impact on the brands around us. It is about psychology because if we don’t fundamentally understand the brain circuitry of our audience and really know what they are thinking—and why they are thinking it—we will not be able to solicit their imagination. It is about economics because understanding the marketplace and the return on the consumer’s investment impacts and influences perception. And it is about design because if we don’t create a compelling visual language, then people won’t be able to connect with whatever you are trying to sell them.

Debbie Millman, author of Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits

Creating brands isn’t about ‘branding.’ There is no more ‘mass market’ in which to target a product. There is no one demographic picture of the planet.

Speaking of Snooki, this concept of “people as brands” comes up a few times in Brand Thinking. Tell me about the Debbie Millman brand.

I am not a brand. I may use some of the tenets of branding to communicate my values in the work that I do, but I am just a person who is utterly fascinated by culture, choices, behavior, symbolism, semiotics, products, innovation and so forth. The list goes on and on.

You talk with Alex Bogusky, who recently left his successful advertising firm to start the FearLess Cottage, about his thoughts on “the new consumer revolution.” You also reference a conversation with Milton Glaser told you people in branding must figure out how to get people to stop buying things. What are your thoughts on consumer revolution? How might it change the ways companies are branded?

Better living through consumption doesn’t stop when you’ve consumed everything you covet. Unfortunately, brands are elusive and they don’t keep you happy for very long. As Dan Pink aptly points out in the book, The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that human beings metabolize these things (brands) very quickly. I’m specifically using the word metabolize because we are talking about hunger and thirst. If a big-screen TV is your symbol of stature and significance, it’s a fool’s game. These kinds of external objects do not provide enduring satisfaction.”

He goes on to talk about what psychologists call the “hedonistic treadmill.” In other words, if you’re always looking to validate yourself by buying things, then you are never going to be satisfied. He states, You are on an endless, addictive treadmill. The brand’s only purpose is to get you on that hedonistic treadmill. It may be good for the business in the short run, but in the long run, you’re doomed.”

Dan has articulated this behavior better than anyone else, in my opinion.

I couldn’t help but notice the introduction to your last subject, Malcolm Gladwell. A mere two sentences, which distill to “He is a genius,” contrasts with the one to two page introductions for other subjects. Is there a story behind this?

No, unfortunately there is no juicy back-story. The truth is this: I struggled with what to say about Malcolm—most of what I know “personally” about Malcolm is his kindness and generosity to me. I felt that any detail about that would be sappy and uninteresting, and since much about who he is professionally has already been written, I figured I would keep it short and sweet and get right to the point.

Would you say Brand Thinking is a book just for those of us in the branding or design world? Who should be reading this, and what do you hope they get out of it?

This isn’t a book about selling ideas or processes or ideologies. This book is a dialogue about why we do the things that we do with brands—whether it is creating, consulting, acquiring, trashing or coveting. Brand Thinking isn’t a book about how to brand; it is many different perspectives from people who have been thinking about brands for most of their lives. This book is for anyone who is curious about why we make and mark things and why we buy and brand them.

Switching gears for a minute, you recently stepped down as president of the AIGA where you served for two years. Coming from a background in brand design, one of your original goals as president was to "break down the barriers separating our specialties and work together to design the change the world needs." Did you accomplish this? And what change does the world need?

I think I was moderately successful during my term as AIGA President. First, I am just thankful that I had the chance to serve the organization, and I am proud that someone in “brand design” was given the opportunity in the first place. It was only 8 short years ago that I was unceremoniously rejected as a “she-devil.” In any case, there are several things I feel most proud of, and they are (in no particular order) as follows:

  1. I worked to strengthen our commitment to communicate via social media. @AIGAdesign now has close to 275,000 followers on Twitter. When I started my term, there were about 60,000.
  2. I made it my business to visit 55 out of 66 local chapters and student groups, no matter how big or small. And I am still continuing the effort: I will talk to anyone who will listen about the power of design.
  3. I helped to create the annual AIGA Milton Glaser scholarship with the School of Visual Arts. This $25,000 annual scholarship is now helping young students every year.
  4. I helped to create a position on the National Board of Directors specifically targeted to help and support new designers entering the marketplace.
  5. Helped to further our efforts and involvement with the AIGA/F&W Media partnership, ICOGRADA, the FUSE Conference, and others.

But mostly, I hope that I helped further a message that is central to what I am trying to communicate in Brand Thinking: More than any other discipline, designers have the ability to impact our culture in significant and profound ways. Designers are creators and innovators; we find solutions where none previously existed, we imagine ideas and opportunities and we realize those ideas and opportunities.

Debbie Millman’s Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits is available in bookstores today, published by Allworth Press.

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Filed under: branding

By Skylar Challand