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The Good, The Bad and The Underbelly of Branding

We are now living in a day and age wherein design is doing more than it ever has before. Quite a lot of that activity has been embedded in the discipline of branding. I have been working in design and branding for my entire career, now going on 38 years. I’ve heard and worked with every possible definition of branding that there is; I even wrote a book about the myriad definitions and perspectives that exist about them. As for me, I define branding as process of manufacturing meaning and I define design as the communication of that meaning.

Once upon a time, building a brand was rather straightforward endeavor. A logo was a visual guarantee of quality and consistency, or it was a signal that a product was something new. People were willing to pay a premium for this very special manufactured thing. Fast forward a hundred and fifty years, and we are living in a world where there are over 40,000 products in a typical supermarket. If you went shopping for bottled water, you’d have more than 80 options to choose from. Since their launch in 1912, you could choose from over 100 flavors and variants of Oreo cookies. There are over 47,000 shopping malls in the US, and they all seem to have an Old Navy and a Sears and a Victoria’s Secret.

Brands—by design—signify our affiliations and telegraph our beliefs. Brands also partner with other brands, buy other brands, promote other brands, and have appropriated the symbolism of other brands. Branding is now inextricably linked to the way in which society, culture, the environment, and business interact.

There’s both good news and bad news about this behavior. I’ll start with the good news, transition to the bad news and end up in a hopeful place so that I don’t leave you despairing about our times any more than you already might be.

Here’s the good news. We are now at a tipping point in the way brands are being created designed. For the last one hundred and fifty years, brands were the purview of the corporation. Brands were created by the corporation, manufactured by the corporation, distributed by the corporation, marketed by the corporation, and the corporation controlled both the cost to the consumer and the profits the corporation collected. It was very top-down. Corporations had all the commercial control, people had little to none.

Through the advancements in technology and our mastery of computer communications, branding is becoming democratized, and the results are not, for once, relegated to the commercial. This new class of brands use the very tenants of branding that have helped propel Coca-Cola and Starbucks and Amazon and Apple to the top of Interbrand’s Annual Top 100 Brands List but these new, progressive brands don’t have profit and loss statements, they aren’t compelled to adhere to domestic manufacturing standards or FDA regulations or worry about a return on investment or shelf presence. These brands have been created by the people for the people and have no financial imperative. They are connecting us with like-minded ideals in a way we’ve never been able to do before, they reflect collective values, they inspire us to take and demand action. Often, they can help us feel part of something bigger than ourselves, many times they are doing this for the first time in ever our culture. They are brands, but they are way more than that. These new entities include the Me Too movement, Times Up, Black Lives Matter and what I hope Trans Rights Are Human Rights will become. The design and proliferation of The Pink Pussy Hat is proof positive that these efforts can succeed. It took 35 years for 150 million people to own a television set. It took 7 years for 150 million people to own a cell phone. And it took eight weeks for 150 million people to wear a handmade pink hat.

I contend that these efforts are not only movements, they are some of the strongest change-making brands of our time. With these brands we declare: This is the kind of world that we want.

This has created an environment wherein design and branding are not just tools of capitalism. The tables have turned and we are now living in a bottom-up environment where we have a remarkable amount of power. Now whether we use that power to make a difference and design a world we can sustainably and peacefully live in is, quite frankly, up to us. That is the good news.

But the bad news is there is an underbelly to this ability. Our culture is now at a place in our collective history where it is almost entirely composed of brands. Everything we consume—even the most basic commodities like water and salt—are brands. Experiences are brands. Buildings are brands. Broadway musicals are brands. We have marks and logos on oranges and toilet bowls and on our bodies. Brands are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us unaffected. And now, people are expected to be brands. But let’s go back to my definition of branding, which I steadfastly stand by: branding is manufactured meaning. You see, brands don’t exist unless we make them. They don’t grow on trees, they don’t breathe air, we can’t nurse them from our bosom. Brands don’t have living, breathing souls. But people do. We’re inconsistent and messy, qualities that brands steer clear of. We love and hate and feel. Brands very well may be the promise of an experience, but brands don’t experience that experience. People experience joy and elation and pride and benevolence. We also feel shame and envy and disgust and despair and agony. And in today’s world, where we’re all supposed to be brands, we’ve somehow felt compelled to eliminate any sense of the complexity of humanity in the way we express and share our experiences.

But in “real life,” —interesting phrase—we’re not. And nowhere is that more pervasive than the cultural phenomenon that is social media. So many of us—me included—use social media to brag and boast, share accomplishments and honors. But what is behind the veneer of a person’s best moment? What’s behind the accomplishments and the successes or the new love or the humble brag? What’s behind the awards and the accolades and the achievements?

Here is my hope: What would happen if we shared more about our “real lives”? The moments of shame or envy or disgust or despair or agony, that if talked about, might help someone else understand that they are not alone? That they too don’t have to pretend? That it is possible to feel very damaged and hold a lot of shame but still have a tremendous amount of hope about what is possible in a life?

So I write this today, talking as a practitioner of branding with a hope and a possible recommendation that we leave the branding to the brands and the living to the living.


By Debbie Millman

Designer, Author, Illustrator, Educator, Brand Consultant, Host of the award-winning podcast ‘Design Matters’


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