Branding was originally an approach for creating reputations for commercial products. Over time, it has come to be applied to almost everything, from high school sports to school meal programs; from universities to research centers; from art museums to ballet companies to cultural institutions; from political campaigns to cities to states. Today, even nations have become brands.
Item: Last month, we flew to Toronto to attend the Ontario Design Thinkers Conference. — a conference in which the weakest presentation came from Jeff Swystun, the Global Director of Interbrand. Among other objectionable tactics (Swystun showed considerable work produced by other designers, none of whom were credited), his canned PowerPoint presentation displayed, at a certain point, three brand logos simultaneously: Kodak, the Bay (a leading Canadian retail brand), and the American flag. I was outraged, and all I could think was, my country is not a brand.
Item: That same week, Robert George wrote a cover story for The New Republic titled "Conscientious Objector: Why I Can't Vote for Bush." This is how he ended his indictment: "At crucial points before and after the Iraq war, Bush's middle manager's have failed him, and the 'brand' called America has suffered in the world market." According to his argument, U.S. officials should be summarily dismissed because they have let their shareholders down and the brand has suffered in the marketplace.
Item: In the most recent issue of Eye (no. 53), devoted to "Brand Madness", Nick Bell cites the example of Charlotte Beers, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, who was hired by the U.S. State Department to "combat rising tides of anti-Americanism." Bell quotes Naomi Klein: "Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed criticism of the appointment: 'There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something... We need someone who can re-brand American foreign policy... She got me to buy Uncle Ben's Rice.'"
Item: Not long ago, in a The New York Times Magazine interview, Bruce Mau urged designers to embrace "the richness of the marketplace." By way of example, he described his own approach to this Herculean task: "We are being asked to work on a vision for the future of Guatemala. How can we design Guatemala over the next 10 years?"
What's most troubling here is the deeply inappropriate vocabulary we choose to deploy as we randomly penetrate such allegedly foreign disciplines as politics and international diplomacy. The decision to vote for George Bush based on his handling of the American brand? Defending a State Department foreign policy hire because, "SHE GOT ME TO BUY UNCLE BEN'S RICE?" A designer who believes that, based on his own knowledge of the marketplace, he can re-design the future of a country, albeit just a little one in Central America? While we're at it, let's not forget Rem Koolhaas designing a bar-coded flag for the capitalistic future of the European Union, or Landor setting out to "brand" entire countries, including Jordan and Hong Kong.
Eye addresses some of these issues in its "Brand Madness" issue, as does Design Observer's Michael Bierut in this recent post. (Also relevant are Michael's posts on the marketing of political parties in the Indian elections and the design of the new Iraqi flag.) Jessica Helfand and I also addressed some of these issues a year ago in Vancouver in a talk titled, Culture is not always popular.
Nick Bell's discussion on "The Steamroller of Branding" in Eye is a thoughtful critique which examines the process of creating identities for art museums and performing arts centers. Bell notes in particular the way branding has crept into the experience of the art — how it has actually invaded the space of the gallery and performance locale— rather than focusing solely on the commercial activities of these cultural institutions. I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment — yet I find this singular focus on the branding of art and performance institutions somewhat vexing, as it inherently leads back to an impenetrable dichotomy between art and commerce. Weren't the signatories of the First Things First Manifesto attacked for privileging high culture above commercial culture? Ultimately, this minimizes the importance of this essential critique of "brand madness" that make the newest suite of Eye essays so imperative.
The problem with "Content," as I believe both Bell and Bierut would attest, is that it risks becoming a fundamentally generic concept: in this way, it's not unlike the way "the brand" has become simply "Brand," sometimes invoked with an almost religious-like tone. (Whenever I hear these terms used in this way, I'm reminded of Goethe writing about the Sublime.) Content should not be an abstraction for designers, but rather something to be evaluated in specific and differentiated terms. It is in its specificity that designers need to begin making distinctions — distinctions which are not merely programmatic or pragmatic, but which carry with them implicit moral dimensions.
There is, for instance, a difference between helping an NGO to fundraise and helping an NGO to disseminate information about the state of the world in a crisis zone. Given the requirements of capitalism and communication in a branding-laden culture, such overtly divergent goals are, oddly, being subsumed under the same umbrella of branding. And yet they could not be more different.
The Care identity program — its logo and its branding applications — are not the same as its challenge to the United Nations to take strong action in the Sudan. Its project no.SDN099 funds reproductive and psychosocial health services for abducted children and survivors of sexual violence in South Darfur. Meanwhile, through its corporate partners, Cisco Systems is helping to feed widows in Afghanistan, and Starbucks and Care are "Winning Together" to fight global poverty, especially in major coffee-growing areas of the world. Of course, you cannot find Care in Iraq because they have withdrawn after "the apparent death of Mrs. Margaret Hassan." But right next to the "Donate Now! Sudan Crisis" button, you can "Click here to voice your sympathy for her family."
This is but one instance in which the muddled notions of branding are communicated, and even here, there are multiple types of content revealed: some tragic, some critical to the future of a geopolitical region, some involving genocide, some abjectly promotional. What is missing, however, are distinctions: distinctions between marketing efforts (CARE fundraising for hunger) and promotional initiatives (Starbucks feeding hungry laborers in Columbia); between communication (CARE reporting on a crisis zone) and advocacy (CARE trying to persuade the UN to intervene in Darfar); and between news feeds (Margaret Hassan's brutal murder) and community (at the push of a button, send her family your heartfelt condolences now). The future of peace in entire regions of the world is the topic, and yet the form for our experience is fundamentally filtered and branded — just as in Nick Bell's example of the filtered and branded experience of art in museums.
Branding, of course, has its value, its place in commerce and its confirmed role in the implementation of certain design initiatives. At its best, it leads to better commercial communication, to understanding the needs of an audience, or building long-term relationships with consumers. And yes: wouldn't the world be a better world if more countries understood (and by conjecture, respected) the perspectives of other countries? Wouldn't America be more successful in the Arab and Muslim world if it was a little less interested in cheap oil and a little more interested in their culture, their interests and needs? Wouldn't it help if the U.S. had more people in its State Department who spoke fluent Arabic? (As of last year, there were only 54, according to the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy's report Changing Minds, Winning Peace.)
Meanwhile, we set our sights on branding the war, with sound bytes and promotional bumpers like "Operation Desert Storm" and "Operation Iraqi Freedom." In England, "Britain TM" is created for the Blair administration by Demos, based loosely on the premise of "Cool Britannia." There are also studies giving legitimacy to the "Branding of Britain in relation to the Brand South Africa." In Iraq, even before it had achieved independence as a sovereign nation, branding experts had a plan for a new Iraqi flag, a design that today might be characterized as either a failure of process or of research. At the end of the day, it was neither: it was a failure of intent. The symbol for a country should not be created by branding experts.
When the vocabulary of a nation's foreign policy is the vocabulary of branding, then it is, in fact, selling Uncle Ben's Rice. This transaction, with the vocabulary of the supermarket counter, is not how I envision my country speaking to the rest of the world.