Obsessive Branding Disorder
by Lucas Conley is a book that graphic designers can place on their shelves next to Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style
. Both books are written by non-designers and both shine a spotlight onto the nature of design today. While Postrel’s book is a sunny affirmation of the power of aesthetic design to create pleasure and desirability, Conley’s book exposes branding as a “pesticide working its way up the food chain.” For graphic designers, Obsessive Branding Disorder
makes grim reading.
Conley describes in vivid detail the extent to which branding has permeated modern culture, and the lengths to which brand owners will go to promote their products. This won't be news to graphic designers — especially those doing brand-related work. Designers will not be surprised to read about branded urinals, branded golf holes, branded beach sand, NASCAR M&Ms, Proctor & Gamble sponsored mobile toilets, product placement in movies, fake bloggers eulogising products; “customer evangelists” who use clandestine word-of-mouth strategies to sell toothpaste and deodorant to unsuspecting friends and neighbors.
What might come as a surprise, however, is to have the branding phenomenon forensically examined, not by an anti-corporate "No Logo-er", but by a contributing writer to Fast Company
magazine. Lucas Conley is a business writer. His measured and controlled indignation over the excesses of branding is not caused by moral or ethical considerations (although it’s clear that he is personally affronted by much of what is going on), instead his indignation is based on far more pragmatic concerns.
In Conley’s view, corporate America is in thrall of the cult of branding and this has led to the abandonment of the “trusty, dusty principles of business — innovative products, good service, solid management” in favor of the “idealism of branding . . .” He berates executives for becoming “so focused on the strength of the all-encompassing idea — the brand — that they ignore the physical properties that compose it.” In other words, branding has become the quick fix that promises instant success: why bother with expensive improvements to products and services when a new logo, a ritzy strap line, and a brand guidelines book can do the job just as well and at a fraction of the cost?
Conley’s book reads like a ripping yarn. He finds countless examples, from the mundane, to the more sinister forms of invasive branding that threaten our sense of self. He believes that branding has led to the cult of “instant behavioural transformations” and asks: “What does it mean when our ‘sense of meaning’ and our ‘sense of identity’ are shaped by someone trying to sell us something?”
It might seem as if the culprits in this are the ad agencies, but Conley sees branding as having “superseded the advertising industry, either claiming advertising outright or dictating the message that advertisers are allowed to deliver. Increasingly, marketing has also become a division of branding.” And he does a good job at naming the professional culprits. Cincinnati is full of them, apparently: “What Los Angeles is to plastic surgery,” Conley tells us, “Cincinnati, Ohio, is to the branding business.”
And it’s here, amongst the latter day equivalents of turn-of-the-century frontier snake-oil vendors, that Conley delivers one of his most damming indictments of modern branding. After an encounter with a branding fundamentalist, he notes: “The more he describes branding, the more it appears to consist entirely of vague idealism and seemingly vain efforts to create something meaningful and permanent of what is often superfluous and transient. The simpler the product, the more Byzantine the branding seems.”
What does this mean for designers? If we put to one side the ethical and moral questions of being foot soldiers in the consumerist engulfment of modern life (in my view, a matter for individuals to decide for themselves), designers nevertheless have to question the practical wisdom of allowing graphic design to be subsumed into branding.
On the one hand it's a sensible way of maintaining demand for design services. Clients “get” branding in a way they don't always “get” design, so why not woo them with talk of “brand promise” and “brand essence”? On the other hand, it may not be such a smart business maneuver
; by aligning itself with branding, design risks being sucked down with it, when as with most business credos, branding falls out of fashion or becomes discredited — and don't think it can’t happen. Look at what happened to Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe. Who would have guessed a year ago (six months ago!) that their financial wizardry would be exposed as not much better than banditry and they’d have to go begging to the government for a bailout?
Yet perhaps graphic design’s biggest mistake is the same mistake made by those businesses that are turning to branding for instant salvation. Conley nails the problem: “ … branding, when it’s consistent, provides us with clarity and simplicity in a progressively hectic world. But branding has become unhinged from its initial principles, and its aims have become increasingly exaggerated and warped.” Seems to me, we can say the same thing about graphic design. By allowing graphic design to jump the species barrier and become branding, designers acquire a new set of dubious guiding principles and divorce themselves from the tradition of being an honest conduit for communicating simple truths. Sure, graphic design has always been used to wallpaper over cracks and create bogus impressions, but now that reduction and deception (to use two charges that Conley levels against branding) have become its raison d’être
, graphic design is changed forever.
For an additional interpretation of Lucas Conley's book, see the essay subsequently posted on Design Observer by Debbie Millman: Obsessive Branding Disorder II.