Book Review: “Brand Thinking” by Debbie Millman

Brand Thinking is a collection of interviews conducted by Debbie Millman, veteran brand consultant, host of the podcast series Design Matters and co-founder of the Master’s in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. The book explores what branding means as a concept and a profession through a series of interviews with industry leaders in advertising, marketing, design, business strategy and anthropology.

Brand Thinking by Debbie Millman

I found the first half of the book to be much more enlightening and inspiring than the latter half, but this is probably just because many of the core themes were revisited across several interviews. (Interestingly, Malcolm Gladwell’s interview was last, which involved a discussion as to why he doesn’t use the term “brand” in books that explore that very concept. He also points out the fairly obvious yet simultaneously enlightening — classic Gladwell — by stating our love of social media speaks to our biological need to connect to others by communicating our thoughts.)

I highlighted and underlined a lot of this book. Below are a few of my favorite tidbits and quotes pulled from what were the most memorable interviews for me:

Brian Collins – Discussed branding as a source of connection with others, and introduced the concept of “archetypal” brands and Jungian psychology which led me down a serious rabbit hole from which I hope I never emerge…For example, Apple plays the role of the rebel, offering consumers a way to assert their individuality or “coolness” without explicitly stating this (“the art that conceals the art” as Virginia Postrel puts it). Apple is the proverbial “Eve” – a temptress, a seductress, a rebel. By choosing Apple, we gravitate toward this cultural concept known as an “archtype” with which we are all familiar.

Wally Olins – Stresses the importance in possessing a combination of strategic and design capabilities. His advice to young brand strategists or those considering a career in branding is to consider whether they truly want to join what’s a very demanding business. Not everything is quantifiable; he’s highly suspect of analysts who quantify everything with neat metrics. We can see what has not worked in the market, but we cannot quantify what will – which is what the most successful brands predict. And you have to be OK with that.

“In order to be truly imaginative, you must possess an unusual level of self-  confidence and creativity . . .”

“If you are going to create something that is truly a breakthrough, you have to rely on your intuition and your judgment.”

Grant McCracken – Sees designers as vehicles for corporations to take culture seriously. Has a PhD in Anthropology, and points out that while most of the world perceives the passage of time as circular, Western culture uniquely decided at some point to consider time as linear, symbolized by an arrow. We therefore find ourselves in an endless projection forward, for what’s next. He sees designers as uniquely able to “create and interpret” culture within a business that is otherwise focused forward. Designers are like messengers from the holistic, universal, cultural world into the bottom-line-driven world of the mundane. (I particularly loved and identified with this.) It’s an interesting challenge to marry the two sides of the brain and I got a sense that the best designers are also strategic thinkers – which Wally Olins says as well.

“What I’d rather hear from designers is, ‘These are the twelve cultural meanings at issue here, and this is where the world is – this is what the world wants. This is how we’ve crafted the brand out of these twelve meanings. This is how we’ve combined them, and this is how we’ll manage them over the next six or twelve months.'”

Dori Tunstall – A “Design Anthropologist” currently teaching at a university in Australia. She views design as a lens to interpret what it means to be human – and a key element in creating products and services that accomodate our needs, as opposed to imposing them upon us. Just seeing the words “design anthropologist” together made me feel I was meant to (a) read this book, and (b) participate in this field. I actually found Dori on Twitter and she offered to help me find people in New York who are involved in this type of discussion.

“Values like equality, democracy, fairness, integration and connection are values that, to some extent, we’ve lost. Design can help make those values more tangible and ultimately express how we can use them to make the  world a better place.”

Virginia Postrel – Everything this woman said was mind-blowingly interesting and articulate to the point that it was intimidating just reading her words. She’s a cultural critic, essayist and journalist and has written extensively about “glamour” and its relationship with beauty, fashion and style in our culture. She also points out that the internet mimics our brain’s natural “associative” state, making it easy to quickly bounce from one thing to the next. While this is the way we naturally think or daydream, it has led to extreme overstimulation and a serious deficit in attention; this directly leads to the need to compete for the attention of others, which is why our culture values “outrageousness”.

Your outside self projects something to the world and also reflects back into you. The image of you in specific attire helps you imagine yourself as the person you would like to be.

Other enjoyable and noteworthy tidbits:

David Butler – VP of Design at Coca Cola – An early proponent of user-centric design and an appreciation for design thinking/design strategy. Believes in the ability of large corporations to improve the world, with their reach, networks, infrastructure, etc.

Stanley Hainesworth – Former VP Global Creative, Starbucks, Former Creative Director, Nike. Hainesworth is responsible for creating the five pillars of Starbucks’ brand: handcrafted, artistic, sophisticated, human and endearing. Talks about the challenge for brands to retain authenticity (which is definitely a buzzword, but this book was written in 2011.)  He says in order to recapture one’s audience, you must stay on brand, digging deeper into its essence/history/story/mission, rather than creating something new and off-brand that won’t communicate.

Dan Formosa – Co-founder of Smart Design and proponent of user-centered design which designs for people at “the edges”; the democratization of design. He describes himself and his colleagues coming out of college in the 60s and 70s and wanting to change the world, as an impetus for him to focus on people, design and how the two relate, at a time when designers didn’t yet care about concepts like usability or user-friendliness.

The way to think about ‘everybody’ is not to think about the average person in the middle, but to think about the extremes.

Joe Duffy – Celebrated creative director and founder of his own independent branding studio, Duffy & Partners, which prides itself on carefully selecting which clients it works with. They work to establish each client’s “branding language”, a full identity system which serves to inform every design decision made by the brand.

“I don’t want to work with clients who are successful in spite of their lack of design or in spite of their bad design.”

“…Design is really so damn simple. It’s so straightforward. Anyone who tries to make it convoluted or complicated does a disservice to designers everywhere. Anyone who buys crap gets what they deserve.”

Seth Godin:

“Brands must build on past associations but go beyond nostalgia to novelty.”