My Love Affair with Brand

Brand is not what you think it is. It’s not a means of identifying one company from another. It’s not this superficial perception of a company by its audience. Brand is a company’s raison d’être extrapolated into a complex social identity which allows it a seat at our table and a place among our tribe. It is a business’s interface with our humanity.

I was puzzled, sitting on the beach eating my lunch, as I watched a parade of sixteen to twenty-somethings walk up to the shoreline, pose about for a few minutes, and just walk back the way they came. They would take a slew of selfies from different angles and poses, then when satisfied, would disappear up the beach, only to be replaced by an incoming group doing the same. The stark difference between our generations was fascinating to me. I was there to enjoy the ocean. They seemed be there simply to appear to enjoy it. While my focus was on the water (okay, and on them too), their focus was on the photo.

Most interestingly, while their focus has turned to the photo as opposed to the experience itself, I think they actually value the photo less. Kids these days. They’ll never know the joy, anxiety, and anticipation of the disposable camera. These days, you take a minimum of fifteen pictures every time you take one just to be sure you got the perfect shot.

When I was growing up, I was obsessed with disposable cameras. We didn’t have much and rarely had the money to buy or develop one, so when my sister bought one for me it was a special treat. I was an eight-year-old boy wrecked with excitement and anticipation — first to fill up the camera, then to wait while the pictures were developed. I remember each snapshot was precious. 24… 23… 22… Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god… When each picture is that precious, what you choose to spend that photo on is much more interesting and says a lot more about you.

So what did I take pictures of? It always varied, but mostly I took pictures of ads. Magazine ads, billboard ads, bus stop ads, and even television ads. I would sit on the couch mindlessly watching TV, and then suddenly, I would feel a spark in me, grab my camera, and snap a picture. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t question it either. In retrospect, there was a lot going on in my house at eight years old — drugs, violence, homelessness, to give a vague idea. Having such a chaotic life at such a young age, it became increasingly difficult to honestly access and process my emotions. I became fascinated by anything that would break through and cause me to feel something.

To my siblings or friends, it looked like the biggest waste of film on the planet — a concept now so many will never understand. Nothing but pictures of random magazine pages, the highway, or the television. I still remember the sound of the flash charging, rising to a higher and higher pitch, building my excitement with it. I would finally take the last picture on the roll and simultaneously be full of excitement and dread. Excitement to be one step closer to developing the pictures, and the dread of no more pictures to take.

I’m sure a psychologist could have a field day analyzing those pictures from a confused and uncertain child and the snapshots that made him feel something. When the pictures would come back from the drugstore, I would be uncontrollably eager to rifle through them. I couldn’t even remember any of the pictures I had taken at that point, and that was part of the fun. I would pull a picture out and turn it this way and that, trying to remember what caused me to take it in the first place. Similar to the Facebook like button today, taking a picture was an affirmation that something connected with me. But reviewing the photos was a totally different experience. While taking the picture was fleeting, the fun of the experience was deconstructing the thought process. What was it that caused me to feel something?

More often than not, the photos were of the last scene of a commercial or a particular element of an advertisement. I would look at them and say, “Oh, this makes me feel like I’m part of the team” or “This makes me feel like I want what they have.” Sometimes I couldn’t put my finger on the emotion I felt, and the curiosity drove me crazy. Then I had to know. So I would take the picture, a piece of paper, and a pencil and retrace over it. This taught me an extremely valuable lesson that I didn’t quite understand until about twenty years later. When the advertisement I was looking at was made, each line was intentional, each element precise, and each aspect of the layout optimized to perfection. As I recreated it, I was exposing those decisions, breaking the elements apart and destroying the illusion of the composition, seeing each element for its intended, strategic purpose.

Over time, I observed certain patterns. Certain elements or methods were standard in advertisements. I didn’t know what the golden ratio was, but I knew that things were generally separated into thirds vertically and horizontally. I knew that contrast was important and color choices purposeful. I knew that serif fonts were used for body text and sans-serif for headlines, and the foreground and background would never be analogous colors, even though I didn’t know what analogous colors were.

Around the time I was thirteen, I received magic powers — through bootleg software. I got an illegal copy of Adobe Photoshop, and that’s when things got really interesting. I spent all my time listening to Evanescence and scouring the internet, amassing folder after folder of carefully categorized advertisements, logos, and images that caught my eye and stirred emotion in me. I would then excitedly drag those into Photoshop and recreate them line by line, element by element.

I eventually started taking design work, my design work grew into a team, my team merged with another team, and we continued to grow, until one day, the company that made the software that facilitated and accelerated my design addiction, became a client.

It’s not what you think.

Despite all that history, I never really went all-in on design. While I had become a part of a small group of sought-after designers, my friends achieved much greater levels of success by committing to design in a way that I could never do. I spent years believing this was because I was lazy, never finished what I started, and just wasn’t good at being good at things — as lame as that sounds. But truly, this was the drumbeat in my mind for most of my life as my brain tried to convince my heart it was wrong and foolish. Strangely and luckily, far beyond my choosing, my brain has never been the one at the wheel. I followed my heart and eventually came to an important realization. It wasn’t that I was just a lazy designer. It was that I was only designing as a means to an end.

All those years gleefully snapping photos, waiting for them to be developed, analyzing and studying their makeup, and recreating so many of them, it was never the design that I was attracted to. It was never the design that evoked emotion or inspired connection in me. It was the underlying meaning in it all. It was the brand.

To my clients, what made my work compelling was how painstakingly I worked to make all these disparate pieces across different media work together in unison. I wasn’t a violinist, I was the conductor. Once I realized this, I immediately started outsourcing as much of my design work as possible, focusing on the theory, the purpose, and the connective tissue between works. As I got older, I poured over the latest papers coming out of academia and the major consulting firms like McKinsey, Deloitte, and Edelman. I wanted to know. This same insatiable compulsion to take pictures of ads was now compelling me to go deeper, to read more, and to know everything I could possibly know about brand, what it is, and why it connects to people the way it does.

Through all of that, what did I learn? Brand is not what you think it is. It’s not a means of identifying one company from another. It’s not this superficial perception of a company by its audience. Brand is a company’s raison d’être extrapolated into a complex social identity which allows it a seat at our table and a place among our tribe. It is a business’s interface with our humanity. Brand is the power to make an eight-year-old boy with a lot weighing on his heart turn, take notice, and feel something.

That is powerful.

So how should we use a power like that? Does it matter how we use it? I think back to those young adults posing at the shoreline and think about just how much the world has changed. The young people now spend more time interfacing with brands than they do with actual people. We live in a time with unprecedented opportunity to connect to our audiences and play an integral role in their lives. Do you know how? Are you sure? And if not, what are you going to do about it?

take the next step

imagine what’s possible..

What could you achieve with your own outsourced team of brand innovation experts? Let's find out.

book a callmessage us

DIY Bundles

coming soon