BRANDING, GENRES & AUTHENTICITY
Pretty gruesome cartoon, isn’t it? When I hear business people evangelizing about the importance of “branding” I can’t help but think about the original meaning of the word and the whole subject of herding animals.
For most of my life the word “brand” was practically synonymous with “company” or “manufacturer.” Kellog’s was a brand of cereals. Campbell’s was a brand of soup. These brands were big, permanent, iconic parts of society, as Andy Warhol well appreciated. In the last few decades, however, brands have become slippery, filmy, elusive things that come and go, spring up like mushrooms and often fly by night. In the age of corporate buyouts, outsourcing and transition from a manufacturing to a service economy, brands and companies seem to have become separate entities.
Several years ago I was videotaping in a factory that manufactured a certain product for several companies. As I taped, my tour guide made sure I avoided capturing images of packaging that would reveal who the factory’s clients were. He explained that if people found out that some of their favorite brands are manufactured in the same plant, by the same people, from the same raw materials and on the same production lines as many other competing brands, they might be a little upset.
Today when I look at product labels, advertisements or websites, I think back to that factory and realize that the images companies strive to project - of unique products created by passionate people in special places - are often a bunch of baloney. That down-home chili company that shows a grandma stirring an iron kettle on its label and gives a mailing address in a small Texas town may be nothing more than a guy with a phone and some investment capital, making deals with manufacturers and distributors from his office in New Jersey.
In the boomtowns of the Old West (where the benefits of branding, in the original sense, were well understood), businessmen knew how to herd people into their tents and take their money. They did it by nailing a bunch of boards together, painting them to look like storefronts and propping them in front of the tents with signs that said things like “Jake’s Elegant New York Bar: Fine Sprits, Wines and Card Room; Ladies Welcome.” Never mind that the walls would flap on a windy night.
Today we are living through another Boomtown era in which, as marketing people say, branding is everything.
When I first moved to Seattle I was struck by the fact that all the apartment buildings here have names. Where I come from only the grandest buildings have names. Now, as Seattle booms and grows, apartment buildings are being replaced by condominiums that not only have their own names, but their own “brands” and marketing campaigns. As soon as a couple of quaint old houses up on Capitol Hill are razed, a big sign springs up over the muddy pit, with stock photos of trendy young people and text that says something like, “YOU ARE THE CITY – Come live on the Cutting Edge of Street Smart Architecture in the Uber-Sexy Ferronnzzatta Condominiums, pre-selling now, from the low $300,000s.” In the coming months I watch as guys in flannel shirts and hard hats throw up two-by-fours, drywall and corrugated metal siding, as behind the sign rises...yet another crappy apartment building. Never mind that the walls may flap on a windy night.
Sometimes the branding craze gets so out of control that it parodies itself. Recently I saw a truck with lettering on its side, reading “Image Movers: We deliver an image of quality for you.” What???? Doesn’t this company realize the irony that can be read into their motto? Do they really think I would trust them to move something important for me, when all they promise to deliver is an image? I would sooner trust a company advertising itself as “Joe’s Movers, Since 1972.”
Why am I ranting about this subject today? Partly it’s because the corporation that owns the restaurant where I work has been talking about “re-branding” us. Although many people love our restaurant, the hotel to which we are attached is being renovated, so the corporation feels that it may be time to give the restaurant a new name and decor for good measure. They also hope that a new image will improve our sales. For those of us who have put a lot of ourselves into making this restaurant a unique local eatery, the idea of being “re-branded” feels like the threat of a red-hot iron on our backsides.
It is important, of course, for a product or a company to have a personality and character that make it unique in the public eye. But the best kind of branding, I like to think, grows naturally out of the actual personality and character of the product or company, rather than being invented out of whole cloth in a marketing department and slapped on like a paper label.
I was glad to find the same kind of spirit applied to software and website design in one of our readings for this week: Tim Greenzweig’s Aesthetic Experience and the Importance of Visual Composition in Information Design. Greenzweig argues that style is not something that can be varnished onto a product at the end of a design process, but should be built in at every stage. Software engineers and website designers, he writes, too often consider the “look and feel” of a website or a software product to be merely “an issue of how to ‘decorate’ the information,” rather than as an issue of how to create and structure their product from beginning to end.
Greenzweig goes on to discuss various traditional methods of composition and Gestalt theory, including grid systems, the rule of thirds, juxtaposition and musical ABA structure, recommending that information designers and usability experts harness these principles throughout their design processes. By imbedding good design principles deeply within products, Greenzweig believes, designers will make the very use of these products aesthetically pleasing. Greenzweig envisions people enjoying software programs and websites in the same ways they enjoy listening to music or looking at paintings.
Greenzweig is right. A good tool is a pleasure to use. For me, using a well-designed software program like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word is, indeed an aesthetically pleasing experience - like dancing or eating a good meal - and a well-designed website is a pleasure to visit. And it isn’t the trappings, Flash animation or “branding” that make them so. No amount of these can overcome a poorly designed product.
Another part of our assignment this week was to define a website genre and describe three examples of it. Our group was assigned e-commerce, which we defined as websites that allow people to buy and sell products or services. For my three examples I chose websites that sell skateboards, bagpipes and a mysterious industrial product called “cores.”
The Bagpipe Store, at www.bagpipestore.net, is a classic e-commerce site with L-shaped navigation, thumbnails of products, customer reviews and a rating system of stars on its home page. All of products featured are rated with five stars. The site uses a shopping cart system with the classic shopping cart icon, but calls it a “basket.” Perhaps this is the Scottish or the European terminology. In keeping with its traditional products, deeply rooted in history, the site boasts that it has been “selling bagpipes online longer than anyone else (since 1995).” Here one can buy not only a variety of bagpipes and accessories, but also clothing, jewelry and Scottish products for men, women and children. Clearly, this is the place to go not only for bagpipes, but the complete bagpipe lifestyle.
My next example is a company called Simpson Enterprises, which sells a mysterious product called “industrial cores.” Their website is identifiable as an e-commerce site because of a large aerial photo of their plant in Three Rivers Michigan on the home page. I was hoping to see a Flash animation of Homer Simpson himself walking out of the plant and hopping into one of the cars in the lot, but I was disappointed in this. Links from the home page lead to descriptions and photos of their manufacturing systems and their one product: industrial cores. Even after looking at photos of these “cores,” which looked to me like some sort of molded plastic elbow widgets, I had no idea what the company’s products are or what they are used for. This is the classic sign of industry-to-industry marketing: complete opacity to outsiders. Equally mysterious is the fact that although I wrote down this website’s URL as http://simpsonent.com/, this URL will not work now and a Google search for the company yields only its address and phone number, but no website. Was I dreaming when I visited this site?
Equally bewitching and opaque to outsiders is a website for a Southern California organization called the Toymachine Bloodsucking Skateboard Company at http://www.toymachine.com/, It is hard to tell at first whether this is an e-commerce site or…something else…I’m not sure what. The main feature of the front page is a sort of photo blog with dozens of pictures of skateboarders showing off horrible wounds and doing various things not necessarily related to skateboarding, captioned with often cryptic descriptions and with even more cryptic comments from blog viewers.
The most unusual thing about this site is the fact that all of the text is hand-written in a crude scrawl, like some teenager’s Junior High School poster project. Only when you move your cursor over some of the scrawled words do you realize that they are actually hyperlinks. Scanning down a navigation column on the left side of the home page, you find “products” and “shopping” links mixed in with various news and entertainment features. This website seems well targeted at its audience and “branded” in an authentic way. I laughed, however, when I thought about all the sophisticated HTML coding by a professional designer that must have gone into making this site look so crude and home made. Like Dolly Parton likes to say, “It takes a lot of money to make me look this cheap.” Well done!