Why the key to brand design is “deliberate differentiation”

by | Feb 2, 2018 | Analysis, Public Relations

“A brand’s DNA is incumbent upon the inherent desire for design to be part of a person’s genetic blueprint,” opined moderator Marc Rosen, of the Marc Rosen Education Fund, at the recent Pratt Institute by Design Symposium 2017. “Today design is not just for the sophisticated few. Instead, the mantra of stores like Target is design appreciation for all, knowing [that] the design gene lives within all of us.” The Pratt symposium focused on design as a state of mind that informs every discipline. “How people interact, select, and share design has become a norm. Design is experiential, aspirational, and essential in our daily lives,” added Rosen.

Lead panelist Debbie Millman (an author, educator, and strategist) runs the first-ever Master’s in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts, and is the founding host of the long-running podcast Design Matters.

Over an illustrious career trajectory, Millman has had the opportunity to investigate the relationship between design and branding. “Putting this presentation together, a Winston Churchill quote came to mind: ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.’ I had the same question about branding and design. Is branding the birthplace of design or is design the birthplace of branding? I don’t have an easy answer because, perhaps, it’s a little of both. Branding is a very interesting profession. It’s not actually a discipline; you don’t do branding, you do a lot of other things that result in the development of a brand.”

Millman sees “branding as a process of manufacturing meaning. We create a construct around this thing, then people agree on those attributes, whether it’s something that has to do with efficacy, pain relief, or athletic prowess. Design is the intentional communication of that meaning. Branding allows you to understand what something actually is and design gives you the sense of what it can do.”

Branding begins with the boldest gestures of a corporation in terms of ideas and works down to the tiniest iterations of every communication touchpoint. “The only way to build a great brand is from the inside, to understand the brand intention. Why do we need another brand of bottled water? Why do we need another running shoe? There must be a reason for that brand to exist.

Defining brand, deliberate differentiation

“My definition of branding is very simple,” Millman continued. “I wrote a book about the definition of branding from branding experts’ opinions, interviewed 20 of the greatest minds in branding and got 20 definitions. I wanted to distill these learnings into one simple telegraphic definition…”

“Branding is deliberate differentiation.”

Deliberate differentiation is the result of intentional, strategic positioning. Intentional is what you intend to happen, meaning that you are starting out on a path that has distinct criteria for success.

“Take the word ‘strategic.’ When I speak at colleges, the students think they know what it means. But, in fact, when I talk about strategy I mean the classic Michael Porter, Harvard Business School definition of strategy, which is really one of two things:  It’s either to choose to perform activities differently or to perform distinctly different activities than do rivals.”

Performing activities differently is the way Starbucks launched its brand. There were lots of coffee shops before Starbucks came along, but Howard Schwartz recreated the experience and the expectation of what you could get when you buy a coffee.

Apple is a brand that’s performed distinctly different activities than its rivals, not with the iPhone but with the iPod, which was released in 2001. “There were lots of MP3 players in the market, but what Apple did differently was to create iTunes, something entirely different that changed the game. If you can do one of those two things, [then] you have a legitimate ability to say that you are working strategically to communicate your brand,” added Millman.

Positioning and the brand journey

Positioning is about the journey that gets one to the brand. In Millman’s view, “Branding isn’t really a discipline. It’s about sound, strategic positioning that allows you to intentionally determine where you are going in the future. That journey results in developing a brand.”

Branding as a discipline includes four elements:

  • Cultural anthropology: Understand what is happening in the world to subsequently understand our constructs, our reality.
  • Behavioral psychology: If you’re not able to understand why somebody wants something or why they tell you they want something, then you’ll never be able to engage their imagination.
  • Economics: Understand what is valuable. Millman believes that people want what they believe is valuable in their lives and will find a way to acquire it.
  • Creativity: We can only comprehend about 40 of the 10 million images that we see on any given day, so you need a design that will engage a person’s spirit.

Branding, a profound manifestation

“We’re living in a remarkable age. For the first time ever as a species, branding has become democratized,” added Millman. “It is no longer just about a profit and loss statement or shareholder value. Branding has become a profound manifestation of the human spirit, the human condition. It’s about belonging to a tribe, to a religion, to a family. Our ability to brand our beliefs gives us that sense of belonging.”

This article originally appeared on the Brandingmag.com site; reprinted with permission.

Len Stein
As president and founder of Visibility public relations, Len Stein partners with creative marketing services companies to establish thought leadership positioning for a competitive edge in the marketplace.


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