What’s Brand?

I just don’t give a brand.

—me

“The brand is a story. But it’s a story about you, not about the brand.” —Seth Godin

“Humans use brands to project who we want to be in the world, how we want people to perceive us, and how we want to communicate what we feel about ourselves and our place in society.” —Debbie Millman


From FastCo story May 2020

Brand as Differentiator

“Clients’ business problems are often bigger than what advertising can fix. What I think the optimistic part of this is, the longer it goes on, the more people’s minds are going to be wiped of brand preference in many instances. That specific brand of toothpaste is going to matter to me less than just toothpaste. I think when people start to step outside again, brands will be re-proving themselves, re-introducing themselves, restating why they should be a preference. So I’m hoping, but I do think, that our clients will need us more than ever.” —Colleen DeCourcy

Example of how product drives brand value, “Clients’ business problems are often bigger than what advertising can fix.”

Brand as A Business

“Brands have tried to use the humble hype, where they basically say, ‘We feel sorry for you and therefore buy this product.’ There’s been a disconnect between a need for whatever that product is and the actual consumer sentiment. So there are a lot of brands that’ve gotten slapped on the hand for that. Then there are brands that’ve done a good job of sticking up their hand to say, ‘We understand you, we’re with you, and we’re not trying to sell you anything right now, we just want to engage.’ I think that’s the work that’s resonated the most for me. Brands with good intentions. They’re selling something at a discount that you need. They’re speaking to you in a way that seems empathetic to what you’re going through.” —Steve Stoute

“Every week has felt like a month, in terms of our reactions, clients’ reactions, consumer reactions. Our job is to help our clients figure out where they fit in all this. You’ve seen every brand come out with something about how they understand it’s difficult times, which is fine and appropriate, but eventually that runs out. What are you doing now?” —David Droga


From 1997 HBR story

“Instead, a brand’s profitability is driven by both market share and the nature of the category, or product market, in which the brand competes. A brand’s relative market share (RMS) has a different impact on profitability depending on whether the overall category is dominated by premium brands or by value brands to begin with. That is, if a category is composed largely of premium brands, then most of the brands in the category are—or should be—quite profitable. If, on the other hand, the category is composed mostly of value and private-label brands, then returns will be lower across the board. When we compared the actual profitability of the 40 premium brands we studied with their predicted profitability, using as variables RMS and the “premium” degree of a category, we found a strong correlation.”

“Developing the most profitable strategy for a premium brand, therefore, means reexamining market share targets in light of the brand’s category. In other words, managers must think about their brand strategy along two dimensions at the same time. First, is the category “premium” or “value”? (Is it dominated by premium brands or by value brands?) Second, is the brand’s relative market share low or high?”


From 2003 HBR Story

“When a brand creates a myth, most often through advertisements, consumers come to perceive the myth as embodied in the product. So they buy the product to consume the myth and to forge a relationship with the author: the brand. Anthropologists call this “ritual action.” When Nike’s core customers laced up their Air Jordans in the early 1990s, they tapped into Nike’s myth of individual achievement through perseverance. As Apple’s customers typed away on their keyboards in the late 1990s, they communed with the company’s myth of rebellious, creative, libertarian values at work in a new economy.”

On building a (cultural) icon:

  • Target National Contradictions.
  • Create Myths That Lead Culture.
  • Speak with a Rebel’s Voice.
  • Draw on Political Authority to Rebuild the Myth.
  • Draw on Cultural Knowledge.

Older thinking from Emory Marketing Institute

Comments on Fast Company’s Design in Tech Report Press Coverage

I’ve learned a lot about how the press can turn a short telephone conversation into something sensationalistic, and slightly twist what I really said. But their business model requires getting attention — so I understand the WHY behind it all. What I didn’t expect was to find so many folks out there who rushed to turn it into a platform for how they see the world in contrast to an imagined (and diametric) position that I carried. THAT has been the most interesting learning for me.

When I read the clickbait-y headline I almost fell out of my chair 😱. But I immediately recognized and understood that Fast Company is a business — and their job is to generate interest in a topic to improve their business position.

Context: Most interviews that get written about you don’t have sign off from the interviewee (me) so you never what or how an article is going to come out. In the early 2000s I was misquoted by Wired and it felt a bit icky — so that’s why I started a blog in 2004 on WordPress. Because my blog let me speak in my own words, versus the interpretations by someone else.

Continue reading “Comments on Fast Company’s Design in Tech Report Press Coverage”

On Simplicity, in WSJ Magazine

WSJ Magazine, March 6, 2019

When I began studying design 30 years ago, I started as a technologist. It’s a very complex world—computer code, chip design—and I realized how important it was to make things simple, because it concerned everything in your daily life. If those things you bump into in your house or carry around with you were complex, they were going to make your life terrible. I wrote simple computer programs that would produce complex outcomes. I simplified complex technological experiences. Many designers love to live in a KonMari-style house where everything is super-duper organized; their clothes are folded standing up, and there’s joy or whatever. But I tend to like complexity and diversity around me. Creative people are inherently spatial learners. They understand through objects in their environments. It’s what feeds their spatial memory, their creativity.