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  • Writer's pictureLinda Pizzitola, Kauai, Hawaii

Brand Thinking

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Brand Thinking - Debbie Millman

Excerpts from Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, by Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman is a design visionary who has shaped global brands like Pepsi, Gillette, Colgate, Campbell’s and Nestle. She has authored several other books (including How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer) and hosts a weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet,“Design Matters.” She is President Emeritus of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design, a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

In her latest book, Millman interviews 22 thought leaders in the fields of marketing strategy, corporate identity, design, art, anthropology and related disciplines, extracting nuggets of insight from a veritable ‘who’s who’ of branding professionals.

Their dialogues explore human nature in relationship with the material world, why we make the choices we do as consumers, and why we affiliate and identify with symbols. They examine the role that branding plays in society, politics, economics, psychology and technology and consider why, in this age of infinite choice, brand remains more essential than ever in advertising, marketing and public relations.

Millman writes, “Ask anyone in the world what the definition of BRAND is and you will likely get a different answer every time. Why is that? Brand is a squishy word with a lot of associations and meanings.”

Here’s a sampling of what her interviewees offered up as definitions and observations about branding in the 21st century:

WALLY OLINS   Branding is a profound manifestation of the human condition. It is about belonging: belonging to a tribe, to a religion, to a family. Branding demonstrates that sense of belonging. It has this function for both the people who are part of the same group and also for the people who don’t belong…I need to belong. And when I belong, telegraphing this affiliation demonstrates loyalty, affection, and the durability of my relationship.

It’s not cerebral at all. It’s visceral. We don’t even know we are doing it. The commercial, anthropological, and sociological branding process that professionals engage in now creates visceral distinctions to evoke immediate responses in people.

GRANT MCCRACKEN   Branding is a process of meaning manufacture that begins with the biggest, boldest gestures of the corporation and works its way down to the tiniest gestures.

PHIL DUNCAN   A brand is something you have an unexplained, emotional connection to. A brand gives you a sense of familiarity.

STANLEY HAINSWORTH   A brand is an entity that engenders an emotional connection with a consumer. Every brand has a story, whether it’s the founder’s story or the brand’s reason for being. Some brands have never told their story well, or have lost their story.

CHERYL SWANSON   A brand is a product with a compelling story—a brand offers “quintessential qualities” for which the consumer believes there is absolutely no substitute. Brands are totems. They tell us stories about our place in culture—about where we are and where we’ve been. They also help us figure out where we’re going.

SETH GODIN   I believe that “brand” is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day..

SEAN ADAMS   A brand is not necessarily visual. It’s a promise of an experience.

DAN PINK   From the perspective of P&G or Dell or any other company, a brand might be a promise: a promise of what awaits the customer if they buy that particular product, service, or experience. From the receiver’s point of view, I think a brand is a promise—a promise of what you can expect if you use the product or service, or if you engage in the experience…When the brand is something that an individual takes home, the brand becomes something different. The brand becomes a form of affiliation, or a form of identification…it’s deeply tribal.

ROB WALKER   Branding is the process of attaching an idea to some object, or to a service or organization.

BRIAN COLLINS   The best brands tap into and embody archetypes.

DORI TUNSTALL   Design translates values into tangible experiences. Anthropology helps you understand those values. One of the most fascinating aspects of human beings is our great capabilities to create and interpret symbolism, as well as our ability to make abstractions concrete. In many ways, this is the genesis of creativity.

Our rituals of consumption are no longer as satisfactory to us because they are empty of human relationships. There was recently a wonderful study done on garage sales. When people go to a garage sale to buy something, they actually feel very satisfied about the interaction. Most of the time, it’s because the object they buy comes with a story—a very real, personal story about where the object fit into someone’s life. Whether it’s real or not, you connect with that person through the object. So when you take the object, your purchase of it is more satisfactory. Whereas right now, when you go now to a store, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on branding that tells authentic stories in order to sell more stuff.

MALCOLM GLADWELL   When you surround yourself with certain kinds of objects, they become a public statement about who you are. Maybe the modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives.

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