inside out: designing sustainable brands

You don’t construct a building façade-first, then install services, framework and foundations. You don’t build a car by starting with the bodywork. We don’t (unless recovering from a big night out) dress coat & shoes first.  So why are some brands designed from the outside-in, imposing personality at odds with experience? Outside-in brand design can set expectations significantly adrift of reality, resulting in dissonant and negative communications and an unsustainable brand.  How do you build a sustainable brand? From the inside out.

Graphic design is superficial, ephemeral.  Much of it ends up, if not as yesterday’s fish & chip paper (they don’t do that any more), in the bottom of the budgie cage’s (no-one keeps those any more either), binned and recycled until fit only for landfill.  Pixels or paper, graphic design is largely transient, disposable. Its outcomes may be all about about the surface but there is every reason why its process should have more depth.

At Wolff Olins as far back as the 1970s a much-used maxim was “you can’t paper over the cracks” i.e. if your company/product/service is poor, a stunning visual identity will not help you long-term, it only creates a credibility gap that makes things worse. Advice that clearly never reached the ears of hapless BP CEO Tony Hayward…

As the company’s value collapses around his ears, Mr H. may reflect that the BP brand now serves only to contrast/enhance the gigantic yawning chasm that has opened up under his watch between operations and corporate aspiration.  Instigated by the previous management regime, the ‘beyond petroleum’ brand positioning set a 21st century agenda for the company as it tried to put behind it an already serious history of problems in the US, but as good intentions were cut/reversed this became increasingly unsustainable.  Thanks to Obama’s insistence on unprecedented  standards of corporate accountability (let’s hope these will also be extended to the victims of Union Carbide in Bhopal) it will now take much more than a brand makeover to restore BP’s value and reputation.

Innocent Drinks by contrast has steadily built a highly valuable brand since 1999 (doubling revenue in many recent years) by ensuring that its studied charm – carefully orchestrated to seem undesigned – is backed up by actions (product issues have been swiftly addressed, and you can indeed drop in to its Fruit Towers HQ unannounced and be treated informally and pleasantly). Actions match the projection of the brand. Whether or not Innocent can maintain its relaxed attitude and consumer credibility now that Coca-Cola has taken a controlling stake in the company remains to be seen. As with Body Shop/L’Oreal and Green & Black/Kraft, or any other ‘principled’ brand, consumers will watch like hawks for signs of ‘sell-out to the man’.

Most ‘good’ – not just brand – design is also built from the inside out, in ways that may not be ultimately visible.  One can create a ‘sign system’ for a building using off-the-peg signs hung anywhere (lost NHS hospital punters know how well that works), but a proper wayfinding system can guide people with no foreknowledge straight to their destination. This is only achieved by thorough analysis of all possible routes, lighting, materials, lines of sight etc.  The final form is a result of knowledge of unique context and real use. The design of the US and UK road sign system shows similar differences of approach. Literature and websites, hastily-designed with poor structure & navigation similarly exhibit the problems of casually applying a surface treatment, rather than building on the real content to connect with user needs.

Designing a sustainable brand begins not only with analysing the organisation/proposition and its purpose, but also importantly getting to grips with how it works, identifying its uniqueness, connecting with the corporate personality and understanding its behaviour. On such research/investigation something meaningfully appropriate can be built – something that will work long-term for the organisation and its stakeholders. The design dialogue can throw unconventional light on ‘the inner brand’ and just occasionally, influence its development. But whilst a branding exercise can help focus and energise a corporate culture, it cannot turn it through 180 degrees. An intensely traditional company with a groovy logo cannot become ‘modern’ overnight; it is absurd for a brand new company to claim ‘heritage’; a positioning of ‘innovation’ looks ridiculous if a company does not behave as an innovator.  And of course posing as the provider of a clean energy future cannot be squared with unsafe procedures and environmental destruction.

What is a profitable challenge for the owner of the deeply unexceptional product or the poorly performing organisation (who chooses mediocre?) is a bigger dilemma for the designer: if the product’s crap – can I in good conscience make it look like gold?  We have a responsibility to users of our work but can only rarely influence the actual proposition we are communicating, although such opportunities do exist and can bring benefits (‘Service Design’ is an area where designer input into process is increasingly valued).  Enhancing the positive aspects of a client’s proposition (and whistling nonchalantly as we discretely downplay its less attractive qualities) is something all designers are familiar with.  Where this ends and outright visual fraud begins is a line that we all must draw. Communication designers in information, brand, packaging & retail disciplines all identify slightly different locations for that line. Client-side, different industry sectors also have their own idiosyncratic views, not necessarily aligned with those of their consumers.

It may be too early to declare the age of the bullshit brand over, but greater transparency, accountability and access is making it harder to trade under an unsustainable brand.  It is getting harder to pull the wool over people’s eyes and the new consumer demands believable brands.  What’s inside now really matters, so what’s apparent outside must be carefully built – from the inside out – to work with and communicate the inner reality.

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