Fuck Branding

Krista and I started eleven-seventeen six years ago with all the starry-eyed optimism and fundamentalist-levels of conviction about branding and identity work you would hope to expect from a scrappy upstart, the kind of energy I continue to see every day as I keep pace with the design and branding industry. We breathed logo design and brand standards, brand ladders and identity documents. We were master craftsmen of mission statements, vision statements, value propositions, and tag lines. We brought that energy and even a measure of innovation to bear on some equally motivated businesses and organizations, and produced some really very good work. Some of it actually produced results.

Teenage Romance

Looking back at it now, it was a heady time. We were warriors. We were lovers. We were disruptors. We had all the best intentions. You work with wonderful people on a new identity or a rebrand, and there’s this dizzy, almost teenage-romance-kind-of-energy about the whole thing. There are breakthroughs and revelations, everyone cares so much, and god-damn-it if there isn’t poetry.

But after some time, it became apparent that the work we did was, for the most part – like most branding out there – bullshit.

Teenage Angst

We actually knew, from the beginning, that most branding out there is bullshit, just gloss on an attempt to sell something, to maintain the status quo. I even wrote about it, and warned against the potential for lies.

What I didn’t know was that most bullshit branding is almost never bullshit on purpose, but somehow ends up that way. Even the most well-meaning and authentic identity exercises and the most powerful and eloquent identity statements couldn’t keep people from somehow fucking it all up, by twisting it around for their own purposes, or failing to meet their own expectations, or just plain not having a clue.

As designers, it eats at our delicate souls to see something so wonderful and full of potential become the thing you detest, the very thing you warned others about.

We’re now at the point where we’re just tired of it, and we’re walking away – from identity development, branding, whatever… screw it. Let someone else care, let others get all woozy as if any of it actually means something.

Teenage Drama

I’m sort of laughing at myself as I read this because I clearly sound wounded and cynical, as if that naïve teenager up there just got dumped. Could be there’s something to that. I admit to feeling jealous when I see a potential client going to another vendor when I believe they’d be a better fit with us, even worse when we didn’t even get invited to the RFP party. But I know these feelings are normal, so I don’t think my cynicism about branding is caused by pettiness and insecurity.

No, it’s just because branding really is just bullshit. It means nothing, contributes nothing, and instead misdirects everyone from larger, nobler, more fulfilling purposes. An unintentional, collective act of self-hypnotism. Fashion.

Again, the crazy thing is that we’ve known this from the very beginning, before we selling ourselves as identity designers. I’ve got a healthy background in cultural theory and criticism, so I’m tuned in to the nuances of power structures in Western culture – I see it all the fucking time, all day long. I knew what game we were playing when we started, and I figured that because I thought I saw the world as it really was, we could design identities that were actually meaningful and therefore all the more powerful. It was something that made us different and, in some respects, better at the game – which was and still is true – but it didn’t change the fact that branding, like anything that is ultimately intended to help businesses make more money – and everything that inevitably entails – is or becomes bullshit.

Teenage Optimism

And yet.

While I make these damning claims, I still hold on to the notion that branding can serve a noble purpose if we must operate within the limiting – even damaging – context of Western capitalism; to provide an authentic voice (as much as possible), to elevate our lives a little by providing some substance through beauty and wit. There are those – I’m reminded of the partners of Pentagram – who appear to believe that a balance can be struck between the aims of corporatism and the aims of the graphic arts, perhaps improving both through this relationship. The proof is in the work of studios like Pentagram, work that is marked by dignity, perspective, and intelligence. I want to believe this can still be true for eleven-seventeen. I want to believe that we can use beauty and wit to make people more comfortable and aware, make things chafe a little less.

So, maybe we’re not walking away. Maybe we’re just growing up a little.

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