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Teach Me How to Brand

• September 05, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: BAMCORP/FLICKR)

Paul Hiebert talks with the co-founder of the country’s first Masters in Branding program.

The Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City is touted as the first of its kind in the country. There, students and faculty members alike devote themselves to understanding the intricacies of how words, images, and design help shape public perception, opinion, and belief.

As the innovative program enters it’s fourth year, we interviewed Debbie Millman, the program’s chair and co-founder, to learn more about how meaning is manufactured and what the future holds for branding.

What were the initial obstacles to getting a Masters in Branding program off the ground?
Well, there was a rigorous application process and we were required to get recommendations from professional brand consultants in the working world as to why this program was even necessary—something I didn’t even realize we’d have to do when we first started out. We had to prove why there was a need for something like this. I have long felt that the condition of brands reflects the condition of our culture, and I guess the Department of Education agreed.

Can you elaborate on that? How do brands reflect culture?
Over the last century, brands have grown at a breakneck speed. We are living in a world with over 100 brands of bottled water. The U.S. is home to over 45,000 shopping malls, and there are over 19,000,000 permutations of beverage selections you can order at your local Starbucks.

In addition to asking whether this plethora of choice is good or bad, we should be seeking to understand why we behave this way in the first place. Why do we have this drive to telegraph our affiliations and beliefs with symbols, signs, and codes? Why do humans create tribes?

The prospect that this trend will slow down is remote, so as a result I believe the underlying causes and outward expressions of these activities and practices are reflective of the way we live today.

“Ultimately, I don’t believe that brands have more power than people; I believe that people have more power than brands.”

How is your program different than, say, majoring in design with a minor in marketing?
The program is organized into very specific segments, including design, cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, economics and finance, and how to position yourself as an employee in the market. Our students get a great foundation in understanding every aspect of how brands are created and why they’re created. It’s like majoring in design and business and psychology and anthropology all at the same time.

Since the term appears to encompass many things, how would you define “branding?”
I wrote a book not long ago called Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits in which I asked several designers and creative directors this very same question. Out of 20 different interviews, I probably received about 12 fundamentally different answers. For me, however, I believe that a brand is a symbol that a person or company uses to project who they are to the world. It’s a symbol for how you would like to be perceived.

Is there a difference between advertising and marketing and branding? Aren’t they all more or less the same thing?
No, they’re all fundamentally different: Advertising is creating an ad to promote a product, while marketing is the process of doing that, along with interactive design, social media, and all the initiatives you’d undertake to promote a brand. Branding is a discipline that’s about positioning a symbol, product, beverage, or pair of shoes in the market so that people understand what it is.

Is the ultimate purpose of branding then to sell a product or service or lifestyle or idea?
No, the ultimate goal of a brand is to be transparent in what it describes, so that anyone can understand it.

When a company such as Unilever owns both the Dove brand, with its successful “Campaign for Real Beauty,” and Axe grooming products, which appears to champion the stereotypical sexism Dove is trying to undermine, is this an example of hypocrisy or simply excellent branding?
It’s a conundrum because you have two very different brands with very different mindsets. One is sort of a political stance, while the other is more of a sexual stance. Holding companies have different brand managers in charge of creating each product’s position in the marketplace and reason for being. So, again, you can have two different brands with two different souls. Whether or not you can justify having both in the same portfolio is a matter of what the board of directors and shareholders believe is possible.

I also think we’re living in a multidimensional world where different needs and different points of view are all valid. So I think it’s up to the consumer to decide whether or not they want to buy into those different mindsets—literally or figuratively. And that’s the great thing about being the consumer these days: Corporations aren’t creating brands for any other reason than to reach people, and if they don’t reach people the corporations aren’t going to make them. If we don’t buy them, they don’t get made. We have so much more power than we’ve ever had as a culture.

Is branding tantamount to manipulation through propaganda?
I don’t believe that. A long time ago I read a quote by Richard Kirshenbaum, who stated that consumers are like roaches in that you can spray them with marketing pesticides and they might believe it for a little while, but ultimately they just come back stronger than ever.

So I don’t believe brands have that much power. At the end of the day, people decide what they want. If a brand is not meeting the criteria of a person’s life, then he or she is not going to participate. Ultimately, I don’t believe that brands have more power than people; I believe that people have more power than brands.

What are your thoughts on São Paulo’s ban on outdoor advertising?
I think it’s great. I think they’ve created an environment of beauty and peace. I’m not certain, but while billboard companies have probably seen their revenues drop, I don’t believe any other parts of the economy have suffered as a result. I think that’s amazing. Perhaps people still feel loyal to the brands they buy without being bombarded by their messages. Also, I don’t think billboards have as much effect as they used to because we’re seeing so many of the messages in so many other ways now.

What should we expect to see in the future of branding?
I used to think that the future held more and more alternative ways of using technology, and I still think that’s true, but at the very same time we’re also seeing a harkening back to simple, homegrown, artisanal, handmade products that have as little technology as possible embedded within them. So, a return to everything organic. I think you’ll see a lot more of that to balance out the high-tech world that we’re living in.

If successful, do you foresee programs like yours becoming commonplace in major universities across the country?
Our program has been really successful, so I can’t imagine why more programs wouldn’t be launched. I think the biggest obstacle is recruiting faculty members who both have successful practices working on well-known brands and are also great teachers and mentors. We are very lucky; we have both in abundance.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

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