Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


brands-cut-out

(PHOTO: BAMCORP/FLICKR)

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.

More From Paul Hiebert

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.