Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits

Release Date: 
October 10, 2011
Allworth Press
Reviewed by: 

“Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits is valuable primarily for those particularly interested in what the gurus of the branding industry have to say about where branding was in the past, where it is now, and the directions it could go.”

Debbie Millman, who has over 25 years of experience in the design industry, takes an interesting approach to the subjects of branding and design in this book. Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits is comprised of the questions and answers to a range of queries posed by its author to some very successful players in the field.

“A brand is something you have an unexplained emotional connection to” according to Phil Duncan, Vice President and Global Design Officer of Proctor & Gamble, one of many distinguished interviewees this book.

To the reader looking for an easy-to-read narrative on the subject, this is not the book for you. But if you are looking for direct answers to questions about what design and branding are, or can be, read on.

Each interview is preceded by a short introduction about the interviewee. It is clear that the author has chosen a wide range of talented individuals, some of whom she describes as outspoken, brash, and unique. The benefit to the reader of such an approach is that you are prepared for some rather confrontational and/or controversial responses. And in that, the interviewees don’t disappoint.

The list of 20 leading design and brand “thinkers” interviewed range from the universally well-known Malcolm Gladwell to Seth Godin to Tom Peters. The latter is certainly known for his strategic consulting but branding?

A reoccurring theme in the answers to Ms. Millman’s queries revolves around emotion. We read responses like, “It’s not cerebral; it’s visceral” says Wally Olins, Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants and cofounder of Wolff Olins; and “Brands can make a person feel connected to others which makes them feel better about themselves” adds Brian Collins, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, Collins. Cheryl Swanson asserts that “Successful branding is about making someone feel that they’ve made the right choice.”

Therefore a question may arise in the mind of a reader, “Could branding be used to manipulate the consumer?” The general answer may be obvious, yet the interviewees seemed to agree that those who create branding have a responsibility to use branding to influence consumers in a positive way.

The contributors almost universally share a feeling that the industry has a responsibility to do good rather than evil with branding. One of the responses, again by Phil Duncan includes the thought that the main idea of purpose-driven brands is to recognize, embrace, and celebrate the fact that brands can enhance people’s lives.

Virginia Postrel, author, cultural critic, and Wall Street Journal columnist went on to talk about brand value as being more about brand meaning and less about brand attributes; she cited Nike and Apple as examples.

As you read this book, you might wonder: Is branding a business? Several responders felt that a brand should begin with a vision and cited companies such as Nike, Starbucks, and Amazon brands as instances in which a company mission (other than making gobs of money) preceded branding. Another more specific response by Phil Duncan claimed brand management was at the intersection of creative thinking, strategic thinking, analytical thinking, and design thinking.

Wally Olins offers up the notion that brands are symbols of capitalism and entrepreneurship. If you were to hear the first part of this statement alone you may take it negatively. Yet combined with the second part and in context with the rest of the response, it was a compliment to the marketing industry.

On the other hand, Mr. Olins expressed concern about the industry today being made up mostly of brand consultants who wrap themselves in analysis, jargon, and statistics that are meaningless. Is this conclusion a vote in support of creativity and originality—or of legitimacy?

Since a significant percentage of the responses related to design rather than, or in addition to, branding, this statement from the book should be included in making this point: Designers and anyone interested in business change need to bring knowledge of culture and social milieu into their thinking, asserts Grant McCracken, anthropologist, cultural commentator, and marketing strategist. Taking this all in, blending thinking, planning, and action becomes a less emotion-based and a more businesslike approach.

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits does meander occasionally; however, since it is comprised entirely of a series of what appear to be verbatim interviews, this flaw might be unavoidable (though prudent editing is always welcome in these instances). Another issue is that although the title uses branding as its primary theme and, the only other “noble pursuit” that is developed is design.

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits is valuable primarily for those particularly interested in what the gurus of the branding industry have to say about where branding was in the past, where it is now, and the directions it could go.