Co.Design

For Your Company To Last, The "Brand" Must Die. But Stories Should Survive

Three keys for moving beyond branding, and into storytelling.

Off the coast of Newfoundland is a place called Fogo Island. At the height of its economy, about 3,000 people were living on the island, mostly employed by the fishery. When the fish population declined in the 1960s, so did the human population, as many were forced to look elsewhere for work.

Recently, a brother and sister who were a part of that exodus have returned home. Both Zita and Tony Cobb left in search of opportunity and education. And both achieved success, going on to university educations and great careers in the tech industry. In fact, they're so successful that they are now in a position to devote their time and effort fully toward philanthropic endeavors. They spent some time in small African villages, distributing radios as a way of exposing villagers to possibilities beyond their circumstances, just as they had been introduced to the world beyond Fogo Island in their youths. But at a certain point, they realized that their real passion was to renew the financial vitality through a kind of social entrepreneurship that had been lost on Fogo once the fishery waned.

The project was about telling an already wonderful story directly.

Bruce Mau Design was invited in to help clearly define the story of what the Cobbs are about. The result was the Shorefast Foundation. A shorefast is a line that connects the shore to the fishing traps in the sea. It represents a strong link, and in this place, strong links are everywhere, connecting people to the ocean, to each other, and to centuries? old arts-and-craft practices that produce a humbling diversity of culture in the form of things like boat building, quilting, and music.

We are proud to be associated with the project, even in our humble way. But there's something bigger still: What makes the project particularly interesting was not the idea of "branding" the effort. Instead, it was the simple act of telling an already wonderful story clearly, directly, and elegantly.

Branding's beginnings

We use the word "branding" to describe the act of shaping the perceptions of a product or service for consumers. But the term has always seemed to me to have a certain superficial flavor. Interestingly, the origins of the word "branding" has its roots in a Norse word that means "burn," reflecting its beginnings as cattle branding.

Our modern notion of branding was invented during the Industrial Revolution, when products were being mass-produced and exported. As products began to show up on shelves outside of local markets, manufacturers needed a clear way to identify them. Otherwise, soap was soap, and why would a consumer buy some soap from another community when he could get soap made right in his hometown?

But in every case, at these early stages of branding, the product was still the heart. Good soap was good soap, no matter what label you put on it. The name was just a way to familiarize the consumer with the product that was now coming from out of town. All manufacturers still focused on the product, but those who could also be successful in making their products memorable through other means, like logos and jingles, found even greater success.

Over time, the power of branding became so great that, in 1988, Philip Morris purchased Kraft for six times what the company was worth on paper. In essence, they bought the brand. It was the shape of the new world: saturated communications, branding, noise. Everything now needed an identity. The brand, in most cases, became equally, or in some cases, even more important than the product itself. And a massive market opened up for mass-produced goods that ignored the quality of the product because corporations understood the psychology of the consumer and could replace quality with marketing. Higher-quality ingredients were gradually replaced with cheaper alternatives, and products were outsourced to other countries where the labor was cheaper. We invented the concept of planned obsolescence.

Manufacturers gained a mastery of the power and influence of raw emotion and ran with it.

But then something happened: massive network connectivity, in the form of the Internet.

The new consumer

Aided by the web, a new generation of consumers began to dig a little deeper. Consumers discovered that Michael Jordan was telling them to wear his shoes, while kids in sweatshops were making them. We began to respond to the disconnect between products and brands. People began to see straight through the surface of brands to the profit-driven actions that produced the products underneath. And some of the worst offenders began to change what their process with real, measurable, and positive change — not perfect, but real change.

People began to see the profit-driven motives underneath.

A new force has emerged. "Brandless" companies like Muji are celebrated. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, talks about a return to the primacy of the product and the need for brands and the products that they represent to be more closely connected. Even the most successful advertising agencies, like Crispin Porter + Bogusky, are shifting toward a new view. The book Baked In argues that value should be baked into the product itself.

Living Companies

Arie de Geus, a longtime lead strategist for Shell, developed the concept of Living Companies. According to him, "Of all the companies listed in the Fortune 500 in 1970, one-third of them had vanished by 1983. They'd been acquired, merged, or broken into pieces." De Geus suggested several elements that contribute to the longevity of corporations. One of them was the importance of a strong sense of community and identity. The question for established companies is, If their product now has to stand for something, what should it be? How can it establish a strong sense of community and identity?

The answer is simple: stories. But these stories have to be real.

The importance of stories

The distinction between stories and brands should be clear. Brands are not so much about how you describe yourself to your customer as much as how they describe you to others. It's storytelling, but it's superficial, at best. In fact, the original purpose of branding was to identify a product that was sold outside of its community of origin. Essentially, it was about labeling things so that everyone could know who had made it. Immediately, in this single act of applied identity, the idea of true community — of close relationships and their associated personal value — was lost.

Stories become the source code for who we are and who we want to be.

Stories last. Stories exist in all cultures. By definition, they entertain, educate, preserve, and even help carry on values within communities like Fogo Island. Branding appeals to our emotions and our reason. Stories speak to our deepest questions about our own existence. Stories stick because they hold real value. By definition, they entertain, but they also educate, and even instill moral values. In fact, the best stories guide our actions. They become the source code for who we are and who we want to be. For corporations to survive, they need deeply compelling stories at their heart. And there are a few simple principles to follow to get there.

  1. Engage meaningfully

    With technology acting in an increasingly important role in our lives, we now have tools that go well beyond the confines of advertising. That means two things. On the one hand, consumers can search deep into corporations and understand the full impact of their practices in their communities in a way that was otherwise hidden from view. On the other hand, corporations now have the power to engage communities in new ways and leverage the power of crowds in finding solutions and inviting participation in the issues that they collectively face. You may already be sick of hearing about Kickstarter and even Kiva, but individuals within communities can now choose to invest in small ways in projects that they believe have both cultural and social value, and those small investments can add up to something big that can't be ignored.

  2. Dissolve boundaries

    We casually write narratives that we put at the heart of our brands but that don't fully engage the communities where they live. We know that meaningful stories entertain, but they also educate, preserve, and even promote good values in communities. We can't have meaningful stories if we don't have inherent value in our central story. It's less about "giving back" and much more about providing relevance. By providing a platform for discussion, Facebook has dissolved boundaries between corporations and their surrounding communities. For better or worse, companies are now more engaged with both their fans and their critics, and everyone can watch the conversations unfold.

  3. Celebrate language

    When we think of language simply from the perspective of how it sounds, tone and voice, we lose its potential to deeply engage — and people sense it. They know that what they're being told isn't true. But when we actively play with language by inventing new words and associations, we're creating new realities. And those new associations are what keep our communities vibrant, because they give form to new ideas that are emerging in our collective culture. To celebrate language means to appeal to the whole person and acknowledge their need for community, purpose, and deep meaning.

Back to Fogo Island

For small social entrepreneurships on Fogo Island, the process is easy. They're starting with a story worth telling. They produce "a pull culture," a story that draws people in on its own merits, as opposed to the "push culture," the traditional domain of advertising. A ?push culture" is about broadcasting information, rather than a dialogue between producers and consumers.

Big business is starting to notice. And rightly so, because the modern corporation is, in fact, a fleeting entity in need of new ways to ensure long-term health. The people of Fogo Island don't care about brands, but they have an incredible story to tell. And it's our job as designers to design the meaning and purpose that will help propel these companies to new relevance for the communities that they serve.

[Top image, of a sparkler, by Mykl Roventine]

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3 Comments

  • Bob

    "And it's our job as designers to design the meaning and purpose that will help propel these companies to new relevance for the communities that they serve." Paddy, you cannot design the meaning and purpose if it is already there, you have spent an article speaking about something which is unsubstantiated with no empirical evidence. Of course you are entitled to you opinion however my opinion is that this is a misinformed article. MJ is completely right in her comment and perhaps you should know what your talking about before you comment upon it!

  • ben

    To depend on mastery of language alone is to elevate the intellectual dimension of humans disproportionately. Emotion, visual language and pleasure are valid design tools too. Language also can lie but that doesn't negate its value, it just weakens the trust we have in the speaker.  
    A wealthy intellectual writes beautifully for a high end fashion magazine. His message is in effect, "My wife and I made our own club here where we think really hard about designing stuff for poor people. We're the only members." and he's writing from a mansion. That mansion was built by impressing other wealthy intellectuals with language. Whether we manage brands or just tell stories: We're all vulnerable to wishful thinking, self deception and overestimating the purity of our motivations. 

  • Mary Jane Braide

    Paddy! Branding has evolved with the times too: it's not superficial and emotional. It's now more about affinity, purpose, outcomes, impact. Brands are now more agile, reflective and formed in conversation. And they are still incredibly powerful. Muji for example is indeed a brand. It's just positioned to speak to a certain segment in a certain way.

    I think what you are arguing against is inauthentic superfice, which has never been what good brands were about.

    MJ