by Damien Vizcarra
It was late 1985. I was 10 years old. I wore a size 7. Nike had just released a shoe called Air Jordan’s named after an up and coming basketball player fresh out of the University of North Carolina. My mom bought me a pair of these shoes and it was the coolest thing she ever gave me. There were other products that I coveted before during my first 10 years of life, but nothing like this. This was the first time that a brand actually spoke to me. Wearing Air Jordan’s, especially the first release, was the pinnacle of cool among my young peers. I wanted to be like Mike. Everyone wanted to be like Mike. Owning those shoes meant that you owned a part of the MYTH….this guy that could fly, this guy that won slam dunk championships, this ultimate competitor. I loved my shoes, but when I was in high school I met a guy that loved them more than I did because he gave me $300 to buy my Air Jordan’s used! $300 is a lot to get for a used pair of shoes so I took him up on it. At the time I had a feeling that I might regret it and I do. Those shoes and that brand represented a certain careless time in my life. Michael Jordan turned out to be legendary, and for Nike, Jordan went on from being an interesting endorsement to a brand that has spoken to peoples’ aspirations for the last 28 years. I, at one time, owned a part of that brand.
There is a lot I think about when I start designing. Brand is amongst the top of that list. As designers, we are all in the business of understanding people. It is through informed designed that we can connect companies and their brands to the hearts and minds of consumers. So as I put pen to paper, I’ll ask myself how I can make that connection. How will whatever I’m designing be just right for the brand, yet be fresh, new, and somewhat unexpected? Can I design something that will be uniquely ownable for the brand that no one else can claim? Through the course of the last 10 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to solve design problems all over the US, Europe, and Asia. I've noticed that in all these places, despite the cultural differences, the power of brands and the universal lust that people have for them is exactly the same. After all, a brand is an association people have with a product or service. It can be symbolized by a badge, a slogan, design queues, look, feel, smell, shape, sound. Some people treat it like a belief or a relationship, even an expression of who they are, but…it’s all in your head. Brands are nothing more than impressions. They are impressions that elicit an emotion response. Impressions that are made in peoples’ minds and ideally are fostered and preserved over time. A good brand grows and evolves with their audience.
So how are impressions formed? Simply put, impressions can be formed by a message. For instance, let’s take In-N-Out Burgers. The message is quality and freshness. It’s their brand pillars which represent everything they stand for since they opened 1948. A lot of people don’t know this but they opened around the same time as McDonalds (another strong brand) but they took very different paths. While McDonalds grew its identity all over the world, In-N-Out stayed strong by staying small. They kept they menu unchanged, low priced, and quality and freshness high. They let people define items that ultimately became their secret menu. Through their message and impression, In-N-Out makes people feel like they are a loyal part of the club.
Some brands can be like people and take on their own personalities. Audi achieved this with the headlights of their cars. In the dark, all cars look the same. Audi, staying true to their promise of Truth in Engineering, created a simple signature element. The strip of LED headlights is an ingenious design detail that gives their cars, and more importantly the brand, a recognizable personality all its own. Since then, this detail has been borrowed by other auto manufacturers, but everyone will always attribute it to the brand that started it.
While impressions are created by companies, it is people (consumers) who give it meaning. People are responsible for building brands and good brands listen. By listening, they know you and they know what you like. They figure out ways to deliver on what resonates in an authentic way. Here are some guiding principles that a designer can use to embody a good brand experience:
Keep it simple
It is kind of the golden rule for a lot of things, but getting to simple is often the hardest thing to do. It’s important to the keep the message simple, concise, consistent, and undiluted. There are two factors to consider: the brand and people. The space that connects them is the Brand Experience. This is where values, culture, wants, and needs all interact together. Those interactions are comprised of a series of touchpoints; encounters that people have with the brand.
These common touchpoints are where people interface with a brand. Collectively, these touchpoints inform people’s perception of a brand and individually have the power to be positive, negative or neutral in nature. As a designer, it’s a lot to consider. It is also important to understand that we don’t own the perception, but we do influence it through design.
Tell a good story
Good designers are masters at telling stories. Designers tell stories through their medium like the way a director shoots his vision in a film, the way an author tells a story through writing, or the way a composer creates a sequence of sounds that alters your mood. Good designers are the curators of these experiences, and they help deliver a brand’s message. But the story you tell, whether it’s through form, materials, user interaction, out of box experience, or all of the above, must be true and believable. If not, people will call out the brand because they are too informed and can sniff out inauthenticity when they see it.
With this in mind, I’m ready to put pen to paper. After breaking down the brand, simplifying the message, formulating a story, and blueprinting our attributes, we’re finally ready to create. Design, through the lens of a brand strategy, means controlling your message across touchpoints to make a meaningful impression.