On Design — There Are Two Types of Brands, But Only One Has a Future

In the last decennia, a lot of things have changed with the speed of… the Internet. And although terms like brand and branding are relatively new in human history, they have a mystical aura around them. What exactly is a brand? What is branding? Is it a color, a logo, or a proposition? Is it the package, the product, the story, or the feeling?

So before I even start to talk about the two types of brands, let’s look at how some weathered professionals in the field describe them. Just to get a bit more clarity on the subject.

Wally Olins, the co-founder of Wolff Ollins and Saffron Brand Consultants, described branding as a profound manifestation of the human condition. It is about belonging.

Phil Duncan, Global Design Officer at Procter & Gamble, describes a brand as something you have an unexplained emotional connection to.

Stanley Hainsworth says that every brand has a story, whether it’s the founder’s story or the brand’s reason for being. Some brands have never told their story well, or have lost their story.

And if you ask Seth Godin what a brand is, he would say that a brand is a stand-in, euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes.

All of those, are coming straight out of Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman.

Although there are some underlying similarities in what all of those people are saying, there isn’t one clear one to define what branding is. Apparently, the word branding itself is a matter of… branding. A narrative that lives in people’s minds.

A brand being a fugazi entity that lives in human heads is both mind-boggling and troubling at the same time. It means that our perception of the end product or the company that sells it can be completely skewed depending on the story we’ve been told.

And this is something that has happened time after time. Take fashion/streetwear for example. For a very long time, women have been used by brands to appeal to the male part of the population. Companies like Calvin Klein, Supreme, Dolce & Gabanna, and many more fashion and perfume selling brands are by now even becoming famous for objectifying women to drive sales. We know sex sells, and they are just monetizing on this knowledge, and we are letting it happen.

Every time I see an advertisement for Dolce & Gabanna I’m genuinely confused. They often advertise using things like sadomasochism, dominance & submission, misogyny, sexual intimidation, and what looks like rape as storytelling. We, the people are used to accepting this kind of things when we see them on TV or printed next to a bus stop, but those often ‘leak’ to society’s values and virtues, and bad things happen. Bad things happen when you advertise them. That’s how the world works.

Oh and then there are perfume ads. The liquid that is actually filling the perfume bottle costs around 2%, or less of the total sum. Some companies have put an excessive amount of marketing to promote ̶t̶h̶e̶i̶r̶ ̶b̶r̶a̶n̶d̶ lifestyle, love, intimacy, and sex instead of an odor. Something that costs €2 to produce, can go to market for €100 and it wouldn’t smell fishy.

Nowadays, a human being sees between 5.000 and 10.000 ads per day. It’s easier than you think to sneak those weird views on humanity, on women’s role in society, on intimacy and sex into our expectations of the world. And most companies are taking great advantage of it. As long as the narrative spins around selling more, no matter what, there will be shameless stories sold as a way of living throughout clever storytelling.

Which brings me to brand type number I.

Brand type I — “A Ridiculous Clusterf**k of Totally Uncool Jokers”

Let’s go back to Supreme for a minute. In case you totally missed the hype, Supreme is the streetwear label that stole Barbara Kruger anti-consumerism, anti-sexism signature style — white text on a red rectangle label — and capitalized BIG time on it. It must be extremely hurtful for an artist to spend years creating anti-consumerism art to just have a brand reversing all this. But she didn’t comment on Supreme and the hype culture, neither did she file a lawsuit. Supreme did though. When Married To The Mob introduce a “Supreme Bitch” campaign, Supreme took them to the Supreme Court and filed a lawsuit.

Leah McSweeney explained the reason why she created the Supreme Bitch line for her fashion label Married To The Moob. She said that her “design has always been to make fun of the misogynistic vibe of Supreme and the boys who wear it.

At this point, Barbara Kruger reacted to the whole Supreme vs Supreme Bitch in the Supreme Court situation with a short quote targeted at the Supreme dudes. Kruger saidWhat a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement”.

All of this made me rethink the whole ‘what really is a brand’ thing. Supreme never really produced clothing, like many, many other fashion companies, they just bought in bulk and then slapped their logo on things. Sometimes a stolen logo, but a logo nevertheless. Art does not interest the hype culture, even though the hype culture never seems to stop amaze and anti-inspire the art people. So Supreme didn’t only get away with stealing someone else’s idea, they become ‘an icon’ because of it, with people sleeping in front of the stores on release days.

The only thing that Supreme truly crafts is the idea of hype. Hype, often on someone else's expanse, but unmistakably hype. And some boys are losing their mind for it. On drop day, people spend hours, if not days, in line to buy …. a brick. A brick yes. The brick cost around $30 in the store, but goes for $1000 on Craiglist. Business Insider made a whole video trying to figure out what it is that makes people spend ridiculous money on not-worthy things. Sounds like a new age religion or even a cult to me.

And this is of course, an extreme example, but a lot more companies sell nothing more than hype and get away with it. Companies founded in the USA or Europe have massively outsourced their production and now even they don’t know where the stuff is coming from, let alone us, the end consumers. It’s not products they’re producing. This whole thing about a brand being a story or an expectation works all too well.

So what actually is a type I brand?

By modern standards a brand that has no purpose other than profit, that doesn’t produce its products but only its branding is a type I brand. Those types of brands can be seen as leeches or society’s parasites— they infect us with questionable values by fully focusing on the narrative, not on the products or God forbid, positive impact.

Brands of those types are not particularly keen on promoting physical and mental health for their audience or having any positive change on the environment. Their founders and chairmen are not to be seen giving inspirational talks about their vision. Most of the time we get introduced to one of the people working at those companies are, usually, when they get suited. Like when the former Calvin Klein CEO got suited for giving his date herpes for example. Might be the made in China underwear he was wearing that did it, or all the ads selling sex that made CK so famous. I don’t know.

Type I brands have seen exponential growth since the World Wars. Because of that our Western culture nowadays gets dictated by brands, not by traditions, rituals, or folklore. Type I brands are thriving but since they use something very unstable and non-existing — hype–to thrive, the question is — how secure and sustainable is their business model?

McKinsey released a report full of insights about the shift in consumers and company called The State of Fashion 2020. What really surprised me is that executives consider things like ‘caution ahead’, ‘getting woke’, and ‘radical transparency’ as bad for business. Most executives of type I companies don’t see the shift to a more healthy and sustainable environment as a good thing but as a thread for business. It means that they will have to change something on their business model, maybe even advertise healthier values. Terrible, right?

Brand type II — The needed change

And even though most brands are driven only by sales and have little to no regard towards a healthy society, not every brand out there is like this. Fortunately for us, some brands do have a bigger-than-profit purpose. That’s how they became brands in the first place. Some individuals have understood the power of stories and emotional connections and have put this into practice to produce positive change. Let’s take the B Corps for example. According to bcorporation.net

“Certified B Corps are a new model for businesses that are tackling some of our most pressing global challenges and building a new economy led by stakeholder capitalism.”

“New” seems to be the keyword here. It is all relatively new, yes. The Western world has been ruled by big corporates playing monopoly for quite some time now. And of course, even some B Corps are a bit too much on the consumer side. Take Ben & Jerry’s for example. They are considered a B Corp. But at the same time, they’re being owned by Unilever. Unilever is one of the not-so-many food industry proud mama companies that owns around 1/10 of everything there is in a grocery store.

How Ben & Jerry’s contributes to the world is a bit questionable. Yes, they are fair-trade which should be the standard, but it has never been. And maybe Ben and Jerry had big plans when they started the company, but now under Unilever’s corporate wing, things are more commercial than ever. Especially with the latest Netflix & Chill’d flavors. But who doesn’t want ice cream that tastes like…. Netflix?

Anyway.

There are a lot of other B Corps that do strive for a positive change and not for filling their own pockets with too much money at our and our kid’s future expense. Some companies that have really rolled their sleeves up to bring a positive change are Dopper, Innocent, Patagonia, Tony’s Chocolonely, BrewDogs, Nurture Brands, Happy Earth Apparel, and many more.

Patagonia’s first TV ad

What makes a brand a type II one?

Sadly, most of the currently popular, everyday brands are not really contributing to society besides making a lot of profit from marketing themselves. So when a new brand pops up with big ambitions from the very beginning, it’s definitely worth paying a bit extra attention to what they have to say.

There are a few visible differences between the two types of brands.

First — Type I brands don’t improve, if they must, they greenwash.

A company like Diesel (named after a fossil fuel, that should already say enough) has been advertising stupidity and being a follower for some time now, but under the pressure of society requesting a more sustainable fashion, even Diesel is green now.

If you go to their website and you search really well, you will find a green link. Linking to their relatevely new ‘Responsible Living’ page.

Diesel is just being all about responsibility all of the sudden.

From advertising sexual harassment on the work floor and in religion to “passion, self-expression, and a determination to change the game”.

Cool story Diesel.

Second — There are almost no faces behind type I companies.

People that have a true passion to change something that’s not working will go through extraordinary lengths to share their stories with the world. Most type II brands, that aim for real change through business are set up by activists or journalists. You are likely to know the brand because of its founder or know the founder because of the brand.

If you know little to nothing about the people behind the brand and its story, it’s more often than not because those people have zero passion to share their story with the world. Because there is no story. Of course, when you give an ad agency a few thousand bucks they will create a beautiful narrative that might or might not boost sales.

Third — People change, so the brands that refuse to change will seize to exist

Generation Z has a very tough world to bear. People born after 2000 are growing up with the Internet, with social media, with a messed up climate, with an intoxicated Earth, fewer trees, fewer reefs, less life in the oceans and on land. More plastic. Etcetera.

Even though those youngsters are more mentally unstable than ever because of the pressure of the busy lives we’ve created for ourselves, they are also more informed than ever. Even though Millennials and Gen Z might have major struggles renting a place to live, and buying a house might sound like science fiction in this economy, those two groups still place more emphasis on sustainability.

See, people below 24 years are doing things that the baby boomers would describe as a ‘totally unworth self-sacrifice’ like going vegan for instance. But seeing in how inhumane conditions animals live and knowing that around 45% of the Earth’s land is used for farming livestock in some way, there is almost no way to reverse this than quitting meat or even all animal products like milk and eggs.

It’s not comfort or convenience that young people are giving away by ‘going green’. It’s a better world for themselves and their future kids that those generations are insuring. So seeing how going Net Zero is humanity’s newest goal, how mental and physical being is starting to be more important than mindless overworking and overspending, how spirituality is on the rise and consumerism is slowly but surely losing its fake appeal, the economy is going to change a lot the upcoming years.

Final words

If you ask me, I think that most brands have had their share of the ever-growing pie we call our economy. They ruled and nothing good happened. They enslaved people to surround themselves with things that were branded to represent status. They focused only on the narrative and didn’t even bother improving their products, processes or creating a positive impact while existing. I would say — it’s time to just say bye to those. How much more clothing does the Western world need when the stats say that 40% of the ones we already own are rarely or never worn? How much more sugared, not nutritious food do we need in a mid of an obesity pandemic? How much more not-innovative but this-time-in-a-different-color smartphones do we yearly need?

We have enough. And we’ve had enough of it.

So, let's put the type II brands and their missions on the front row and be a bit more conscious about what and how we consume and where our money goes. Do we spend to improve the world or in ruin it?

Commentating on life & design. Also freelancing at both— siyanaivanova.nl.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store