William Drenttel | Essays

My Country Is Not A Brand

Branding was originally an approach for creating reputations for commercial products. Over time, it has come to be applied to almost everything, from high school sports to school meal programs; from universities to research centers; from art museums to ballet companies to cultural institutions; from political campaigns to cities to states. Today, even nations have become brands.

Item: Last month, we flew to Toronto to attend the Ontario Design Thinkers Conference. — a conference in which the weakest presentation came from Jeff Swystun, the Global Director of Interbrand. Among other objectionable tactics (Swystun showed considerable work produced by other designers, none of whom were credited), his canned PowerPoint presentation displayed, at a certain point, three brand logos simultaneously: Kodak, the Bay (a leading Canadian retail brand), and the American flag. I was outraged, and all I could think was, my country is not a brand.

Item: That same week, Robert George wrote a cover story for The New Republic titled "Conscientious Objector: Why I Can't Vote for Bush." This is how he ended his indictment: "At crucial points before and after the Iraq war, Bush's middle manager's have failed him, and the 'brand' called America has suffered in the world market." According to his argument, U.S. officials should be summarily dismissed because they have let their shareholders down and the brand has suffered in the marketplace.

Item: In the most recent issue of Eye (no. 53), devoted to "Brand Madness", Nick Bell cites the example of Charlotte Beers, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, who was hired by the U.S. State Department to "combat rising tides of anti-Americanism." Bell quotes Naomi Klein: "Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed criticism of the appointment: 'There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something... We need someone who can re-brand American foreign policy... She got me to buy Uncle Ben's Rice.'"

Item: Not long ago, in a The New York Times Magazine interview, Bruce Mau urged designers to embrace "the richness of the marketplace." By way of example, he described his own approach to this Herculean task: "We are being asked to work on a vision for the future of Guatemala. How can we design Guatemala over the next 10 years?"

What's most troubling here is the deeply inappropriate vocabulary we choose to deploy as we randomly penetrate such allegedly foreign disciplines as politics and international diplomacy. The decision to vote for George Bush based on his handling of the American brand? Defending a State Department foreign policy hire because, "SHE GOT ME TO BUY UNCLE BEN'S RICE?" A designer who believes that, based on his own knowledge of the marketplace, he can re-design the future of a country, albeit just a little one in Central America? While we're at it, let's not forget Rem Koolhaas designing a bar-coded flag for the capitalistic future of the European Union, or Landor setting out to "brand" entire countries, including Jordan and Hong Kong.

Eye addresses some of these issues in its "Brand Madness" issue, as does Design Observer's Michael Bierut in this recent post. (Also relevant are Michael's posts on the marketing of political parties in the Indian elections and the design of the new Iraqi flag.) Jessica Helfand and I also addressed some of these issues a year ago in Vancouver in a talk titled, Culture is not always popular.

Nick Bell's discussion on "The Steamroller of Branding" in Eye is a thoughtful critique which examines the process of creating identities for art museums and performing arts centers. Bell notes in particular the way branding has crept into the experience of the art — how it has actually invaded the space of the gallery and performance locale— rather than focusing solely on the commercial activities of these cultural institutions. I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment — yet I find this singular focus on the branding of art and performance institutions somewhat vexing, as it inherently leads back to an impenetrable dichotomy between art and commerce. Weren't the signatories of the First Things First Manifesto attacked for privileging high culture above commercial culture? Ultimately, this minimizes the importance of this essential critique of "brand madness" that make the newest suite of Eye essays so imperative.

The problem with "Content," as I believe both Bell and Bierut would attest, is that it risks becoming a fundamentally generic concept: in this way, it's not unlike the way "the brand" has become simply "Brand," sometimes invoked with an almost religious-like tone. (Whenever I hear these terms used in this way, I'm reminded of Goethe writing about the Sublime.) Content should not be an abstraction for designers, but rather something to be evaluated in specific and differentiated terms. It is in its specificity that designers need to begin making distinctions — distinctions which are not merely programmatic or pragmatic, but which carry with them implicit moral dimensions.

There is, for instance, a difference between helping an NGO to fundraise and helping an NGO to disseminate information about the state of the world in a crisis zone. Given the requirements of capitalism and communication in a branding-laden culture, such overtly divergent goals are, oddly, being subsumed under the same umbrella of branding. And yet they could not be more different.

The Care identity program — its logo and its branding applications — are not the same as its challenge to the United Nations to take strong action in the Sudan. Its project no.SDN099 funds reproductive and psychosocial health services for abducted children and survivors of sexual violence in South Darfur. Meanwhile, through its corporate partners, Cisco Systems is helping to feed widows in Afghanistan, and Starbucks and Care are "Winning Together" to fight global poverty, especially in major coffee-growing areas of the world. Of course, you cannot find Care in Iraq because they have withdrawn after "the apparent death of Mrs. Margaret Hassan." But right next to the "Donate Now! Sudan Crisis" button, you can "Click here to voice your sympathy for her family."

This is but one instance in which the muddled notions of branding are communicated, and even here, there are multiple types of content revealed: some tragic, some critical to the future of a geopolitical region, some involving genocide, some abjectly promotional. What is missing, however, are distinctions: distinctions between marketing efforts (CARE fundraising for hunger) and promotional initiatives (Starbucks feeding hungry laborers in Columbia); between communication (CARE reporting on a crisis zone) and advocacy (CARE trying to persuade the UN to intervene in Darfar); and between news feeds (Margaret Hassan's brutal murder) and community (at the push of a button, send her family your heartfelt condolences now). The future of peace in entire regions of the world is the topic, and yet the form for our experience is fundamentally filtered and branded — just as in Nick Bell's example of the filtered and branded experience of art in museums.

Branding, of course, has its value, its place in commerce and its confirmed role in the implementation of certain design initiatives. At its best, it leads to better commercial communication, to understanding the needs of an audience, or building long-term relationships with consumers. And yes: wouldn't the world be a better world if more countries understood (and by conjecture, respected) the perspectives of other countries? Wouldn't America be more successful in the Arab and Muslim world if it was a little less interested in cheap oil and a little more interested in their culture, their interests and needs? Wouldn't it help if the U.S. had more people in its State Department who spoke fluent Arabic? (As of last year, there were only 54, according to the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy's report Changing Minds, Winning Peace.)

Meanwhile, we set our sights on branding the war, with sound bytes and promotional bumpers like "Operation Desert Storm" and "Operation Iraqi Freedom." In England, "Britain TM" is created for the Blair administration by Demos, based loosely on the premise of "Cool Britannia." There are also studies giving legitimacy to the "Branding of Britain in relation to the Brand South Africa." In Iraq, even before it had achieved independence as a sovereign nation, branding experts had a plan for a new Iraqi flag, a design that today might be characterized as either a failure of process or of research. At the end of the day, it was neither: it was a failure of intent. The symbol for a country should not be created by branding experts.

When the vocabulary of a nation's foreign policy is the vocabulary of branding, then it is, in fact, selling Uncle Ben's Rice. This transaction, with the vocabulary of the supermarket counter, is not how I envision my country speaking to the rest of the world.

Posted in: Business, Politics

Comments [40]

Incredible piece!

Interesting point. However, I think we're running into the same problem over and over again: seeing brand in a limited way, as a shelf product, or design result, or a project for a branding or design agency. If you see it as a matter of perception, something that is in the mind of the audience, some of the ideas discussed above need to be seen in a different way.

The American flag is not a brand by itself. It's a mark that stands for what US is perceived like (internally and internationally).

As for using branding as the sole weapon in foreign policy, that's definitely wrong. But, in my opinion, what happens now is that branding is underused--a lot of good or bad initiatives could have a different impact if properly communicated.
Marius Ursache

Adding to what Marius mentioned, in the Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier the brand is described as: A brand is not what you say it is. It's what they say it is.
Michael Surtees

i hope steven heller is reading this. I recall that after 911 he wanted to rebrand america because the flag just didn't do it for him.

I have to agree with Marius. Although the term "branding" is vastly over-used, the concept of branding (marketing, customer perception, call it what you will) will never go out of style. Just because people have jumped on, and are now jumping off, the "branding" band wagon does not make it a bad word.

As a Canadian, and an audience member during Mr. Swystun's address at the DesignThinkers Conference, I didn't take exception to his observations whatsoever (nor did I think his was the weakest presentation). Of course the US is a brand. America is one of the most carefully, consistently and zealously branded entities in history. Branding is not only a matter of perception, but also one of perspective. Perhaps only non-Americans can realize what a pervasive brand America is.
Andrew Montgomery rgd

After reading the piece, I have to say that I began to agree with Marius. Branding is perception and an art of communication. Why shouldn't it be employed to help countries communicate?

However, when you get into the process of branding, you can see the flaw in that application. In every branding projects, we define a target audience. All communication efforts are focus on projecting an image to this group of people. Anyone else that don't fit into this demographic and psychographic, are ignored. Nordstrom isn't going to spend much effort trying to fullfil the needs of rural consumers. In figuring the target market, we put people and money into the equation, and the marketing strategy is chosen for the sake of cost effectiveness and profitability.

Take that line of thinking into the social/political arena and we see why it is offensive. To brand our policies would mean that we must in the end ignore the needs of many. How do we in good conscience do that when we claim to be believers of freedom and equality? When our policies affect the living conditions of all world citizens, can we say that their "mind shares" don't matter, simply because they don't fit into our target market?
Nipith Ongwiseth

Bill—I'll ad my voice to the "Marius got it right" chorus. Although you may be right in saying that our vocabulary is deeply inappropriate, I suspect that the real problem is that our vocabulary is pathetically inadequate. The definitions and implications of "brand" seem to be evoked more for the convenience and interest-advancement of the speaker than for clarity and overall understanding. A broad and sophisticated view of brand (Brand?) almost precludes the use of the word "branding" and makes the notion that someone can design a brand seem foolish. In this sense brand design is more like urban planning than it is like graphic design.

The various activities surrounding brand development range tremendously in both value and values. The designer who fights for the user and the manufacturing engineer that obsessively improves a good product are both involved in brand development. Their role is more significant (in a couple of senses) than hucksters whose interest in the lives of other people is limited to an opportunity to ply their craft. If one accepts a broader notion of brand and sees it as more complex than a methodology for manipulation then our understanding of (commercial) brands can enlighten us about international understanding.
Gunnar Swanson

A logo is a symbol which conjures up a personal point of view about an entity, based on a set of experiences or perceptions of the entity. A flag is a symbol which conjures up a personal point of view about a country, based on a set of experiences or perceptions of the country. There isn't big difference between the two. Is there a need to create one?

I don't see anything wrong with a country trying to figure out how it wants to be perceived, and implementing the steps necessary to get there. Often times, it can be a good thing. We judge countries based on the same gut-reactions that we do corporations -- regardless of whether our judgements are made based upon real experiences or misinformed perceptions. Why not try to control these things?

In branding, language is strictly controlled because it creates experience. In Chinese, the United States of America is translated as "Beautiful Kingdom." That certainly must change China's perception of America. Another example: if we named "Operation Iraqi Freedom" something else, like "Operation Forced Democracy" or "Operation Annihilation," our perception of the same military operation would change, even if the operation itself was identical.

Right now in America, we are acting the way poorly-managed companies do. We are giving up our strong brand of true visionary leadership for the sake of a few years of overwhelming power. We keep saying that we are visionary world leaders, but our customers, for the most part, aren't buying it. Companies who don't care about branding don't really do very well -- one bad experience and the customer is turned off for life. Couldn't it be assumed that people feel the same about countries?

Part of me wants very badly to agree with Bill, but I have a hard time understanding an alternative. Is there one? The mere naming of a country gives it a brand. Add on a flag and some spokesmen, and you have a full-fledged brand. Even this website is carefully branded. It was designed to put emphasis on people's writing, and give us all an equal voice. Think if every time one of the editors posted a comment it displayed their names in 30 point bold type -- it would completely change our experience as users. We would become readers, they would become writers. A design like that would contradict their purposes for making the website in the first place, so it was designed this way. Isn't that branding? Figuring out what you want to do, then implementing the solution in such a way that accomplishes those goals? Why shouldn't countries do the same?
Ryan Nee

Branding has less to do with design than it has to do with a clear definition of what a noun is (person, place, object=product) and how it needs to be understood in order to accurately and actively present itself to its public.

Unfortuntely, Branding is one of those open-ended chameleon like terms developed by Identity Consultants. Which evolves into layer(s) of meaning, depending who's using the terminology.

Linguistically, the word Brand is Overused and Abused. Most important, misunderstood.

Years ago, I called myself a Corporate Identity Designer/Consultant. Mention the term today. And people will say, HUH !!!! I say, I'm a Branding Consultant. Everyone understands the terminology.

I despise the terminology Branding, because I'm not a Branding Consultant. Branding deals with Analysis, Strategy, Assessment, Measurement, Valuation, and Management. My expertise is Identity Design.

Agreed, the United States is not a Brand. However, the United States is Branded.

Interesting to see with whom Bruce Mau is Partnering. Since Mau and Rem Koohaas parted company. I heard he's been courting Frank Gehry.

This has been an interesting discussion. It's hard to dismiss the metaphor of America as (poorly-managed?) company when you realize that George W. Bush is our first president to have an MBA, and from Harvard Business School, no less. As a designer, it's been my experience that companies with strong, visionary leaders at the top seldom have to rely consultants to provide their branding vision: it just proceeds naturally from the leader's point of view. Interesting that this observation might ring as true with people who are opposed to the current administration's policies as with those who favor them.
Michael Bierut

Great discussion. My thoughts are that the American flag is most definitely a brand, however misappropriated the context. The American flag, so easily recognized and globally identifiable, like the Nike "swoosh" or Apple logo, it can stand on its own. It has been argued that America's true power in the world is not in our military or economic might/influence, but in the popular culture that we export (America rocks?!) - who among us does not feel a sense of truth, comfort/imperialism reinforced in Homer Simpson's U-S-A!, U-S-A!?

I agree with Andrew Montgomery when he says, "Perhaps only non-Americans can realize what a pervasive brand America is." As a Jamaican, this is most evident when I travel to Jamaica and other countries overseas. From the outside, America (the company) and its logo (the flag) are most definitely marketed like any other global brand. People overseas do see America as a "Beautiful Kingdom" but are so often disappointed when they arrive here. Many countries see the hypocrisy in the words of our "slogan" freedom, democracy, and are upset as any unsatisfied customer would be. It is no mistake that the US flag and what it represents is often burned and defamed by populations angry at the indecent imbalance of US corporations and our foreign policy, which in a sense are subsidiaries of the "brand."

Historically and, in particular, in these Patriot Act times, the American flag has been used to excuse racism, xenophobia and violence under the cloak of patriotism, as evidenced in the popularity of country musicians such as Toby Keith and the continued employment of Donald Rumsfeld.

America needs to be "re-branded" and it has to start from the (political?) top down.
Steve Jones

Yes, good discussion. Interesting to see that even in this small group of just over a dozen comment-posters we are using a vocabulary that doesn't work or is not commonly understood. Steve J: The American flag is not a brand, it is a symbol, an icon, a logo (if you will)—the "brand" that the flag stands for is America, and as offensive as it is to William, I think it's inarguable that America has a set of personality traits and attributes that are describable and shared among a critical mass of people. This is a brand—an aura, a spirit, a personality that is agreed upon by enough people to actually be describable. If something could be described as looking American, sounding American, feeling American, then America has a personality—and I don't find it offensive to substitute the word 'brand' for personality in this context. Perhaps everyone is queasy about 'brand' being applied to the non-commercial? My advice would be to get over that because it's here to stay.

PS: As someone mentioned above, Marty Neuemeyer's The Brand Gap is an excellent resource. He also has a new book, which might help this discussion, called The Dictionary of Brand.
Tom Dolan

just a reminder-government is not a company (it's not even a useful metaphor. not even close), and the more often this square peg is hammered into the round hole the further the people actually get from government (which can be pretty handy for certain governments). however-you all seem to be wielding that hammer willingly and happily so i suppose to each their own.

the britain tm/cool britannia thing was a joke before it began-like the millenium dome-and if anything is still enough of a canker to be one of the factors that ultimately contributes to blair's downfall.


Graham, point taken. All I'm saying is that an aura, similar to (or perhaps exactly like) brand personality, does exist around things that aren't commercial entities, and always has (don't make me mention the Catholic church, the design language of Fascism, etc). To pretend otherwise is just to prefer not to look. As in the marketplace, an organization can attempt to influence the perception of their brand, but they cannot control it. The true measure of the brand is defined by the direction of shared public perception. Certainly, many attempts at influencing one's own brand can be ham-fisted, ill-conceived, and ultimately counter-productive. It's a space where the wise tread carefully, no?
Tom Dolan

Graham, I don't take any comfort from the metaphor of nation as corporation, but it seems increasingly inescapable. Below, Rick Poynor references Joel Bakan's book and film The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, a harsh indictment which makes the conscious branding of countries ever more suspect by association.

However, am I wrong in thinking it hasn't been done effectively since the Nazis? The signature characteristic about contemporary nation-branding seems to be that it's done so haplessly. Perhaps there is hope after all.
Michael Bierut

Michael, I would guess the answer to your query depends on one's definition of "effectively" and a consideration of what result the influencers sought to achieve. How about Mao's China? Today's China? Costa Rica (a economy consciously based on government supported eco-tourism)? Post-war Japan? I think it's arguable that all these countries (and cultures) were consciously re-imagined and imaged, messaged, and in today's parlance, branded [pretty effectively] for internal and/or external audiences.
Tom Dolan

Graphic designers (like everyone else) want to be the center of the universe. We play an important (but very far from the most important) role in developing brands. We sometimes play an important role in revitalizing, rebuilding, or redirecting brands but often we either have no significant role or our work has a detrimental effect on the overall project.

Extend this to changing the brand of a country. Although I share a bit of Bill's revulsion at the term as applied to countries, there is clearly much to be learned from the commercial sector. One is that wonderful packaging or great advertising will not save a lousy product. In this sense it is very important that anyone choosing to talk about "improving" the U.S. "brand" remember that (if you'll pardon the semiotics lingo) that altering the referent to change the signified will have a lasting effect on the sign. Attempting a cheap patch on the signifier will do little or nothing.

To the extent that designers see logos or packages as the brand, they are missing the point. To the extent that politicians see advertising campaigns rather than policy adjustment and human contact as the way to change the "brand," they are learning nothing from commercial brands. Repackaging only helps advance a brand when the product is good but the packaging fails to do its job.
Gunnar Swanson

this reminds me a great deal of the recent frontline THE PERSUADERS (which is online now for free).

i think i accept the reality that even things like policy programs, which should not be for sale, need to compete for space today in the public's attention just like products do. what bothers me is the way that political marketing is held to no higher standard than product marketing (i.e. "healthy forests" or "own your own healthcare").

my gut feeling is that, faced with a marketplace of ideas (where the former holds sway over the latter), the solution is to fight fire with fire - to develop better (advertising/political/propaganda) campaigns that are just as successful as british petroleum's or frank lundtz's without being as hollow.

In his book "Corporate Identity", Wally Olins points out another interesting example of a geo-political body that established a very quick, very pervasive identity or "brand": the Confederate States of America.

While I agree that the term "brand" has different meanings and uses (some of which have troubling implications), it's hard not to acknowledge that the broad principles apply to any type of organization...including nations.
Daniel Green

When government administrations start employing CEOs and other business executives as public servants, the country inevitably will be governed according to the principles, rules, and strategies of business, which includes brand and brand identity.
Steven Kapsinow

I am a little confused when the author argues that CARE should not use its one "brand" or identity for all of its issues. Companies, like nations, can stand for and do different things. The CARE that argues in front of the UN is the same CARE that, with its corporate partners, feeds families in Afghanistan. By using the same brand for everything, it allows regular people to understand that they are the same company. Even though they are not selling anything to consumers, they do rely on donations, so in a way they are trying to sell themselves. The same argument can be said for nations. As is typical with any popular corporate strategy of the moment, branding is overused and over-applied. However the concept is not without merit. And while we may not like to acknowledge it, America IS a brand - just look for the "made in the USA" label if you don't believe it. The word "patriotism" can basically be interpreted as "appreciation for your countries brand". Just as branding distills a product down to a few visceral images, American patriotism evokes similar images: Uncle Sam, George Washington chopping an apple tree, storming Normandy beach. The act of branding a country isn't what upsets this author; it is the fact that it has become so tastelessly overt (which is a completely different issue from what this author is discussing).
In some cases the branding of public entities has had a clear positive effect on the region. Las Vegas' "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" campaign clearly led to increased tourism. States have been "branding" themselves for years, just look at the commemorative quarters released recently with each states nickname and a fitting image. And some states clearly have better brands than others. I mean, "Virginia is for lovers" is definitely catchier than Wisconsin's "Stay Just a Little Bit Longer" (are they begging?).
My concern with branding taken to the ultimate level is that it results in "group-think".....we no longer are encouraged to think for ourselves - to look at both sides of an argument - to try to understand the other side. The brand exemplifies the only morally right opinion. Another down side of branding is that you run the risk of dismissing the guy who just may be a visionary simply because he may question the logic of the "brand". If all countries operated in a Western culture, "selling" America might be successful. However, other cultures are not motivated by profit to the degree that Western Civilization has been. Putting your "brand" on a country is just a little too close to exploitation of the masses for me. All too often branding is used as a panacea for the tough problems - if we can't understand it, just brand it and recreate it in the image of the desired brand....as the author suggests, we lose sight of the real issues when we worship the "brand." All large organizations: companies, nations, non-profit groups, etc. need to be concerned with public relations and all large public relations should be focused on central themes exemplified in a brand. But public relations should never impede the actual goals of an organization. The only time a brand becomes more important than a company is when the company has failed completely (just look at Enron). It is important that all organizations keep this in mind.
Unfortunately, as in the instance of CARE, the mixing of marketing and promotion will more likely result in diminished returns for CARE as world peace becomes subsumed to the brand's promotional efforts....such as partnering with Starbucks which translates to valuable advertising (and image) for Starbucks. If I truly believed that a brand could solve the problems of the world, I would be the first to print it, post it, and wear it. Alas we've lived through too many branding changes not to understand the fragile shell offered by a brand with no substance. Branding is communication but unfotunately it is one-way communication - transmitting without receiving. Ultimately, branding has its value. Can it provide world peace? I think not. Or at leastnot without a price - the price of individualism and creativity. Branding doesn't value differences - rather it works to eliminate them and values conformity over uniqueness. To my way of thinking, branding belongs in the commercial marketplace - you either buy (literally) into the brand or you move on to the next provider. But you have the freedom to either accept or reject the brand without being labeled an outsider or anarchist.


There have been many thoughtful responses to my post, and many good statements and questions. The consensus is clearly that America is, in fact, a brand; that learning from branding could help America be a better communicator; and that a broader definition of brand could include many of the public policy and diplomacy examples I cited. These are a few of the statements which stand out in my reading of these comments:

"America is one of the most carefully, consistently and zealously branded entities in history." (Andrew Montgomery)

"If one accepts a broader notion of brand and sees it as more complex than a methodology for manipulation then our understanding of (commercial) brands can enlighten us about international understanding." (Gunnar Swanson)

"Agreed, the United States is not a Brand. However, the United States is Branded." (Design Maven)

"America has a set of personality traits and attributes that are describable and shared among a critical mass of people. This is a brand — an aura, a spirit, a personality that is agreed upon by enough people to actually be describable." (Tom Dolan)

"Unfortunately, as in the instance of CARE, the mixing of marketing and promotion will more likely result in diminished returns for CARE as world peace becomes subsumed to the brand's promotional efforts." (Meg)

Ryan Nee rightly asked what is the alternative?

The only answer I can propose is the concept of distinctions. America will certainly brand itself in an attempt to bring the Olympics to New York City, just as America will brand its war initiatives in an attempt to control media coverage and to create ownable soundbytes. I am not in denial that America is a brand, or that the country engages in branding activities to sell its messages to its own populace, as well as to international audiences.

This said, I want to insist that the American flag, or the flag of the England or Iraq, are not brands. They may appear on t-shirts, and they may be burned, but they are symbols that represent history and carry meaning. Yes, brands can have history and can carry meaning too. But this does not mean they are the same thing. These are distinctions worth arguing, and that should be, as I noted in my post, evaluated in specific and differentiated terms.

A flag, of course, is the most emblematic example. The case I cited about Care's programs and initiatives gets at the heart of the issue precisely because it involves nations, public diplomacy, AND branding. Again, it seems to me that it is appropriate to make distinctions between brand/branding (organizational identity and reputation; marketing, fundraising and promotion; etc.) and the communication of human suffering and hunger. The broadest view of brand still benefits by adjusting itself to such content distinctions.

Lastly, I want to return to the issue of vocabulary. I cannot imagine that the citizens of Iraq want to hear that their elections will happen or not happen in January based on public statements by the U.S. Secretary of State about whether the brand (is it democrary in this case) is ready. Nor do I want to hear the President of the European Union talking about the brand as they negotiate control of nuclear development in Iran. Nor do I want to hear the ultimate leader of the Palestinians talking about the Palestine brand. They will eventually want tourism, if peace comes, and then we can talk about the marketing program for the Palestine Development Corporation. In the meantime, peace will not come because they are more effectively branded, or have a more holistic view of brand.
William Drenttel

Speaking of the devil, Armin Vit points out an interesting case study of brand on Speak Up: the new identity for Cornell University. Read the rationale for the program in The Cornell Daily Sun.

Cornell has a perception problem affecting its brand image (and its poor ranking in national college polls): "Cornell ranks last among the top 25 universities in percentage of classes with less than 20 students and ranks 823rd out of 827 total universities in terms of classes with under 50 students, according to the report."

The answer: "The first step ... is the hiring of more professors to better accommodate Cornell's growing numbers of students."

Doesn't this go to the heart of this branding discussion? Cornell has an education problem, not a brand image problem. It's classes are too big. It's students are getting a shitty education. Yes, the brand suffers. But don't the students also suffer?

Such distinctions in perspective are not hard. They are appropriate.
William Drenttel

William, re: vocabulary: Of course America is not just a brand, but it is a brand. The American flag is never just an icon for the brand, but it is this among other things. The flag itself has no meaning without the meaning of what it is a flag of. As I'm sure you'd agree, an icon or logo is never the brand, but merely a visual reference to it. Apple the brand (for example) captures complex personalities and attitudes and the embodiment of the brand spans all facets of "Appleness" from the cleanliness of the logo to the writing of their advertisements to the casual friendly knowledge of their retail store staff. It's so well defined that people inside the company and out can tell if something feels Apple or not. It's always tempting to call a logo (or flag) "the brand" [from the cattle brand etymology?] but the brand is much much more—the logo is simply a visual shorthand reference to it. America has many such icons: cowboys, the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, etc., the flag (or perhaps more properly the whole stars and stripes motif) is simply the simplest, most flexible, and most widely deployed.

Re: Cornell, the Palestinians, etc.—of course addressing brand issues is no substitute for addressing other issues, often more fundamental to the quality of the product. I'd simply say that addressing branding or marketing issues should not be immediately perceived as an indication of neglect regarding more foundational problems, though of course it's tempting to avoid addressing the toughest bits of a problem and to work on the part that's easiest to change. Ideally, products improve and branding evolves. In the most successful efforts, they are both happening all the time.
Tom Dolan

Bill—I wonder if you'd object if a semiotician said that the US was a sign. If we say that a brand is a commercial sign (and a trademark is a commercial signifier) then the US is not a brand. One can learn something about one class of signs by looking at another class of signs (while still not confusing the two.)
Gunnar Swanson

Gunnar, I object, again on vocabulary. Namely, a brand is not a sign, commercial or otherwise. Signs (logos, flags, etc.) are visual shorthand for a brand. Simply symbols. A brand is not a design or design system, but a set of attributes, associations, mythologies, and qualities that are attached to an institution, organization, product, phenominon .... A well-executed sign (more commonly called a logo or icon) symbolizes these attributes effectively. The brand is the collection of attributes, validated by a critical mass, not the sign.
Tom Dolan

Isn't the idea of a branded United States (or any other country for that matter) nothing other than nationalism? And wouldn't better communication of brand attributes be what is generally known as leadership? A lot of what I read here seems like brandspeak, which is notoriously pliable and appliable, slathered over good old wartime nationalism, and haven't we had our fill of that? That we are designers would explain the impulse to use this language, but what is to be gained? Old wine in new bottles, it seems to me.

Tom—Sorry, I forget that not everyone speaks semiotese. You know the old joke: What do you get when you cross a semiotician and a mafioso? Someone who'll make you an offer you can't understand.

Anyway, in semiotics a sign is an abstract unit of social meaning. It's the union of the signifier (such as a flag, a sign in the common sense, a logo, a noise. . . any perceptible thing) and a signified (the meaning it has for people or the reaction the people have.) So signs, like brands, are in the mind of people. They are a combination of beliefs and stimulus.

If I say "Tom Dolan," the noise I make is the signifier. If someone hears it and thinks "He's the guy who did the Napster logo" then that thought (along with any accompanying reactions) is the signified. The combination of my utterance and that person's reaction to it is the sign. Of course many other people would have other reactions—"He's the guy who wrote that interesting stuff on that email list" or "That's the guy who always orders a half caf latte but refuses to say 'grande'" or "That's the guy who takes my trash cans out to the curb when I forget." So there's no singular "Tom Dolan sign" just like there's no singular Kellogg's brand (or even Kellogg's Frosted Flakes brand) and there's no singular mental United States.

Someone can make a conscious effort to affect a sign by trying to alter the signifier—like calling the neighborhood "South L.A." instead of "South Central"—or by trying to alter the signified (the stuff of advertising and P.R.)

The notion that a sign (or a brand) is a neat little package you can push around at will is silly. That's why the term "branding" is, if not a crock, at least covered in suspicious-smelling implications. So yes. The flag is not the brand or the sign. It is a signifier of a vary complex sign (which, depending on whether we limit the term to commercial interests only, is or is not a brand.)

(BTW, I know nothing of Tom's actions regarding coffee or trash cans.)
Gunnar Swanson

Has everyone gone slightly mad? Well, sorta.
Happen to use the b-word in a design essay online and watch the public instances of DBSE (design bloggers speaking earnestly) multiply out of control. Spongiform indeed.

Does language evolve? Well yeah, sorta; in a downward, non-logarithmic, ultra-compacted spiral.

Which brings us back to our discussion about the b-word, that much-overused neologism, where only one (Ryan Nee) out of thirty-some respondents can break the collective trance induced by its currency long enough to ask a pertinent question.

Is there hope for design? Well, sorta. But not if discussions like the one above represent the best and the brightest our profession has to offer.

Do I actually have anything worthwhile to say? Well, I did, but I lost it on the way to the semantimat. Stinking neologist!
david stairs

I want to pick up on the distinction Tom Dolan makes between the brand and the product:

"I'd simply say that addressing branding or marketing issues should not be immediately perceived as an indication of neglect regarding more foundational problems, though of course it's tempting to avoid addressing the toughest bits of a problem and to work on the part that's easiest to change. Ideally, products improve and branding evolves."

This gets at the crux of the issue I am raising, and I want to fundamentally disagree. Addressing brand or marketing issues instead of more "foundational" issues is precisely the problem. Cornell University should hire more teachers because they are an educational institution with a responsibility to provide the best education possible. When they hire more teachers to correct a brand impression, and a weak score in the U.S. News & World Report ratings, they are putting the cart before the horse. (Just as when America worries about its brand reputation before solving fundamental problems in its manner of conducting diplomacy.)

Ultimately, I am arguing for a rational approach to distinguish between what organizations and institutions actually do, and how and for whom they create brands, signs, symbols, whatever you want to call them. You can make the case for a holistic view of brand, but its still about understanding and creating perceptions, not necessarily about an honest appraisal of the actions of an institution.

It is the latter that interests me.
William Drenttel

Judging by the above discussion, the word "brand" just might have too much negative baggage to be adequate or appropriate for a broader term beyond the marketplace. Given that its history includes adding blue flakes to detergent to make appear stronger, I guess that's the legacy it must contend with.

Being that business buzzwords live and die in a fairly short life span, I would presume that the word "brand" will eventually fade from favor anyway.

However, though the likes of David Stairs may sneer through their keyboards, I have seen working models of branding that are focused keenly on improving the foundational offerings and value provided by an organization. These models recognize that reality is the best way to drive perception, not the other way around.
Daniel Green

William, of course you're right—Brand is about perception and there is no guarantee that an institution aiming to influence the public's perception of them will necessarily want to base an evolving brand on honesty or reality. All I'm saying is the inverse is true as well, and shaping perception isn't necessarily based on deception and misdirection. I think there is temptation to beat up the creative/marketing community here, and to make branding work seem like so much hokum—I find this tendency unfortunately similar to Michael's post about Logogate in Connecticut and the well-displayed inclination to give it to design group on the chin.

Gunnar—ok, uncle. I'll take it up with you over a cocktail tonight if you're downtown.
Tom Dolan

It is clear that the word "brand" is being used to mean different things by different people in this conversation. It's not clear to me what each of the contributors mean when they use the term. Maybe we should argue about whether brands are art or maybe we can talk about values.
Gunnar Swanson

Apologies if this has already been discussed earlier, but this is my instant response to William's piece:

Making "brand" interchangeable with "identity" amounts to sacrilege for me; it's like making "commodity" interchangeable with "self" and so on.

Let's resist this slippage and restore the difference between the two - one is a commercial device that sometimes slips into popular culture; the other is a profound human impulse that sometimes finds expression via commodities.

I agree that I do not necessarily want my country to be considered a brand that can be bought, sold and presented to the rest of the world. But, branding and indentities have been liked to nations throughout the world. Just take a look at the United States. Only a few generations ago, the idea that anyone could make it here was developed and spread to all corners of the globe. We welcomed the idea and the immmigrants that were coming over based on the identity that the US created for itself. Today, we try to portray a identity of security, strength, and unfaltering freedom. This is an identity that we have created for our nation and other countries do this as well. From an advertising viewpoint, can't flags be considered brands or logos that countries create and embrace. They represent ideas, values and cultures for display in a single symbollic object. This relationship between a nation and it's flag could be compared to that of the company and its logo. As stated before, branding is spreading to new areas constantly because of the importance of the idea of branding in our contemporary culture.

Arvinds' comment is particularly interesting...(brand)..."is a commercial device that sometimes slips into popular culture; (identity) is a profound human impulse that sometimes finds expression via commodities." If we look at this in reaction to William Drentall's point that he does not want to "hear the ultimate leader of the Palestinians talking about the Palestine brand. They will eventually want tourism, if peace comes, and then we can talk about the marketing program for the Palestine Development Corporation. In the meantime, peace will not come because they are more effectively branded, or have a more holistic view of brand." It seems clear that the Palestinians have only come to visibility on the world stage since a collective identity (of 'a people dispossesed of a nation' as opposed to merely being a 'humanitarian/refugee problem') for them has emerged. This is something for which Yasser Arafat is widely given credit. In the wake of his death, nearly all Palestinians interviewed on television spoke of him as 'symbol' for the Palestinian people and their plight. The Palestinian people's 'human impulse' for recognition, land, autonomy is clear. So when peace is forged -what then? Will they eventually, like the UK and US referred to above, look to branding? Is branding is what we turn to when a people/nation has lost touch with any 'profound human impulses'?

For a related article on the "Re-Branding of America: Marketing gurus think they can help 'reposition' the United States — and save American foreign policy..."

Clay Risen in the Boston Globe Ideas Section, March 13, 2005.
William Drenttel

I've just read a book about the language and meaning, from a linguistic perspective called: "Don't think of an elephant". By George Lakoff. I think it's really interesting that we've come to use branding language for everything. Really enjoyed your article. I'm writing a research essay on 'the ethics of branding'.
Lisa formby

Andreas Markessinis

Much as I too cannot stand Jeff Swystun and Interbrand, I'm sorry, but your country is indeed a brand.

Jobs | June 19