Is social media really responsible for ‘new’ branding rules?

I recently heard that social media was responsible for the ‘new’ way we look at branding: Instead of locking the brand away in a vault, only to be touched by men in crisp suits, slicked hair and a fifth of whiskey in their bottom left desk drawer, it is now not only acceptable but recommended that companies encourage their audience to tinker a bit with the brand, in effect making it their own. In this manner, the extent of the audience’s brand affinity may be measured. After all, a brand isn’t merely what the company thinks it is, it’s what everyone else thinks it is.

While I can see many places where this is true (power hungry designers/webmasters circa 2000 seem to have disappeared), inwardly I find the importance placed on social media for this result laughable. Anyone who stumbled on fan fiction for Lord of the Rings in 2002 knows the writers were likely writing similar fiction about Dungeons and Dragons ten years before anyone heard of MySpace. Anyone who ever traded mixtapes knows that social media didn’t cause music sharing to happen—Napster and Spotify just made it easier. Anyone who went to a party at any point in the last 30 years where a favorite toy, hobby, or sports team was turned into the party’s theme—in a completely homemade manner, without the use of store bought party supplies—knows that social media was nowhere near this brand investment.

Actually, parties are an excellent place to see devotion to a brand. Take this third birthday party I recently did for my daughter based on her Ugly Doll, Ox (a blue Ox has been her woobie since she was 6 months old, and I have replaced his chewed off arms more times than I can count; we have two back up Oxen as well as a full size green Ox). Anyone who has thrown a themed party knows the planning can balloon out of control, and that there is a lot of experimenting to figure out how to make it look like the real X without actually being the real X. Sometimes a little bit of homemade-ness adds to the charm, sometimes it detracts; finding the right balance is key.

Obviously we wanted all of our guests to have a good time, but we focused our creative efforts on the three year olds by putting all decorations on their sight level, starting with Ox who welcomed them at the front door:

We continued the fun with wayfinding made of other Ugly Dolls, which started just inside the door and lead through the house to the two bathrooms and the party spaces.

We had hundreds of balloons and a stencil of Ox which everyone was encouraged to trace on their balloons of choice. Even the adults were giddy over them—it looked like a jellyfish hideout with all the strings hanging down.

And of course we had a ridiculous number of from-scratch home made cupcakes, slaved over by yours truly. Thanks to my husband’s sure hand for cutting out the Ox and Mr. Kasoogie cake toppers I’d “designed”.

We also made the birthday girl her own crown to wear while she blew out the candles:

One of my most inspired moments was the Pin-the-arm-on-the-Ox game. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go over with the three year olds, but everyone took a turn or two and laughed at where the arms ended up.

As the party wound down, we handed out favors. We started with 15 bags but we were so busy with the party that we forgot to stage and shoot them all beforehand. Inside each of these bags was an Ugly Doll, a bag of buddy food (that’s what my daughter calls jelly belly jelly beans) and a small set of watercolors to paint their new buddy, just like my daughter paints Ox.

The kids were giddy, many of the adults said it was the best kid’s party they’d ever been to, and my daughter was thrilled.

Before you go off thinking that I posted this to prove that I’m some kind of super mom, I assure you that I did not and am not. I posted it to make the following point: I would never in a million years go to extremes like this for something like Polly Pockets or Barbie. It’s because this is a brand that resonates with me, my husband, and my daughter that I (and my husband) put this much time and effort into the planning and execution. We love the Ugly Doll brand!

And we didn’t need social-media-influenced-“new”-branding-rules to encourage us to monkey with the UD brand to make it our own!

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101: Environmental branding

I’ve been wondering the last few weeks if I’ve been drinking too much branding kool-aid.

I first wondered this when I was at a networking event a few weeks ago. The people in my little group were intelligent business owners who seemed to have a firmer grasp than usual of what branding means in today’s market. A retailer, whose store I had been to before, complained that she was losing traction with her customers because a competitor—another small business—had opened up nearby. When she asked me why I thought this might be, I explained that without doing marketing analysis I couldn’t provide a definitive answer. I did offer, completely off the cuff, that her competitor’s environmental branding was certainly compelling.

“Well, I have my logo in my store space, too.”

I provided a cursory explanation of how environmental branding was a bit more than that. To make the explanation less personal, I used ubiquitous examples such as McDonald’s and Target. I could tell she still wasn’t understanding how these companies had relied on their environments so heavily to drive business, primarily because she wasn’t able to see how each franchise and each store had the same universal look and messaging.

Changing tacks, I offered the example of a recently opened Mountain Dew skate park. Its visitors got more than just environmental branding; they got an experience. I then asked her if she’d visited the competitor’s store and, if so, what did it make her feel. She said (begrudgingly) that going in the store felt like being on vacation. I pointed out that her competitor’s logo doesn’t appear anywhere inside the store except on business cards placed at the point-of-purchase, and that the sense of ‘vacation’ was created by the store’s environment. Bringing it home, I asked, “The environment is an extremely compelling call to action for its visitors: 1) Who doesn’t like to go on vacation? This sensation will keep customers returning to the store and 2) Who doesn’t spend money more freely when they’re on vacation?” BAM; environmental branding therapy session, concluded.

The second time I thought I’d gotten too tipsy on the design drink was last week. I was having a conversation about the potential benefits of extending a company’s current branding through their corporate space. Benefits such as increased employee productivity and pride, as well as a more intimate brand experience for office visitors and potential vendors and partners.

“We don’t have the money and we’re not interested in that. We just want some art.”

I explained that what I was suggesting was not a complete overhaul of the office space, merely that they should consider how their messaging could potentially be perceived by visitors if they slapped something up that didn’t jibe with the rest of their brand message. It is possible to create environmental branding on a shoestring budget; just like with print, sometimes the best solutions are those created within tight budget parameters—you just need to be open to the opportunity.

These conversations point out that while we live in an increasingly design/branding savvy culture, many small to medium sized businesses still aren’t seeing the value in environmental branding. Sometimes this is because they don’t understand what environmental branding (or experiential branding as it’s increasingly known) means. I have found that sharing visual examples helps them free their minds. The following are just a few of my current favorites.

Images of studio reactiv’s office from Contract, environmental branding by LUX Designs

Images of Change to Win’s office via the firm who did the spectacular branding, Design Citizens



Images and text for the above images of BBC Worldwide’s Australian offices from Design Home. Experience design by thoughtspace.

“Towards the eastern façade, BBC Worldwide’s own Doctor Who Daleks lurk. Adjacent to original 1960 Dalek is a ‘not so typical’ six person meeting room [1]. Together with unique acoustic wall tiles, the distinctive aluminum ceiling and studded rubber flooring the room oozes style reminiscent of the admired TV hit series of Doctor Who. BBC Top Gear [2] is also a feature in the viewing studio where screening of promos takes place. A sweeping full height acoustic fabric wall printed with the striking ‘Stig’ creates the impressive backdrop to the surround sound studio.

Towards the middle of the floor the UKTV meeting booth nestles [3]. The Banksy inspired graphics create an urban experience together with the studded ‘booth’ seats commonly used for informal meetings or alternative work environments. The BBC Knowledge meeting room [4] offers an insight into this unique BBC concept. Interactivity and learning through life’s experiences is the focus of this themed zone.

Dancing with the Stars [5] is also captured by the elegance of the small meeting room adjacent to the reception foyer. The graceful translucent chairs accompany the heavily turned black lacquered table which sits superbly on the eye catching plush silk/wool rug. Ball bearing curtains sway in front of the full length mirrored walls to create the illusion of ‘sparkle.’ Finally, the lift enclosure is wrapped by the intensely colored master brand graphic that leads you through to reception celebrating the prominent brands. BBC Worldwide focused on the indigenous motif to link the brands and create a uniquely Australian experience.”

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