First a litle warmup session
Creative Branding

Buzzwords in the
(gasp) 60s:

unique-selling proposition (USP)
corporate identity (CI).

Ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach stood for creative advertising and design, a camp into which I inserted myself, and was an agency where I worked as a fledgling art director, learning to work as part of an art director / copywriter creative team.

Creativity at DDB under co-founder Bill Bernbach gave us the Volkswagen Beetle campaign and tradition–smashing headlines like "Lemon" and "Think small." And tradition-smashing advertising design that flaunted its rule-breaking. For Avis car rental, DDB gave us the mind–bending candor of, "We’re only number two. So we try harder."

DDB fomented the "creative revolution."

Long before software,
was creativity.

Ted Bates Inc., and its chief, Rosser Reeves, stood foursquare behind Reeves’ baby, USP.

USP and Bates gave us hammers pounding our heads out of which shot painful lightning bolts; stomachs with acid bubbles; and, if I remember right, pre-feminist slices-of-life with housewives swabbing toilets.

Both approaches worked.

Creativity and USP were mutually scornful and felt mutually exclusive. Creativity demanded you find out what was unique about products and services you were marketing, then present those benefits with panache, style, creativity, fine typography. USP also focused on product uniqueness, but writers or account guys at those shops often handed copy and scribbles to "layout men" (more like comp renderers than art directors) resulting in the same insipid, insulting, anti-creative hammers and lightning bolts.

Lippincott & Margulies — now Lippincott, where I worked on the Chrysler Corporate Identity (CI) Program (but came in after others had designed the Pentastar), reached the pinnacle of the CI ladder. Later L&M was referred to as a "branding firm." The growing CI genre supported many such firms.

CI was a kind of graphic design voodoo, with a trademark — usually geometric; a typeface — usually Helvetica Medium, no matter who the client was; and a color — usually red or blue; systematically tacked on everywhere as prescribed by restrictive rules found in an anal graphics and branding manual. CI usually affected auto showrooms, store signage, and corporate communications. It was and usually still is tactically isolated from "mundane" media like ads, TV, online, and print collateral, except for applying the logo itself.

Legend has it that CI firms presented a client with dozens or hundreds of logos to choose from plus endless marketing verbiage. Whereas legend has it that DDB would plop its one campaign concept on the client's desk and say, "Here."

Buzzword in the 70s:

Positioning, the brainchild of Al Ries and Jack Trout. Their former agency art director partner Tony Cappiello helped with visualization of the concept. Positioning dealt with controlling the space that a product or service or company or brand would hold in a person’s mind, versus the position held by a competitor’s product or service or company or brand. ("Let’s see now, Bounty is thicker, okay, but, err, umm, is the one with the lumberjack cheaper. So...uhh?")

Positioning made sense then.
Positioning makes sense now.

Positiioning is creative strategy.
Positioning is not creative work.

No buzzwords in mid-80s
to about 1998,

the era of mind and body gurus like Deepak Chopra and Stephen Covey and Bernie Siegel and Anthony Robbins and Tom Peters, and Gary Null whose health program influences me personally, as does Dr. Andrew Weil. The desktop publishing revolution, bottom-up marketing (also Trout and Ries), and guerrilla marketing were all thrown into the mix for leavening.

The buzzword became:

Branding. There are new books on branding, though this one is not—22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries,
articles about branding, seminars on branding, everyone jawing about branding, more every day — while forgetting USP and creativity and positioning and bottom-up marketing.

The dirty secret of branding: It's a noun. Not a verb. Not an action. You cannot brand anything. Only outsiders who perceive your company or product or service can brand it. Branding is a perception, which is a noun. Branding is the result of how all the other components add up in someone's mind.

You can create those other components. Name, colors, typography, mark, tone of voice. So think small. Think components.

Think this component: Have a human answer the phone. Badly designed voicemail hurts your brand and does not save money if it alienates callers.

In the outside world:
No one speaks about a product,
but about a brand.
No one speaks about a service,
but about a brand.
No one speaks about a company,
but about a brand.

And these guys are sharp. Suits. Expensive haircuts. MBAs. Alphabet acronyms. Futuristic, intimidating jargon. Frequent–flyer miles.

Then they do one thing wrong and ruin it all.

What they do right is assess the market for the brand and its competition, find the point of differentiation in a sea of parity products, write strategies and mission statements.


Then they inform their creative "vendors" (I hate that demeaning word!) about it, so all are focused on the same goal, using the same style they apply mechanically to print, TV, interactive and online media, collateral and promotion.


Then they do one thing wrong and ruin it all.

Again. Before getting into what they do wrong, let me tell you who did it right, for decades, before branding became a buzzword.


Yes, CBS. First, under the creative design leadership of William Golden who it is generally believed, along with staff designer Kurt Weihs, created the CBS Eye. Then, for about 40 years, under the direction of Lou Dorfsman, for whom I once worked. — Added later: late-October 2008 Lou passed away.

Lou’s achievement
is beyond superlatives.

CBS was a political potboiler, it seemed to me, with domains / fiefdoms / departments / divisions / bureaucracy!

The average creative hotshot would have been bamboozled / intimidated / flummoxed / turned into a hapless blob — beset with all the bureaucratic nonsense that would kill incentive and prohibit doing great creative advertising design.

But Lou,

with his overwhelming pack leader personality, immense talent, taste, chutzpah, expressionistic Yiddish, jokes, Bronx street sense — and international reputation — with the potent support of CBS founder Bill Paley and President Frank Stanton, managed to do truly great creative work decade after decade.

— Great creative work that held together to make a powerful statement about CBS.

To create and enhance that

And most of it done without a CI manual spelling out how to do this and where to place that and what color the other must be. But then:

When "Black Rock," the masterpiece CBS building designed by Eero Saarinen was built at Fifty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, Lou did create some rules, but of limited scope — limited to corporate stationery, interior and exterior signage, artwork hung in halls and offices, and to the corporate neatness imposed on all clerical workers. But not to ads, brochures, etc.

Lou’s own office was a discombobulated artist’s atelier that violated every rule he imposed on others. Don’t ask! — Great creative work was everywhere. On the walls. Leaning against the walls. On the couch. On the chairs. Underfoot. Unfiled. Askew in a closet. Lou's desk had a 3-inch clear circle at which his genius ideas were hastily scribbled with a red Pilot Razor Point pen, with a "schmitchik."

When TV came into its own and radio was "in deep shit" compared to TV, the then–young hotshot Lou was put in charge of the new radio division’s advertising. He says he was a nervous kid who began reading broadcasting trade magazines instead of design magazines. Lunches with art director friends turned into lunches with researchers and programmers. He was no longer looking first at layouts and design, but for strategic concepts to excite the sales staff. He became an ad man. To save radio. And he did.

Later on I headlined a trade ad for CBS Radio,


Lou gives most of the credit I’ve been giving him to Frank Stanton, whom he calls "the real de Medici." The CBS president had taste and ideas. Stanton would invite Lou to lunch in his private dining room — and everyone knew, which gave Lou stature. If Lou asked to see Stanton, it was often, "Come on up now." Word got out — I’d guess Lou saw to it that it did. How many CEOs grant spontaneous audience to their brand-makers? — Why not? Is there anything more important than the impression creative decisionmakers produce and that millions see?

— Once, Stanton called Lou about a typographic widow on a proof, asking humbly if he, the CBS president, should trim copy back or fill in the line.

Finesse defines the sensitive client!

Which top corporate execs in the branding business today (post Steve Jobs) are obsessed with such telling detail?

All those award-winning CBS ads and brochures and ads and annual reports and ads and logos and ads and press kits and ads and calendars and ads and keepsakes and ads and exhibits and ads and tv news sets all worked together, all belonged to one family, all shared a taste, a mood, a flavor, a point of view, despite the fact they often had nothing visually in common on the surface. Layouts were different, typefaces were different, words were serious or funny or dramatic or ironic or factual. But they worked together

enhancing one powerful cogent perception, the CBS brand.

They had, near as I can tell, only three cohering assets:

(cohering asset 1) talent—
Lou paid bupkis, nothing (cheap? don't ask!), yet the best advertising and design talent beat a path to his door (I was one of them) for the chance to do award-winning work.

Great staffers like Rick Levine who became a DDB art director and then a TV commercials director; writer David Herzbrun. Great illustrators like John Alcorn. A great production honcho, Herman Aronson, and his predecessor, Ed Side who, Lou says, was there at 5 A.M. maintaining quality control. And the world’s other greatest graphic designer, Herb Lubalin, sometimes pitching in freelance as a typographic consultant. Herb was Lou Dorfsman's Lou Dorfsman.
(cohering asset 2)
Lou himself—
a creative matador and first-class toughguy (who called himself a benevolent dictator) with powerful headlines and concepts he would push you and push you to make into something fabulous. And push you. And,
(cohering asset 3)
Lou’s sensibility—
which united everything in a way that can’t be defined or codified by any sort of rigid, so-called "corporate graphic standards manual." His artistic sensibility, business sensibility, corporate horse-sense. His implied pugnacity.

And remember, much of it done cheap, done fast, done on deadline, often begun and finished between noon and 7 PM, en route to the New York Times City Edition, before computers, when every stage of the creative process had foot and bike messengers traipsing New York back and forth with manuscripts and type and photostats, in snowstorms and summer heat which, in New York City, comes up at your face from sidewalk gratings.

In the book, Dorfsman & CBS (Rizzoli and American Showcase, out of print, available at collector's price points), Dorfsman himself says:

"You want authority? You have to know what you’re talking about. You have to be willing to sit in meetings for hours on end. You have to care about research and budgets. You have to fight for your ideas with cogent arguments. You have to earn the confidence of the people in top management."

In 2000, Lou, 82, still kicking ass, added, "We were branding CBS without knowing there was such a word."

He said, "You can’t do great work without a great client!"

Then this great designer put design in its place: "Client client client, concept concept concept, some design of course. To me, those are the key things."

So what do today’s branding geniuses got wrong?

They don’t got no Lou Dorfsman.

They do got account people looking things over. They may have reduced their many advertising agencies and creative vendors to just a few. That’s fine as far as it goes. But so what.

They don’t got no talented and canny single pair of executive art director eyes looking over everything from its formative stages, to its development, to its paper selection (Lou treated paper as crucial), to prepress, printing and binding and uploading

to create that ineffable and indefinable sense of relationship between all the pieces, all the media, all the selling and image messages —

over decades —

to create what they all keep hocking us about —

single, coherent

They often wind up with a lot of voices caused by a lot of brands and a lot of brand managers plus a lot of vendors including advertising agencies and direct response agencies and collateral design shops and PR firms and corporate identification houses and management consultants and Web wazoos and annual report specialists and in-house desktop publishers or staff designers who are great with InDesign or "Quark" or Photoshop but know zip about creativity and typography and communication and marketing. (Software ain't talent.)

Discontinuity? Oy vey!!!

None of those criticisms apply to the Steve Jobs era at Apple.

This mélange can’t possibly yield that single, powerful, coherent brand statement they all say they want.

Apple did it.
Target did it.
Volkswagen did it.
Who else? (Look up "Ashley Montagu." Or ask us.)

Take car commercials. Do the cars tie in their TV spots with print and showroom or Web site? And car dealers (or their girlfriends) themselves as pitchmen on TV — yikes! — another life-form. Dealer branding? — forget it.

Take beer commercials. Do the beers even think of tying in their multimillion–dollar commercials with their ubiquitous bottle or package labels or with shelf-talkers or print ads? (Of course, packaging designers are in a different league from advertising art directors — just ask them.) So how can package design enhance brand continuity? MIlton Glaser did that with packaging and ads for Brooklyn Beer.

Will you, Dear Reader, please name some brand names and email us about who you see doing great branding across the board; or who has blown it?

Companies do need a design matador. Or a design despot. Or a demi-Dorfsman. Or a design doctor. We’re introducing Design Doctor for that crucial function. And seeking two committed clients.

To achieve branding effectiveness:

If you’re a designer, set high standards, meet them, raise them, fight for them by using the verbal vocabulary of management. Read business magazines as well as design media.

If you’re a chief executive, the ball is in your court. Get thee a Lou Dorfsman (CBS) or Paul Rand (IBM) or John Massey (Container Corporation) or Steve Jobs (Apple). And be hands–on. Communication management is more important than financial management. (It’s not? Diminishing the brand means reducing the finances you manage.)

At CBS, Paley and Stanton knew what to do. At IBM, Tom Watson knew. At Container Corporation of America, Walter Paepcke knew. At Apple, Steve Jobs — well you know. Do you know? The Shadow knows!

Whether it’s an ad or a Web site or a package or a brochure or a business card or sign in a ballpark or statement stuffer or
t i n y matchbook or gigantic side of an aircraft,

as long as it’s for the same brand,

it’s the same job.

You also must protect the brand equity.

Branding is not about
voluminous marketing plans.

Branding is about
effective communication

Just for fun. Branding in an ad.

So if you are the chief executive and your top creative guy asks, "Ya got five minutes?," go with that burst of creative enthusiasm and say, "Come on up now."

Or desist prating about branding.

Vance Jonson, friend and great designer and thinker and in many ways, teacher, September 1928–July 2000. I would’ve liked his comments on this long article, which would have sharpened (and shortened) it. He often edited my stuff, pulling out the chaff, suggesting different sequences. As I did for him. You should look up his work. It is intellectual and marketing oriented, graphically and photographically and typographically and verbally exceptional.

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