The Agony of Brand Identity

I’ve become quite uncomfortable about lots of the words we use to describe our working life. They are all so loaded, and I don’t think they’re always that helpful, or even reflect what we’re actually doing. BRAND IDENTITY is definitely one of those terms.

Do you really need a ‘brand’ identity?

No, you don’t. Well, actually yes, but I don’t think it’s really about ‘brand’ now. Here’s why:

There was a doc about Joy Division on BBC4 recently. Bernard Sumner was reflecting back on the band’s successes before Ian Curtis’ heartbreaking death, and was asked about their sense of image, design, their look. He got annoyed. Really annoyed. All that mattered to them was making and being immersed in the purity of their music, but the music industry always wants image, to create personal brands that look great on posters, and this, he said, steals from our raw, real-human-being truth. His was a righteous anger about branding at large, which he says is manipulative and dishonest, ultimately a mask to hide behind. It’s a false front, deceiving people by creating an illusion of perfection and desire.

Fierce words. It’s nothing we don’t know, though, so where does it leave us?

It helps to think about context.

In the 1980s, late 70s, Sumner’s words will have been so, so true. The Bakelite sheen over life was superseded by big hair and shoulder pads, almost designed to keep reality at bay. Ads of the time make us smirk with their falseness, and the Mad Men marketing campaigns make us squirm under the sleeze. Today, offensively huge, janglingly rich empires exist for the 1% because the 99% have bought into the myth.

Sick of a hollow happiness promise from the world’s gigantic brands, more of us just want to break free and find independent solutions to our problems that involve real people being honest, making and sharing stuff from the very heart of that beautifully messy confusion that real life actually is.

Grow your own, close to source, fairly, ethically and lovingly crafted. For those of us who choose different paths in our work, to do something that matters, how can we approach the matter of brand identity and marketing with some sense of integrity?

While I agree with Mr. Sumner to a point, I think what we mean by ‘brand’ is so much more nuanced than it was at the angry birth of punk. It’s because we have tried that other way for generations, and watched it go wrong, lots of us are now trying something new, in numbers, and with massive encouragement to each other to do the same. Our future on this planet depends on it! Because we now live and communicate the way we do, we are finding better ways to represent ourselves and our expertise truthfully, but still with some style, grace, elegance, wit, character…

My lovely punk, lost in Paris

My lovely punk, lost in Paris

We need to think about how we come across, but not hide behind a false image that tricks the world into thinking we’ve got something we haven’t. We’ll get so found out. Maybe we could replace the words ‘brand identity’ with ‘visual identity’, and see how they fit as we explore a new way now.

No one has the same face as you, or fingerprint, or voice, so let your Visual Identity be as honest and unique and full of character and stamina and life and breath and changing seasons as you are. Let the design of your visual identity evolve naturally, powerfully, with real sincerity, to reflect that purity of your best work. Thinking of it like that, nothing’s being stolen from anyone.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

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