At every juncture in our lives from our births to our deaths we are interacting with a brand; whether it be a major player or a minor one, our world is ruled by brands. The task of branding a company, a product, and even yourself is no mean feat. Making something stand out from the daily humdrum of the constant stream of advertising is a daunting task, but a brand is more than just the logo, that logo has to stand for something! A brand without a message, without a meaning, is, well, meaningless.
Consider a nice thick steak you’re picking up from the grocery store. You immediately grab the package with that is emblazoned with the USDA Prime shield. Why? Because it stands for the best possible meat you can buy; this beef is assured to be a cut above the rest. The USDA Prime shield says to the consumer that this steak is safe, high-quality, American beef. One small sticker in the corner of the plastic wrap says so much. That brand means something; does yours?
Branding strategist, professor, designer, and author Scott Lerman recently sat down with us to discuss how he got his start in the increasingly more important field of branding. Lerman’s new book, Building Better Brands, addresses the all important task of making your brand say something with just a glance. Welcome, Scott!
Q: You’ve worked on some amazing branding projects throughout your career, how did you get your start in branding and what has kept you there?
A: During college and after graduation I earned a living printing black and white photographs at one of the top NYC custom labs. It wasn’t a bad way to support my pursuit of fine art, but spending every day under dim amber light became unbearable. One afternoon I put down my work, walked out of the darkroom to the manager’s desk, and requested to use his phone for an emergency. I called Michael Caradonna, a great friend and former roommate from Cooper Union and told him I was quitting my job and, if they’d have me, was coming over to work with him at “that design firm” he had joined. He said ok, my manager failed to convince me to stay, and I started working at Chermayeff & Geismar Associates (CGA).
Q: Wow, that happened fast! Did you know anything about the company?
A: No. I had no idea that I was getting a chance to work at a legendary firm. Pure luck (and a touch of chutzpa) enabled me to work with great people like Steff Geissbuhler, Tom Geismar, Jim Yestadt, Charles Unger, Chris Calori, and many others. Despite my lowly status as a paste-up and mechanical artist, they were all generous with sharing their time and considerable expertise.
Best of all, I was exposed to the field of corporate branding through their work with clients such as Mobil Oil, Union Pacific, and IBM. It opened my eyes and mind to the role of design as a strategic asset. I had no idea!
Q: So you were off to a strong start. What kept you in the field?
A: After a year I went to work at Siegel & Gale—and stayed for over a decade. While CGA had hooked me on design, Siegel & Gale allowed me to follow my curiosity into every facet of corporate identity, new media, and eventually, branding. I went from paste-up freelancer, to project manager, to designer, to creative director, to managing director, to president of the firm.
It was a privilege to work with people like Don Ervin, Ann Breaznell, Ron Manzke, Ken Cooke, and Alan Siegel, who all fueled and supported my interests. With those colleagues, I got to evolve a small identity company into a global strategic branding firm.
From S&G I went on to become the CEO of Enterprise IG in the Americas and about 8 years ago, founded my own firm, Lucid Brands.
Of course, as a brand consultant, it is the clients that define the quality of your experience. Over time I had the opportunity to lead branding assignments for great American companies like 3M, Caterpillar, American Express, Owens-Illinois, and Harley Davidson, as well as overseas firms such as National Australia Bank, Schlumberger, and Caja España.
Q: Branding is complex with many nuances and subtleties. What made you decide to undertake the immense task of writing a book that encompasses all the aspects of an effective brand?
A: Perhaps I should exaggerate the difficulty of writing the book, but once I got started it flowed quite easily. It is a natural outgrowth of the client work I’ve been doing all these years and the “Unified Theory of Branding” Course that I created for the Masters program in branding that I helped develop at SVA (co-chaired by Debbie Millman and Steve Heller.)
Q: With all your experience in the branding world you must have seen so many things both right and wrong with how clients approach dealing with brand issues. What is the most common mistake you see when working with a client and how do you help them get back on track?
A: Erin, that may be the subject of my next book! The most common mistake is to enter into the process feeling like you already know the best solution. That’s why I propose using a thorough, objective, step-by-step process of development. People in an organization have a right to be heard and genuinely affect the outcome of a branding program. A robust process ensures that a client won’t just get a great solution, but one that is informed by, understood, and inspiring to the whole organization.
Q: Building Better Brands is all about creating a strong brand that extends far beyond just the visual representation exemplified by a new logo. This book is packed full of helpful tips and strategies on how to give your brand real depth and meaning. What do you think are the quintessential things brand managers must do when either creating a new brand or reinventing an existing brand?
A: Actually, many of the programs I lead don’t end up changing the logo. Why throw away visual equity if it isn’t necessary? Before considering a visual evolution, you have to clearly define who you are and what you do like no other organization. And that’s not just the job of the brand manager, it is a fundamental responsibility of leadership.
The book outlines and provides practical guidance on how to lead the organization through the definition of corporate character, competitive arena, audiences, brand positioning, and the evolution or creation of an effective corporate identity. Together, these elements are the ingredients for a brand that will provide significant and sustained competitive value.
Q: As communication between companies and their consumers changes through social media platforms, where do you see the function of a brand moving? How can companies help keep themselves and their brands on top of these ever-evolving phenomena?
A: Evolving media has amplified the voice of companies and their constituencies. What was often broadcast to the market can now become a valuable dialog. But organizations should not confuse listening and engaging with audiences with becoming the creature of many masters. One of the reasons I’m so interested in corporate branding is that organizations have a culture, (often) history, and a responsibility to deliver value now and into the future. They should, they must, have their own perspective, not just be a perfect mirror of shifting desires. If they can define and communicate a compelling truth, one that has integrity and relevance, they will thrive.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from your book? Do they have to have significant branding experience to benefit?
A:The book’s purpose is to take a daunting task—the evolution or creation of a brand—and make it approachable, understandable, and successful. In writing Building Better Brands, I included interviews with the people who led the creation of NationsBank and the new Bank of America, the spin off of a third of DuPont as Invista, and the rebranding of a small Washington not-for-profit, The Washington Center. Like many of the clients I work with, they did not start with any corporate branding experience, yet they oversaw the creation of highly successful brand programs. The book is a working guide so others can do the same.
Q: What advice would you give a designer or creative looking to get involved with the world of branding?
A: Develop your strategic skills along with your expressive talent. Learn about how businesses work, people think, and organizational cultures evolve. If you want to lead a brand identity program you’ll need to understand research, strategic development, brand definition and architecture, cultural trends, identity creation, intellectual property law, brand modeling, organizational engagement, and more. It’s okay if that makes you nervous, but it should also keep you interested for decades!
Scott Lerman is the founder of Lucid Brands, a brand consultancy dedicated to the development of world-class brands. He is part of the founding faculty of the School of Visual Arts’ Masters in Branding program. He has written on the issues shaping businesses and brands in publications such as The Design Management Review, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Identity, and Revolution.
For more information on how you too can build a bigger, better, stronger brand, check out Scott Lerman’s book Building Better Brands available now at MyDesignShop.com.