All businesses face a dilemma. They must stand out from their competition, interact with customers, and create unique, desirable products (or services). And, more important, they must do so in an unforgettable way—especially in the era of the eight-second attention span.
The solution to that challenge is branding, an amorphous, broad, and often misunderstood term.
Branding relies heavily on attractive, visually snappy design. Done well, branding and design can bestow colorful, vivid personality on a business, attracting publicity and recognition in an increasingly crowded market—and. ultimately, boosting sales.
In the digital age, brand has become something of a catch-all, denoting everything from product to marketing.
At its core, though, your brand is your business reputation and identity: Because companies are organizations, and not flesh-and-blood individuals, they must communicate with the world (and distinguish themselves) through branding.
Yet, despite the sudden explosion of branding onto the business scene (in the Internet era, even individuals are advised to create their own brand), the history of branding likely dates back to prehistoric times—long before the likes of social media, Mad Men, and advertising greats like David Ogilvy and J. Walter Thompson.
"Branding" probably came from the ancient practice of livestock branding—hot-iron "logos" burned onto cattle, sheep, pigs, or goats to signify ownership.
In the 1950s, brands evolved into the all-encompassing, multifaceted concept that we know today—part marketing, part strategy, and part personality. Large multinational holding companies like Procter and Gamble, General Foods, and Unilever sought to distinguish their products, draw in customers, win their loyalty, and, ultimately, boost sales and get noticed in an increasingly crowded field.
The practice quickly spread beyond big corporations, quickly moving into businesses of all sizes—with an accompanying boom in marketing and advertising agencies.
One problem, however, remained: How could companies build a unique persona? How could they appeal to customers, tell a story, or even form an identity?
Toward that end, branding relies heavily on visual elements (and the interplay between them) to form a coherent, consistent narrative and character. Take Tiffany & Co. and its instantly recognizable, memorable Blue Box—which came long before Audrey Hepburn captured audiences with her performance in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Decades prior, the company had already made its name as a purveyor of fine, subtle luxury: Its clean, understated jewelry came packaged in signature boxes, colored a soft hue of robin's egg blue, wrapped with a satin ribbon, and emblazoned with "Tiffany & Co." in bright, silver letters.
With its Blue Box, Tiffany & Co. told a story: evocative jewelry that was recognizable to all—especially when paired with the classic packaging. Evoking equal parts nostalgia, extravagance, and opulence, Tiffany's products had different stories for different demographics: aspirational luxury for the less well-off, a marker of arrival for the nouveau riche, or a family heirloom for old, moneyed clans.
That brings us to an important point: Design, when used to further a brand, is a visual language. Whereas writers use words, grammar, and formatting to stir specific emotions, designers do the same thing—but with colors, shapes, layouts, and figures.
Each medium can accomplish worthwhile goals: pithy, funny advertising copy (text) can leave positive impressions in the minds of potential customers. Similar effects can be achieved by sleek, stylish packaging or elegant, modern product design.
In fact, Tiffany's design embodies an old truism: The more effortless a design seems, the more work that went into it. On the surface, it may seem simple: Color a dainty, delicate box a light, pastel shade of blue; write the name in silver cursive lettering; and top it off with a satin bow.
Yet, it's incredibly difficult to create any worthwhile, memorable design—let alone such a classic one.
Hours of work likely went into the creation process. Tiffany's designers probably had to brainstorm different colors, box sizes, and fonts and layouts—and that's even before we get into the physical aspects, such as materials (and their associated textures) and interior padding.
Seamless, seemingly "effortless" design has another characteristic: The best designs are universal and can be easily understood.
Even if there are cultural nuances and references that might not translate across regions, such design evokes similar emotions in diverse groups of people. That is a huge advantage for branding, especially in our globalized, hyper-networked world where capital—and consumption—know no borders.
One excellent example that illustrates the cross-cultural reach of great branding and design is Singapore's Wanderlust Hotel. The brainchild of serial hotelier Loh Lik Peng, the Wanderlust is less a hotel and more five stories full of whimsy and imagination, a fantastical escape set in a vintage 1920s building situated in the heart of the city's historic Little India neighborhood.
An ode to the childhoods that we left behind, the hotel rooms feature a dizzying variety of wonder: bright red rocket ships and cute aliens nestle inside scenes painted to resemble starry, wide-open night skies; hinged, or wooden ceiling rafters are modeled after tangled vines. Even hotel stationery and print materials (brochures and price tables) are patterned on airplane tickets and luggage tags, lending the entire operation an aura of possibilities—and the promise of adventures to come.
Wanderlust has hit upon a widely relevant message: Across the world, children dream—even if they might do so in different ways. Moreover, many adults, regardless of background, yearn to reconnect with their childhood, a desire strengthened by the potent forces of nostalgia and memory—two emotions easily stirred by Wanderlust's brand.
In the End, Branding and Design Are Inextricable
Ultimately, there are two truths that any ambitious entrepreneur cannot ignore: Without branding, there is no business; without design, there is no branding.
The best branding rests on a solid foundation of evocative visual language: A company's identity, personality, and unique characteristics are built on the interplay of countless elements, such as colors, figures, shapes, textures, and patterns. Moreover, emotions are a critical product of the branding process; done right, it will move mountains to ensure customer loyalty.