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Graphic Brands

  • By Bill O'Connor
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Graphic Brands

Graphic is a good word. Its meaning is clear and universal. Graphic cues the listener’s and the reader’s mind’s eye that something visual is coming. Unlike text, the graphic experience is holistic. You get it all at once, even if you need to or choose to deconstruct it for detail and nuance and meaning. Unlike text, which you take in word by word, sentence by sentence to get the meaning and the experience, things graphic are immediate, complete, integral, a unity, even if they are inscrutable. It’s all there in an eye gulp.

This is an important truth for those who create and manage the meaning of brands. Their well-wrought strategies and multi-page texts that make the case, rationally and persuasively, for the brand’s opportunity, must yield in practice to a terse, here and now, integrated, whole shebang message that works emotionally and persuasively.

Of course, this isn’t a new insight. It’s been invoked with passion, frustration and resignation often by many. Responding to a question about his work as an artist, Edward Hopper, who painted Nighthawks, Gas, New York Movie and other realist paintings said, “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Edward Tufte, emeritus professor of statistics, political science and computer science at Yale whom the New York Times called “the Leonardo Da Vinci of data” has applied the idea of graphic to what he calls Beautiful Evidence. “Beautiful Evidence is about the theory and practice of analytic design…to develop strategies of seeing and showing.” In the words of Ridley Scott, film director and producer – Alien, The Martian, The Good Wife – in a tv commercial conversation with the IBM computer Watson, “Amazing how much information is contained in one image.” And so the case is made persistently, quietly, reaffirming what we all know that “A picture IS worth 1000 words.”

Brand designers, those charged with evoking the strategist’s meaning, use graphic design principles and visual meaning-makers to trigger the strategic meaning and values tied to the brand. They use graphic details to associate important values, distinguish among similar offers, preempt benefits and recall brand experiences, hopefully good ones. Graphic brands are the memes for choice and loyalty. Graphic brands enrich and associate the typographic word with non-word visuals – symbols, images, color, details of style and scale and surface. Graphic brands are stickier, more memorable, better surrogates at the moment of choice. The best strategy expressed in words lacks the immediacy and emotionality of its graphic evocation.

Graphic Brands - Starbucks

Starbucks’ mysterious mermaid, whose meaning is as rich and deep as the terroir of the coffee she sells and as literary for the new cultural elite where the Starbucks brand was incubated, now often stands alone without the literal typographic word. She evokes seaport roots and early traders who brought authentic coffees, not industrialized, mass produced coffee, from exotic growing sites around the world.

Graphic Brands - Tiffany

Even a typographic brand like Tiffany & Co.®, classic and conservative in its Baskerville-inspired word mark, builds a strong graphic asset with the robin egg blue color association, first used on the cover of The Tiffany Blue Book, circa 1845.

Close your eyes and think of a brand you know and there will be something graphic associated with it. Iconic brands like Apple® and Shell®, though more literal in their graphic branding than Starbucks® or Nike®, have acquired strong secondary meaning that identifies their goods without the brand word.

Graphic Brands - Close Your Eyes

Eyes open or closed you can probably think of brands that prompt no graphic association – Tyvek®, Xanax®, Lipitor®, Lycra®. Brands like these are more trademarks than brands. They protect source of goods, intellectual property and good will but do little to effect choice and purchase preference as brands do. Pharmaceuticals like Xanax and Lipitor are prescribed. Your doctor chooses. You can opt for an unknown generic equivalent but that choice is price driven not brand driven. Tyvek and Lycra are ingredients so you need to buy a branded something that uses them. That said there are some smart ingredient suppliers – Intel®, Cotton, Inc. – that have created memorable, evocative graphic brands.

Graphic brands evoke meaning. They prompt it. They don’t declare it. They trigger impressions associated with the graphic that have been imbedded there by the brand owner over time or by the culture. Independent of graphic brands the popular culture is working concurrently to load meaning into graphics, to associate values with visuals. The visual things the culture has loaded with meaning can be the meaning-makers for brands. The fabric pattern ‘gingham’ strongly associated with home and food and table is a perfect graphic branding device for Smucker’s® preserves ‘home made’ attribute, an association that’s evoked by the graphic, not declared in words. Cultural symbols built strong meanings for Playboy® (bunny), Marlboro® (cowboy), Maytag® (lonely repairman), Progressive Insurance® (Flo), KFC® (the colonel). Graphic symbols have done the same for Mercedes®, Apple®, Amazon®, IBM®, Nike®, GE®, John Deere®.

Graphic brands are memorable and have badging qualities that help users define themselves, express their personal brand. They evoke meaning and value. They prompt. They don’t lecture. Graphic brands, derived from a sound brand strategy and thoughtfully designed and developed, deliver brand asset value as meaning-makers and preference drivers. Graphic brands, well-managed, will help to capture opportunity and diminish risk and will deliver brand value, competitive advantage, market share and profit for the brand owner.

Bill O'Connor

Bill’s an instigator in the evolving idea that is Damen Jackson and a brand strategist who’s fascinated with the creation and management of brand meaning. He & his wife live in a small, authentic Mississippi River town in northeast Iowa.

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