Accepting the impermanent in brand development
Brands are works in progress that we mistakenly think are finished.
Instead, we should consider brands through the principles of wabi-sabi – a Japanese aesthetic ideology centred around the acceptance of persistent transience.
What I refer to here as ‘brand’ are not the spacial elements, such as the logo, website, product, etc, but the less tangible, such as the values, purpose, behaviours and experiences. In defining it as such, we can consider brands temporally rather than spatially.
A brand is not created exclusively by any one specific group of people – it is born (e.g. when a business/product is launched), it grows and develops (e.g. throughout the business/product lifespan), and it dies (e.g. when the business/product ends and people eventually forget about it). During its lifespan a brand will mean a myriad of things to any number of people.
In our networked, digital economy the content and value of brands are increasingly being created, or more accurately co-created, by all stakeholders (company, staff, users, etc). Digital technology has encouraged conversations between a company and its users and, importantly, between users themselves and has contributed to an emerging democratization. A good example are GoPro camera user videos as a prominent source of developing the GoPro brand and promoting the product. Brands are not only economic but are also social and cultural, and so are always open to development from stakeholders. Societal, cultural and economic environments are also constantly changing and developing, and therefore so too should brands.
If a brand is considered temporally, and is perpetually developing from the informed input of all stakeholders, what does this mean for businesses and the branding industry? A brand is not a static entity that you can create and then lock away in a brand guidelines document or a marketing plan. With a brand in perpetual development it is important to constantly realise where your brand is, and vitally how you might affect it.
Throughout its lifespan a brand will inevitably have numerous visual guises, be that changing logos, identity systems etc as well as varying tactics with which to appeal to people. However, what these elements do is reflect and affect where a brand is at any point in time, helping to develop the brand in and for its current social, cultural and economic environment. Much like a business constantly develops its offering and working methods, so too in order to remain relevant (or popular) the brand must be in perpetual development and evolution while still communicating itself at key points in time.
In some recent research psychologist Dan Gilbert has explained a phenomenon he calls the “End of history illusion,” where people imagine that the person they are now is the person they will be for the rest of time. He says, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”
I suggest that the same is true for brands – brands are works in progress that we mistakenly think are finished. What branding industry professionals do is share the brand with the world, contextualise the brand, promote the brand, represent the brand – essentially help to shape and direct the brand in and for its current social, cultural and economic environment. What they or businesses don’t do is either fully control or own the brand.
Brands should never be considered finished. They aren’t static, but are temporal and evolutionary. They can be better understood if considered in a state of perpetual development. When considering brands we should accept the simple realities of wabi-sabi; nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.
Paul Bailey is a brand consultant and founding partner of 1977 Design.