Brands and Branding

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Mick Jordan Mix Interiors (Chairman) / Anna Dejlova Morgan lovell / Martyn Colebrook Colebrook Bosson Saunders /Anna Breheny Scott Brownrigg / Ralph Hearnshaw Bisley / Adam Strudwick HLW / Sandra Bullen ABA / Gian luca Amadei British council

In this month’s Round Table event, we’ve asked a number of leading specifiers and industry figures to talk about brands and branding. We take a look at the rapid proliferation of international ‘super brands’ and how they have got into the psyche of not just our social and home lives, but also the business of design.

Where the UK once competed if not dominated – think Jaguar, British Airways, Burberry – it now struggles to compete against the new wave of social media and technology giants coming out of the States and the Far East. Or does it?

Speaking of great British brands, our hosts for the evening’s event are Bisley and, with our bright and brilliant panel settled in the leading manufacturer’s Great Portland Street showroom, we begin by asking what makes a great brand.

Sandra: A great brand is a combination of two things – externally it persuades people to buy and internally it makes people believe. So you have to make people believe who and what you are – I think that’s a really important part of the brand. It’s not just about the external stuff. In one word, it’s about promise – your brand is your promise.

Is a lot of branding about perception?

Sandra: I think there is a lot of that in it. So, the thing that enables you to charge twenty times the next person is not necessarily about quality. I’ve stood in a clothing warehouse and been shown a jacket that is exactly the same as a cheaper brand but they’ve put nicer buttons on it and ‘brand it’ – and then sell it at ten times the value.

Ralph: I think it’s about reinforcing your own perception of yourself sometimes. It’s a reassurance – you categorise yourself and the label allows you to identify that. It’s very intangible.

Martyn: It’s interesting. My son’s suitcase didn’t arrive when he came to visit me and so we went shopping. He just wanted some white T-shirts, but he insisted on going to a ‘young person’s’ brand and buying these plain T-shirts at $30 each!

Adam: I think brand is a very different thing to what it was ten years ago. We talk about promise, but I think a lot of people now talk about purpose. There’s a lot of skepticism about brands and everyone’s far more educated about what a brand is. Twenty years ago a brand was a logo and was prevalent and drove things, whereas now the purpose behind the brand is a lot easier to dive into – the logo is not enough and the consumer can now make or break an organization in a matter of minutes, in a way that could never have happened recently. Thomas Cook is a good example of this, where they handled a situation terribly and suddenly found themselves being ‘destroyed’ by social media. A company has to dive a bit deeper – they can’t just say that their plain white T-shirt is worth more than $5 because it has a label in it. The purpose behind that product and that company needs to be stronger and brands that are doing that right now are evolving in a more interesting way. It’s also about integrity and trust.

Sandra: I agree. I think what social media’s done is challenge the promise. The promise still has to deliver. If there’s purpose behind the promise, then even better. That’s what social media’s done – nobody can hide anymore.

Adam: When I started some 15 years ago and was working in identity, brand had to be the cornerstone of the business and forward-thinking CEO’s were starting to consider brand as something that needed to be part of a conversation. Now, I think that is a given and is much more dispersed across an organization.

Anna D: It’s not just about showing what the brand is nowadays. It’s about the values, the feeling and the whole ethos behind how the company runs, from the people within it as much as the people outside – so how people work together, what they’re feeling, how they dress, how they react to one another – these change how the brand appears to everybody else. They live it.

Adam: For us, as workplace designers, that internal culture can help drive profit as much as a strong external brand can. This is where this manifests itself in what we do – how can we enforce that internal culture.

So has this changed the workplace designer’s approach?

Adam: The idea of a nice client area and crap staff area has long gone. Now we see great staff areas and no distinction between the two areas. That’s quite obvious – and it does go a lot deeper than that too.

Anna D: I do think this has changed how people work. Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you’re not working. Most people have phones and technology that allows them to ‘live it’ inside and out. It’s not about the graphics and the dressing – it’s about much more. It’s about everything behind that.

So, do the kids now want to work for the new global super brands because they are exactly that?

Adam: I think people have always wanted to work for the big companies – a big bank or a newspaper. There have always been industries that have had a certain draw. I don’t think that’s changed, it’s just the companies that get the press have changed.

Martyn: Some of the banks have had such bad press that the kids don’t’ want to say that they’re a banker anymore!

Anna D: The great brands in the financial industry do allow their staff to have more space, to make their own decisions and, sometimes, mistakes though – rather then having the big failures. They now let their people think, evolve and grow – and have less of that Lehmann Brothers situation where there is a massive collapse.

Luca: In a way they can now control what could go wrong. It’s like a testing ground or a playground – or a lab, where they are able to test or assess what is going wrong and learn from it. It’s very mature in a way. It’s a bit like Google giving people a little bit of time to develop successfully. This is about productivity as well as brand – the aspiration of people not just becoming consumers but also part of the production, part of the company. Another thought that came to mind was how, after 2008, certain brands had to change – had to go back to their core values to gain back trust. It was really interesting to see how the John Lewis Partnership expand through a period when you might expect the opposite – when people might have less money they started to spend more money, but spending on what they perceived to be better quality. Men started spending more money on suits, for example.

Adam: Fashion is a great tester for a brand. Generally, everyone has a view. I asked my colleagues in New York about this and they were saying how heritage brands were a really big thing in the States now – and are also in the UK and have been for some time. This is a reaction to the markets in the US, a people wanting to go back and invest in local craftsmanship and heritage. I think there’s an alignment there with interiors.

Anna B: Patriotism is the new trend! We’re all about flying our own flag and being proud of what you do. It’s really interesting.

Sandra: When you work with businesses it can be a fine line between heritage and moving forward. I worked with the Stock Exchange when they moved to Paternoster Square and we discussed the coffee shop beginnings back in the 17th century. There was a dictate however: ‘we do not want to talk about our coffee shop beginnings in any rebrand or the look and feel of the building’. At the time, they didn’t want that perception that London was being left behind. Bisley is another amazing heritage brand, but we have to get things absolutely right – find that balance between looking back to the heritage and looking forwards to the future. I think there are a lot of brands here in the UK that are at that crossroads.

Ralph: I would argue that, when it comes to Bisley, this is almost by good fortune as much as it is by design. We’ve got a name that has been associated with certain values that have been upheld by Tony Brown, our Chairman, and the rest of us, hopefully, and it is a brand name that is in no way offensive in any language. I suspect that has been achieved by doing a lot of small things over a long period of time, which have helped drive the brand. It’s interesting how brands can be destroyed overnight – and then take a long time to rebuild.

Anna D: If you look at Louis Vuitton, which was this epic brand, and then the knock-offs appeared and by no fault of its own was knocked down a few notches!

Anna B: Burberry is another great example. Not only have they completely turned that on its head and recreated themselves, they’ve let people know that it’s OK to be proud and even a little arrogant and say ‘You know what, the UK is amazing and we’re really proud to be British’. Burberry and even Rimmel are really good examples of this. Ten years ago there was much more disposable fashion, whereas now people are more likely to buy one really good quality coat. It’s going back to quality and to heritage – and, like I said, it’s almost OK to be a bit arrogant and cocky and a little bit cheeky. Americans love it! London is edgy and has a niche. London is very ‘it’ right now.

Ralph: I guess it’s not always been the case that it’s cool to be British – and I suppose we’re fortunate that it is cool again.

Anna D: Londoners are very confident in who they are and don’t care what others think. People in North American can be very safe.

Anna B: It’s that Rock’n’Roll, punk attitude.

Sandra: Going back to Burberry, and the business challenge they were faced with, they had this near catastrophic problem of being associated with football hooliganism – and had to bring that back from the brink. It was a change of CEO, a change of strategy, and also a subtle change in the way they used the iconic Burberry check. They also embraced technology and did some really quite innovative things through social media.

Ralph: It’s that point at which the design becomes a design classic that is critical.

Sandra: It was so brave of that CEO to not say ‘That’s the end of this design because it’s now associated with football hooliganism’. Instead, he reinvented it!

Now it’s our turn to be brave by stopping our brilliant panel whilst in full flow – although before we take our friends for a well earned drink, we ask each of them, off record, for their own favourite/most respected brands.

What we can report is that, in keeping with our conversation, there’s no mention of those superbrands from the tech and social media sectors. There’s food for thought.