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The Art of Branding

Should financially strapped arts organisations be spending money on developing brand identity?

Image source Designsteinsmmg

When dollars are limited the question of effective spending is particularly pertinent, especially when it comes to getting your name out there in the sea of competition. Is it brand identity or just clever marketing that sets us apart?

This was one among several key questions posed at this week’s SAMAG lecture on the topic, The Art of Branding the Arts.

Steered by Nick Marchand, Director of the British Council in Australia, and with panelists Damian Borchok, CEO Interbrand, Georgia Rivers, Sales and Marketing Director of Opera Australia, and perhaps Australia’s most well-known brand artist, Ken Done AM, this was a spirited conversation that moved between hilarious anecdote to the cynical.

Marchand opened the night with the leading question: “What is brand?” While we all have ideas of logos packaged with public perceptions of corporate identity, in truth brand is a much more complex concept today.

Marchand said, ‘Many people like to think of brand as products. I prefer to refer back to identifying mark burned onto livestock or criminals – the heritage of the word “brand” is something seared into our awareness, something I hope that a good brand would do.’

While the audience drew an amusing smirk from his livestock reference, is was the question, “What matters most in brand?” posed to Rivers that struck a chord for most arts professionals attending.

Coherency was the simple answer. Rivers went on to explain that ‘Opera Australia wasn’t very good at being coherent until recently, with a lot of different logos and websites, such as the Ring Cycle and Oz Opera.’ She added that Opera Australian wasn’t getting credit for these products, as the perception and indeed branding was thought of as separate entities.

While most of us don’t operate on the scale of Opera Australia, Rivers’ point is applicable across the spectrum of brand recognition.

Ken Done sees branding as contextual because ‘mass communication tells you where you fit in the world’.

‘An artist doesn’t set out to become a brand. It is something simply that happens from the work that you do,’ he said.

So how does brand fit into the larger marketing package? Why work the brand rather than the product?

Borchok said, ‘I think one of the great misnomers is (that) brand is simple. Brand is becoming more complex. There are so many more touch points and much more media.’ He added, ‘There are a number of reasons there is a misunderstanding what brand is and that changes from organisation to organisation – it is not universal and so brand investment is not universal. Brand is an outcome of what you do – the process of doing that is branding.’

‘A very substantial mistake a lot of organisations make is that they think the process of branding is marketing only and, as a result of that, they disconnect marketing from the rest of the organisation – where the behavior that goes with communications is decoupled. That i where the largest wastage happens; essentially creating outputs –  PR, advertising campaigns with no sense of what is returning to you. You need to understand what you want to come back to you then you can start to brand more effectively.’

He added, ‘The best organisations are the ones where marketing has a relationship with product, with accounting department, the creatives – there is a common goal that lives across the organisation wants to achieve.’

Done said, ‘If you are spending any money you have got to stand out. I refuse to read anything where the type is sideways!’ Done told the story of his recent induction into the Design Hall of Fame, whose certificate was grey on grey. He said, ‘If you get into the Hall of Fame you are old. You want to see it!  You need to understand your audience. If you want people to see what you are doing, you can’t wait for them to come to you. The brand is what you make it. If it is good they will respond to it.’

In a similar philosophy, but coming from a different direction, Borchok said, ‘I spend a lot of time telling my organisations to stop it – just stop branding and spend their money on something they are good at. Branding is not for everyone. If you choose to use brand effectively you have to recognise it is a substantial commitment and investments and must have the will and skill to deliver it. Otherwise it essentially becomes a black hole where you put money.’

Borchok referred to John Cage’s claim, ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it’. ‘I would say that most brands have nothing to say and they are saying it,’ he said.

Borchok sited the case of American clothing company GAP, which two years ago in the face of competitor felt the answer was to change their logo for better presence. It was the ‘quickest rebranding and unbranding – a couple of weeks.’ Responding to an outcry from their core audience on social media, the firm’s CEO reacted in a well-crated piece of PR that they recognised they had made the wrong decision and would like to involve them in creating a new logo.

The blowback, Borchok explained, was worse saying ‘Don’t you have an idea what your organisation is about? Crowdsourcing is a cheap way of getting this and not paying a designer. They went back to their old logo and said “We need to get our fundamentals right”, which is where they should have started in the first place.’

Rivers picked up on the importance of fundamentals, saying that the opera industry had done a terrible job over the past 200 years in understanding who it is speaking to. She went on to say: ‘The Australian Ballet, what are they really selling? Isn’t it living the dream you had as a young girl when you were light and graceful and beautiful, things most of us aren’t anymore; What’s Sydney Dance Company really selling? Really sexy people you can watch in a respectable setting; And what is Griffin Theatre selling?  Isn’t it the excitement of going to a slightly dangerous part of the city and being able to prove you are more intellectual that others? And Ensemble is really going to see something in your area, with people like you, and people like you on stage.’

She added, ‘I don’t know how to say that stuff in advertising – we don’t say that – we need to do a much better job telling people who we are.’

Rivers continued: ‘Most people have a pretty good idea what opera is like – see yourself in red velvet gown crying a little like Julie Roberts in Pretty Woman. We have to work harder against that once in a lifetime experience. If someone said to you lets go to movies, would you say, “no I’ve done that”?’

Done made the pertinent point: ‘It is understanding the time in which we live.’ He cited David Hockney and Andy Warhol as masters of that, and their ability to move across wide groups of people.

So from Opera and big brand companies like Yahoo to individual artists and small arts organisations, the frame of mind of everybody in that organisation builds brand, said Borchok.

Done said, ‘It is not about success; it is the drive to do better things.’ Borchok agreed, Everyone needs to be braver. He illustrated his point by saluting the success of Hobart’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), a  unique brand that percolates through the organisation with an almost evangical zeal.

Rivers concluded with a feeling many of us share. ‘Ten years ago we didn’t know how good we had it – put an ad in Spectrum and tickets would sell. Now the media fragmentation is very real; it is very hard to reach people and it takes a lot more work. You have to compete with so much content. In this marketing side, we are all a bit lost.’

Done added, ‘Maybe not lost, just so many choices. I go back to what I said about not remembering advertisement in the paper – unless it is seen it is a waste of time and money.’

Growing a brand is more about understanding your organisation that finding the right hip designed logo. If you know your what your organisation is collectively driving towards, if you are coherent in how you present what you do, and you have an open and fluid communication with your audience then your brand is on the road to being a healthy one.

SAMAG brings together professional across the art forms for monthly industry seminars.

This piece was first published on artshub.com.au in March 2014.


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