Try to imagine a company with no branding whatsoever. No image other than the items it is selling and, perhaps, the people selling them. Can you do it? These days, it certainly is difficult.
In this post we’re going to explore the question of whether branding is actually necessary and, furthermore, whether it is even a good idea. These provocative questions may ring taboo in the world of graphic design, but they are nevertheless worth thinking about. In fact, as we will see, there exist today companies that seem completely uninterested in, or even opposed to, contrived branding and identity construction. Some are big, some are small; one is even a graphic design studio! But before we get to those, a bit of background on this train of thought.
The No Logo manifesto
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that this debate began with the publication of Naomi Klein’s 1999 best-seller No Logo, in which the Canadian journalist trenchantly argued that the emphasis on branding had gotten out of control, to the detriment of society and even corporations themselves.
Specifically, she referred to the phenomenon of companies beginning to brand themselves as purveyors of abstract concepts rather than material goods. For example: Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee; it sells community. Nike, hoisting the banner of “Just Do It,” sells confidence rather than sneakers.
With such campaigns seemingly proving to be successful, companies’ advertising and design budgets began to balloon during the 1980s and 90s, and suddenly people found these profit-driven entities scrambling to sponsor cultural events and social causes in an attempt to further align themselves with the ideas they were supposedly selling. For a time, many people saw this as a win.
Union Square, San Francisco. Branding has completely consumed the public sphere, even entering formerly un-branded areas like schools and museums. Image by Rupert Ganzer.
Klein brought several downsides to light. For one, an excess of corporate branding deprives people of a true public sphere. For another, increased advertising budgets require companies to cut costs elsewhere, typically at the expense of their working class employees or contracted laborers.
Even for the corporations themselves, however, Klein pointed out some risks and drawbacks of over-branding. One is that, no matter how genius your creative team is, you can’t turn water into wine. Nike may convince its customers that they are buying confidence, but at the end of the day the customer is going to be left with a pair of sneakers. The loftier the concept you are projecting, the more severe the eventual disappointment could be.
A typical Starbucks ad: using a recycled-paper look and emphasizing the word “care,” the company aligns itself first and foremost with environmental concern and only secondarily with its actual product, coffee; image by litherland.
While Klein’s book undoubtedly ushered in an era of renewed skepticism toward and self-consciousness about branding, not much seems to have changed in the corporate sphere. Look no further than Apple, which continues to sell grandiose concepts like progressivism, creativity, free thinking and innovation rather than computers and phones as mere material items, while continually coming under fire for its labor practices in Chinese factories.
The startup world, however, may be another story. Lean Internet companies, which don’t have a budget for sophisticated branding strategies anyway, appear to have embraced Klein’s message. Indeed, at a talk at the Google Startup Campus, Ije Nwokorie and Melissa Andrada of design giant Wolff Olins advocated for a return to the days where the brand was the product, rather than a set of seductive but unrelated concepts. At least, Nwokorie says, the brand should be “harvested” from the product itself.
In this blog post, brand strategist Peter J. Thompson discusses key points made by Wolff Olins’ Ije Nwokorie (featured above) about “lean branding” .
3 great brands — without branding?
Of course, plenty of companies can claim to have “harvested” their brand from their product (we at 99designs sure would). There are some companies, however, that really seem to have taken Klein’s No Logo ethos to heart. Consider the following.
Perhaps more than any other early dot-com company, Craigslist has remained true to its roots. Craigslist originated as an email distribution list, where Craig Newmark and his Bay Area friends shared information about upcoming local events. From there, it expanded into a full-fledged classified ad site with listings for jobs, housing, sales and even dating personals.
Up until 2010, this humble San Francisco home served as Craigslist HQ.
Truly a one-of-a-kind enterprise, Craigslist has announced that it has “little interest in maximizing profits.” That’s not to say that it doesn’t make money. To the contrary, the company is reported to rake in well over a hundred million dollars annually for the sale of sponsored listings. Another dot-com giant, eBay, acquired a 25% stake in Craigslist, but their relations seem to be less than amorous (the two companies have since sued one another).
It comes as little surprise, then, that Craigslist is also one of the least branded websites we could think of. “Nothing fancy” is an understatement: their website consists simply of blue and black text in a run-of-the-mill font, displayed in a traditional classifieds grid. It doesn’t even have a discrete logo mark.
Craigslist’s New York City homepage must have one of the lowest branding:traffic ratios on the web.
And yet, can you really say that Craigslist has suffered for lack of branding? To the contrary, it is one of the most common household names of all internet companies. It certainly seems to demonstrate that, while the value of a good product is indisputable, the value of fancy identity design perhaps remains to be proven.
Headquarted in Brooklyn, New York, Etsy is an online marketplace for vintage and craft items like art, jewelry, home decor and clothing. Since its establishment in 2007, it has presented itself as a more quaint, human alternative to giants like Amazon and eBay.
A no-frills community workspace area at Etsy’s offices in DUMBO, Brooklyn.
The original site reportedly took only a few months to build and, from the look of it, no massive changes have occurred since. Even as annual revenue, generated by listing fees and a 3.5% commission rate on every item sold, has exceeded the 300 million dollar mark, the site remains humble-looking — one might even say a bit drab. Etsy’s logo, a basic font in an orange box, is so simple that it does not even qualify for copyright protection, and so exists in the public domain.
Etsy’s basic, minimally-branded homepage gets the job done.
Yet, once again, while competitor eBay was fielding a barrage of objections and critical jabber about its heavily publicized logo re-design, the understated Etsy was watching the profits roll in, seemingly without much concern for its visual image at all.
At first, it may seem ironic that a graphic design studio’s website should be so seemingly devoid of, well, design — or at least the elements we commonly associate with design (color, a logo, etc.). Indeed, this Dutch studio’s site consists simply of a header and a barebones grid of columns, listing the many projects it has completed in a nondescript font. Even the search filter is a completely generic drop-down.
Experimental Jetset’s homepage, consisting of a simple 4-column directory, is so generic that it manages to become distinctive by virtue of this very brand-less quality.
Yet, in a way, this skeletal website is perfect branding for Experimental Jetset, which specializes in text and print media in a minimalist style (they may be the reigning kings of Helvetica usage since their establishment in 1997, even designing the packaging for the Helvetica film’s blu-ray release).
At the end of the day, it is important to think of graphic design as a solution to a problem, rather than just an arrangement of pretty images and colors. If the problem of Experimental Jetset’s website is one of how best to showcase the branding they have done for others, then one obvious solution is to be as neutral as possible themselves, eliminating any obvious branding of their own, lest it get in the way.
The neutrality of Experimental Jetset’s web design is also well suited for showcasing the work they have done for others, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art — one of their biggest commissions to date.
Given the awesome commissions that continue to come their way, like overhauling the Whitney Museum’s identity this year, it seems like Experimental Jetset’s client work speaks for itself. No logo necessary.
What do you think?
Is the simplicity of Craigslist, Etsy and Experimental Jetset just another form of branding, or have these companies truly moved beyond the practices that Klein critiqued?