Branding in the age of flailing purpose

Design always had purpose, but not the way it does now.

Form without function is pure art. And pure art’s function is beholden to the value of the creator and to the value the observer deems fit for it to receive. This theory sets the stage, albeit a little dramatically, for how design functions now. There’s an inbuilt urgency with every design requirement and everything is expected to serve some higher goal. Even the baseline aesthetic of something commands reason. If it has to be made, it has to be made around the ‘why’, not the ‘what’.

The process of design is now, more than ever, led by something outside itself, owing partially to cultural currents, technology, the need to sell to growing markets and also to a call for being more relevant in a world that’s a little fractious and bogged down by this unavoidable view of this infighting. While making it a little more intense, it’s also making the branding process a richer experience. So how does branding fit into this existential crossroad?

Any designer worth their salt can tell you that the three key principles of purposeful design are centered on intent, people, and emotion—all of which deliver a more informed, empathetic, and exciting design solution. In the current context though, especially when it comes to branding, there’s a fourth pointer on the checklist, and that is ‘relevance’. Design also needs to be able to comfortably belong to the ‘now’ given how quickly perceptions and people change. So while it’s important to create something ‘timeless’, it shouldn’t be at the cost of adaptability.

The client’s more involved than ever and that’s good

The branding process is a two-way street. What was once a see-saw of presentation and feedback is now an active exploration by the designer and a more deliberate introspection by the client. Besides, when the client is more involved, the final product is also seen through a more endearing lens. Branding is also expected to be more than a representation of a ‘brand’ but a thought process that seeps into the product, the company and also its legacy. Branding IS the business now, and not just what the logo and colour scheme of the brand is.

Brands have causes now. For Good.

Brands used to jump on the social-cause bandwagons as part of their marketing but now they’re in an abstract sense accepted as part of the community if they’re honest about the cause they get behind. By the simple virtue of creating a product that either draws from the environment or sells to a certain social archetype, brands are associated with an agenda one way or the other. The idea is to go beyond opportunism and embrace your role as a brand in a larger social context. Some of it might not even have to reflect in marketing, but in action. Your brand could even be built entirely around the cause if that’s a commitment you can make. It’s this ‘action’ that’s part of brand equity now.

Sustainable Brands can be sexy

There’s a tendency to over-rely on the cause when it comes to representation, especially for brands that are built around virtue, such as sustainability. It’s good to create empathy from the audienc­e’s point of view but it doesn’t have to be sappy. Take the ‘Who Gives a Crap’ project by Swearwords in Australia. While the company uses 50% of the profit to build toilets in the developing world, the branding developed around is still fun and light-hearted. People’s sense of wanting to give back doesn’t have to be isolated from people’s sense of wanting to be delighted.

Irrespective of which school of thought you admire or follow, purpose will always find its way to the process and it’s on the designers and clients to decide how much of that ‘purpose’ can you stretch into the different facets of your project. At Wololo we’ve built our own brand to give other to-be brands that are sustainable, inclusive and/or progressive the full shebang of ethos, pathos, logos and swag to match the value they give to the world. We’ve had the opportunity to work with some brands who match our philosophy but we’re hoping to interface with many more such brands.

We hope you could take some food for thought from this piece and include some of this in your own musings.