Branding Is Art

Two companies can both hit all the right notes. They have great products, stores, and customer service. But one company has an edge: soul.


Two companies can both hit all the right notes. They have great products, stores, and customer service. But one company has an edge: soul.

While I am not in the same league (I’m not even in the same game) as a certain other BCBusiness scribe, I do collect contemporary art. I was walking some friends around the office the other day, explaining paintings and photos, and after 20 years of collecting and talking about this stuff, for some reason on this particular day I had a lightbulb moment. I realized that done well, great art and great branding have a lot in common. Perhaps this is why I’m driven to collect these things, and surround myself with them?

My friend Andrew Raeburn, who has spent a lifetime working in the field of serious music and led a very big and important global piano competition, explained to me that a 7-year old child prodigy who plays a piece of music on the piano with absolute technical perfection will never be able to compete with someone older, wiser, and more world-weary playing the same piece, even if they make a few mistakes here and there along the way. It’s the ability to add some of yourself to the music that makes it better than perfect, and gives certain live performances the power to make you swoon. You can’t add anything of yourself to the music if you haven’t experienced life; your experience can’t shine through the sheet music until you have experience to share.

The same holds true for visual art. With enough training, many people can sit down and paint exact replicas of reality. The technical skills are learnable. Photography makes it even easier to offer up a pretty picture with technical precision. But, what makes a great piece of art great is the intention of the artist; what are they adding to the mix beyond perfect renderings of reality? What are they doing besides everything they are supposed to be doing? How much character and meaning is left behind for the viewer to feel? The art in art is in the margin between technical skill and the final result.

THAT’S WHAT A GREAT CORPORATE brand is like. Two companies can both hit all the right notes. They have great products, good stores, great customer service and etc and etc. But one company has a soul…they have art in what they do. It’s not something tangible that you can describe on an accounting spreadsheet, but it’s there. Think about the brands you love best and try to explain to someone why they resonate for you. It’s tough. You invariably will stray into language and stories that aren’t about the hard facts, but about the inexplicable somethingness that makes the brand come alive.

Two companies make purses. One uses great materials and the latest technology and great designers who come from the best schools. The other uses great materials and the latest technology and timeless designs handed down through generations of the same family that still controls the company and sets the standards. To a purse-shopping alien from another planet the two purses are probably identical. But once you know the story and the intention behind the brand with history, you will buy the purse with family history; you will buy that intangible somethingness, all else being equal.

Take this little quiz. Ask yourself which brand in each of these pairings is more artful; which brand has more soul. There are no right or wrong answers, because how a brand impacts you is a very personal thing when you are talking about this rarified level of marginal brand utility. You can end up arguing with the guy next to you about this kind of question, which is exactly the point:

For branding inspiration, and to see great art and how artists transform the mundane, a fine way to start is at the staged shows of the Vancouver Art Gallery. You will be faced with unexpected things that delight and surprise. If only our brands could do the same!

Tim Hortons or Starbucks
Mercedes Benz or BMW
Coke or Pepsi
Lululemon or The Gap
iPhone or Blackberry

Most of us are struggling just to hit all the right notes with our branding efforts; there are so many things on the branding “to do” list that need to be done. But it would make sense for us to try, eventually, to turn our branding efforts into works of art. I do believe that should be the ultimate goal.

Great art picks up where nature ends. – Marc Chagall