So you’ve decided to rebrand. Terrific! Where do you begin? Let us give you an insider’s guide to help you along. There are enough articles out there that tell you what you must do. We thought we’d take a different track by pointing out pitfalls that can potentially derail your project. Ready? Great, let’s go!

 

DON’T: Assume you know it all

You’re the business owner. You’ve probably been steering its growth for the past 20 years to some (or great) success. You also probably think no one knows your customers better than you do, or that you have a deeper understanding of your industry than a brand consultant. This is likely very true, but also the wrong attitude to take.

Most successful business owners I’ve worked with take a humble approach to their business. Their secret sauce: Being open and always questioning. They don’t assume they know it all. Regardless where their business life cycle is at, they recognise the benefit of having an impartial 3rd-party come in and be the alternate voice to give it a jumpstart or shake things up. The business owners we work with are almost always surprised by new insights our research yields, or when we challenge and provoke them to think of their business and customers differently. Their world to a new reality opens up.

So the lesson is this: Regardless how well you think you know your business, there’s always merit in investing in research and having an objective voice to bust previously held myths, question what you hold dear, and explore new opportunities that have become blindspots. This objective voice provides the needed impartiality and outsider perspective unencumbered by baggage or sentimentality. Rebranding can reward you with fresh perspectives and opportunities. Research is the best place to start.

 

DON’T: Make your brand personal

This is a challenge for SME owners especially. Particularly when it comes to brand identity. We have come across entrepreneurs whose 1st instruction to us is: You can change everything but please don’t touch the logo. This goes back to what I touched on earlier: Sentimentality. Their reasons: “I designed this myself when I started the company. It holds a very special place in my heart”, “Our staff and customers have gotten used to it”, “My friend designed it for free 3 years ago…I don’t want to appear ungrateful”, etc. We’ve also heard things like “You can change the logo but please keep the colour…I really like the colour”; or clients who say they are “open” but will always steer the choices back to where they started (“I still like my original colour better”).

Branding deals a lot with sentiments, but not sentimentality. The thing to remember is that you’re designing a brand for your customers, not for yourself. What works for you may not work for the customer. It’s important to make a distinction between the 2; take yourself and your personal preferences out of the equation. The question to ask is this: Who are you trying to attract with your rebranding project? Your customers…or yourself?

That said, we always encourage business owners to not accept a logo they cannot stand to look at daily. But we also ask them to assume the persona of their customers and judge the logo through those lenses instead. Will it resonate and create better engagement? Sometimes having a “cooling off” period helps too. Some clients come back with a fresh perspective once they’ve slept on it, talked to a few people about it (e.g., business partners or long-time customers), rather than having a knee-jerk reaction at the point of presentation and commit to a direction clouded by personal temperament.

 

DON’T: Do the rebranding all by yourself

Building a brand is a massive undertaking. Even if you’re doing it with an agency. There are information the agency needs. They may require access to your sales, marketing, HR and finance teams.  Some might want to have conversations with your customers and staff. Others might find it useful to conduct an audit of your past marketing and sales materials; and so on. As a business owner, your attention is likely split and you’re running a mile a minute; and the agency simply can’t do a good job when their level of access is limited, or if they’re busy spending time chasing you down for an audience than doing actual work.

Instead, you may want to assemble a project team for your rebranding project. Appoint trusted PICs with whom the agency can liaise or run some decisions by, so the project doesn’t come to a screeching halt when you’re indisposed. Once this is in place, you just then need to set aside periodic pockets of time and avail yourself for crucial checkpoint meetings with both your agency and your PICs.

Besides these very sensible reasons, there are benefits to involving staff in your rebranding exercise for softer HR reasons too. Building a brand is exciting and fun; and it is a journey. Done correctly, it can be a rallying point to improve staff morale and engagement as well. When you bring staff along for the ride, you not only fold in their functional concerns along the way, but you also draw them closer to the brand you will eventually build by giving them a sense of ownership and participation in the process. In so doing, you build not only a brand but also community, stewardship and staff loyalty.

 

DON’T: Stop at brand identity when rebranding

This is a mistake many SME branding rookies make. When they think branding, they think “logo”. Some may understand that it’s also about colours; maybe some will extend their branding reality to include also typography and how the logo relates to the whole identity system. (Or more specifically, a visual identity system.) So you may be thinking, They understand the importance of brand identity…what’s wrong here?

What many business owners need to understand is that a brand goes way, way, way further than a logo or brand identity design guidelines. It’s about so much more: Product strategy, pricing strategy, distribution strategy, partnership strategy, HR policy, marketing strategy, customer experience strategy, and how are you going to tell these stories. You need to approach branding as a package. Branding is a way of conduct, a way of being (not just seeing)

So when you’re thinking about rebranding, don’t commission just a logo or identity system. That’s just cosmetics and can only get you so far. Rather, you want to think more strategically: What the brand means to your business, your customers, your industry; and what’s the impact it can make. You want put in place a brand strategy to bring the brand to life. Which brings us to…

 

DON’T: Let nature take its course

Brand building is long term, and takes effort. Launching a brand is but the tipping point. Whether the rebranding is successful or makes an impact to your bottomline will depend on what you do after you’ve launched the brand.

So what do you do? First, recognise that a brand cannot grow organically. It needs constant steering and guardianship against brand guidelines and set strategy. Just as you wouldn’t stop tending to your baby once it’s birthed, or deny her an education and healthcare, you cannot abandon your brand once it’s launched. You need to continually nurture it, feed it, give it the right stimulation, environment and guidance to ensure healthy growth. And providing the right conditions for growth demands you to be ruthlessly strategic.

What does this mean? It means that you must be prepared to take a long, hard look at your business and make the necessary adjustments in line with strategy. This could include reevaluating the kinds of products and services you offer, reexamining your pricing and distribution structures, investing in new production techniques (maybe), educating and motivating your staff to live the brand values, working out an annual marketing budget and then putting it into play, putting an agency on retainer to deliver on-brand communications (if you’re not confident of doing it yourself), etc. It means not making excuses not to do certain things, or putting off marketing and brand building efforts until you have time. (Your baby would’ve starved to death!) So, be a responsible brand parent!

 

A rock solid brand can do many things: Let you stand for something in the market, establish an emotional connection with your customers, give you a price advantage…you can even use brand to shape product strategy (as it should) and define a formula for growth (as it should also). That being said, you must be prepared to stick to that formula and put whatever you can to ensure its success. Successful branding doesn’t happen overnight. It takes patience, and the necessary investments to make it work.

At this point, you may think rebranding sounds like a lot of work. Well, it is. But as a hoary saying goes, It’s not work when you’re enjoying it. And branding and marketing work is a lot of fun! The golden rule is not to think of it as work, but as a commitment to making it work.

Whether you manage creativity in-house or through an agency, or if you manage any form of creativity at all – from product design to branding to PR to events or marketing – you simply need to be more creative. We are living in a creative economy and people are paying for game-changing ideas that disrupt, disprove and improve.

So how can you make your company more effective by being more creative? Splurge and hire rock star creative overlords? Subscribe and pore through design annuals from Tokyo to Istanbul? Hobnob with those bright, beautifully warped minds at Cannes parties? Attend design bootcamps? There are so many avenues to stretch creativity, and none of them necessarily better than the last. But most of them can be cost and time intensive. If you, like us, like to keep things light, casual and simple, we’ve got a tip for you.

At antics@play, we conduct creative brown bag sessions. A brown bag session is a casual meeting of like-minded people for co-curricular learning that happens at the school or workplace. It typically isn’t very long and happens over lunch. Participants are expected to bring their own lunch (hence, the brown bags and its informal nature). Besides packed food, participants would commune over a subject of mutual interest. It’s an opportunity for them to learn about a certain topic, share passions, get to know each other better, or to create stuff. Topics and activities are limited only by the imagination.

I was introduced to my 1st brown bag session in college as an English department assistant (or DAs…think District Attorneys, but much less moneyed and much more nerdy). That’s when a few DAs would gather frequently over lunch on campus, and we’d share. Sometimes we’d share stuff that we’d written, sometimes we’d evangelise about favourite authors, sometimes we’d debate literary criticism taught that semester. And then sometimes we’d write…individually and as a team. We had made up funny obituaries for our professors based on their personalities, and dreamt up alternate dissertation titles they should’ve gone with to really earn our respect. It was all in good fun, and the professors had a good laugh, and sometimes they’d join our brown bags, and we’d get to know them just that little bit better and our knowledge would stretch just that little bit further.

That tradition now lives at antics@play. As a brand and PR agency, our currency is creativity. We have art directors, designers, writers, project managers, planners and suits. Not everyone here designs, but we expect all staff to be creative. We don’t run an art institution here, but we try and expose everyone to different creative disciplines, influences and techniques. Studies suggest that having activities that cultivate creative minds can help you gain confidence and cope with performance anxiety, better spot opportunities, develop right-brain thinking, and empower you to be proactive and solution-oriented.

We’ve run 9 brown bag sessions so far this year – once a month, every last Friday of the month. It’s the best time for staff to decompress after a long week. And a 1-hour commitment from everyone isn’t much of an imposition on client work. Most times we do it in our office, sometimes we go on a field trip, sometimes we’d cut staff loose on an inspiration hunt and have them come back with their spoils to share. Topics run the gamut. We’ve learned about the scientific applications of origami, California skate culture and its impact on street art, the craft of the Chinese lantern, how designers use typography to tell a story, how creatives create. We draw, we write, we tell stories, we problem solve. Some sessions are wholly educational, some purely inspirational. Some have games and prizes, while others…well, the game itself is the prize. We learn as we play, and the benefits of doing so are well documented.

Besides knowledge expansion, our creative brown bags have provided excellent opportunities to learn about each other too. For instance, when we got staff to design their own skateboards, we discovered a few of our suits can draw really well. Or when we made like typographer Gemma O’Brien and had a go at designing our own airsick bag (see #spewbagchallenge, where you have to come up with puke puns and use type and illustration to tell your story), that really brought out our corny. We know who’s nifty with their fingers from our speed origami challenge (which resulted in quite a number of paper cranes that took second life as table decor for a client’s Japanese-themed event). We know who’s the sappiest when we shared our favourite lantern design during the Mid-Autumn Festival edition. Or more recently, when everyone got to tell ridiculous stories starring Pokemon Go characters, we know who can think really quickly on their feet and who’s really got a gutter brain.

Besides team bonding, which has real productivity benefits in the workplace (beyond just knowing each other’s guilty pleasures and collecting blackmail material), our brown bag sessions have often resulted in stuff that became fodder for social media content. Just check out our Facebook and LinkedIn pages. So, if you’ve ever been stuck for ideas or time to generate content quickly for your company’s content marketing efforts, this is an excellent way to get others to do it for you!

So if you feel your company or team can use some creative juicing up, or you need to quickly create content for your social or blog pages, brown bag it. It need not be time or cost and labour intensive. Just an hour a month can really get you places. To help make brown bag sessions a part of your company’s creative culture, here are some tips to get you started.

 

Tips for running successful brown bag sessions

  • Consider your audience and their needs. Think about why they’d want to attend, and structure your syllabus accordingly. It’s their lunch hour, so make the time about them, not about you.
  • Mix it up. Not all sessions need to be educational, or about technical learning. Sometimes, just spending time with your co-workers over a shared activity or bonding over a common current topic can teach you something really valuable: About the people you work with, and how you can work better with them.
  • Appoint a few organisers, and rotate the organisation of each session among them. Task the organiser to come up with the topic. This keeps things interesting and surprising for everyone, including yourself. It can also widen the syllabus, and everyone learns so much more than what the Creative Director or you are interested in.
  • Bring in a guest every now and then. This helps stimulate the conversation and makes for interesting dynamic and perspective shifts.
  • Keep it light by introducing fun and games. Cuz nobody wants to take a break from work to do more work. When you make it about play, it no longer feels like work.
  • Location, location, location. Meeting rooms are great if you need the infrastructure. But we’ve found that a field trip, or just a couch and some throw pillows work just as well. The idea is to get people’s mind off work (emails, phones, computers). Take them out of the environment of stress, and have them relax…we’ve found that this is often when you get most creative.
  • Send out calendar invites and make it a standing appointment. This way, staff know to set aside that time for this and it becomes habitual.
  • Surprise them every now and then. Throw in a challenge, or pizza and prizes… Cuz, c’mon, who doesn’t like pizza and prizes.

Happy brown bagging!

I attended a sobering session several weeks ago by futurist Amy Webb about the future of design. In no uncertain terms, she said that I will be out of a job soon. In a few years, there will be no need for Creative Directors, or Art Directors and Designers. With increasing feats of automation and data intelligence permeating our practice, and marketing veering more toward science than art, creatives today can still take minor comfort in that someone will still be needed to make sense of the reams of data and transmute them into some sort of creative work that touches people. That’s where the creative magic happens. But not for long.

For this year’s Met Gala, Marchesa teamed up with IBM Watson to create a so-called “cognitive dress“. What happened was Marchesa fed into Watson (an AI that can understand emotions based on images, texts, videos and other data points) hundreds of images of past Marchesa dresses, and Watson was able to cognitively design the dress through an algorithm. The output is pretty stunning, actually. It looks like a dress borne of Marchesa’s brand DNA and it fits the Manus X Machina gala theme perfectly. What’s not to love about such cognitive intelligence? At the end of the day, someone still needs to be there to “approve” the dress (ergo, a job). And someone (in this case, Karolina Kurkova) still needs to wear the dress. No harm, no foul…. Right?

But will the time come when even design approvals are automated by artificial neural networks? We already know that the Japanese had successfully (and literally) manufactured popstar Eguchi Aimi, who for a time became the most popular member of girl band AKB 48. Until of course when she was outed as a digital creation based on an algorithm of what Japanese teens considered beautiful. This understandably led to a major public hue and cry. (Guess who had the last laugh.) That’s how good machines are these days. And they’re getting better.

Creativity is quickly becoming a science, not an art.

Where then do we fit within this world of cognitive intelligence and predictive design? Data is great. It’s an essential part of the marketing funnel and creative process. And we always advise clients on the importance of using marketing research for branding and campaign work from advertising to PR to CRM. It defines the parameters, focuses your resources, finetunes your message and increases your chances of branding success. Keyword here being “increases”.

Will the day come when research and predictive design can laser in to the heart of every piece of communication and lob everything at X number of customers with 100% accuracy, resulting in 0 advertising wastage? When all brand identities subsequently designed are so perfectly developed that it makes all its target audience automatically open their wallets and cream their pants? Probably. It all feels a bit Minority Report to me. But it could happen. And clients everywhere will celebrate.

However. That sort of design to me, while effective, will be just that little bit less beautiful. I still find beauty in unpredictability. It could be the Japanese in me (for the record, I have no Japanese in me…except maybe sushi or dorayaki on occasion). The Japanese has a concept of wabi-sabi, which celebrates the beauty of impermanence or imperfection in life and in art.

So here’s the pickle: In looking at the future of design and creativity, will we appreciate beauty just as much if beauty never fades, or if everything around us is equally beautiful? Is anything still creative when everything is creative? Or will successes be celebrated when everything becomes just as successful? Sophia Loren is beautiful not because we expect her to be beautiful but because she has struck the gene pool lottery, and we become awestruck. We appreciate freshness because there is staleness. If everything is predictably beautiful, my algorithm tells me that while we can still recognise things as being beautiful, we may not appreciate them as being so. We’ll be surrounded by beauty, but not with awe.

So let’s hold onto our awe, for however long we have.

And that to me, is quite beautiful.

In my line of work, I meet creative talents from all walks of life and disciplines of choice. From fresh grads to seasoned vets, spanning print and digital to experience and product… Meet enough of them and patterns start to emerge. You can intuit who’s in it for the money, and who’s in it for the passion. You can tell who’s going to give you a 110% and who’s just phoning it in. So what are the telltale signs? What separates good designers from great designers? If you’re a designer, which one are you or aspire to become? Are you a member of the strategic team, or a mere hired hand? If you’re a client, which kind of designer is your creative agency or brand agency giving you? Here’s a checklist of the 7 qualities that separate the pros from the pretenders.

 

1. Great designers are curious

My 1st instinct is to say, the number 1 thing a great designer must be is “human” (eyebrows and a pulse will help too), but I’ve learned from futurist Amy Webb that machines are increasingly taking over design functions, so there goes that. So, the number 1 thing designers must be is curious. Even machines are by nature curious and crave information (without which there’s no algorithm).

So often clients tell us what they want. A bigger logo, a smaller fee… or a campaign that looks like that other campaign that made people cry or put on their trousers and run out to buy (or better yet, do both). When asked to design around such a brief, my immediate response is always, “Why”. Not because it buys me more time (though that’s that too), but mostly because so many briefs are about the What and not about the Why. A good designer would know instinctively what the client is looking for, deliver beautiful artwork, and then bag a swift approval and move on to the next job. Billings in, champagnes all around.

No.

The great designer goes beyond the brief. The great designer isn’t afraid to challenge the brief and ask the tough questions. The great designer gives not what the client wants but what the client needs. A good designer do, a great designer thinks before they do. So when faced with a brief, do you read? Or do you read critically? Do you immediately put pen to paper, and like ghostwriting let the answer eke itself out? Or do you begin by questioning if we’re asking the right questions and solving the right problem, before you even begin to hazard a solution?

In branding work, design and business are closely linked. If you’re not taking the time to understand the client’s business and advertising choices and advantages, you’re just making pretty things and not things of significance.

 

2. Great designers are empathetic

It’s been said that designers are some of the nicest, most generous, humble, giving and peace-loving people in the world. That’s because designers are by nature empathetic creatures. Good designers are skilled at what they do. Great designers bring to the table that much more: Empathy.

Everyone’s talking about user-centric design and advertising these days… understanding customers, designing around the customer, or designing with users in mind. It’s the root of all the latest technobabble and marketing buzzwords, like UX, omnichannel, customisation and content marketing. And all these need to come from a place of empathy. As a designer, you need to be able to understand the customer for whom you’re designing things for. This is even more relevant when it comes to branding. Branding is all about establishing an emotional connection and growing that relationship with an audience. If you’re not investing a significant part of your creative process to researching and understanding the audience, and absorbing that into your thinking, and then using that to guide your every design decision, then you would’ve proven yourself the weakest link. Goodbye.

 

3. Great designers do not design for themselves

Whu-what? Many designers – particularly younger ones – find it difficult to wrap their heads around this. They’ve graduated with a design degree, are influenced by certain design heroes, and have their own design preferences and style. This could be due to a lack of exposure or worse, ego. I’ve spoken to designers who subconsciously shoehorn different brands into their design style, particularly 1 or a range of which they’re comfortable with or find aesthetically pleasing and personally edifying, so it sits pretty in their portfolio.

While there are many grey zones in the world of creativity and how one approaches the creative process, there are actually “right” and “wrong” ways of designing for a brand. Emphasis being on “designing for a brand”. You cannot be designing for yourself. If you’re curious, and are empathetic, you would then be designing the brand around what the business needs to become, and what its customers can resonate with.

Key lesson is: If you want to design for yourself, be an artist. If you’re a designer at a creative or brand agency, let go of your ego…and come to grips that you’re designing for others.

 

4. Great designers do different things

In HR, there’s lots of talk about hiring for T-shaped people. This basically means hiring people who have broad knowledge of everything but with specialisation in 1 thing. Personally, I like to hire at least Pi-shaped designers, or better, jellyfish-shaped ones. Sometimes I’d hire T-shaped designers and try and coax an extra leg or 2 out of them. This is absolutely essential.

Today’s design economy is all about content velocity, and platforms are melding and strategies are blending. In this economy, speed is currency. Agencies simply need to be nimbler and work faster. Everyone needs to get into everybody else’s business. A designer needs to understand how print can interact with digital, or how each medium works synergistically with everything else. A PR manager needs to know digital marketing. A programmer needs to know SEO. Traditional web designers need to learn code and cinematic UX. Film directors are designing. Designers are film directing. It’s an orgy and we’re all invited. So you can either jump in, or turn your noses up and stay on the sidelines. But if you opt to stay on the sidelines, that’s the quickest ticket to creative extinction. You’ll either have to wander around 1 of those decaying Walking Dead towns to find that special T-shaped someone with a complementary skill to pick up on your slack and lumber into the sunset together, or you can be a jellyfish.

My advice is, be a jellyfish. They seem to have all the fun.

 

5. Great designers never switch off…except when they switch off, but then again, not really

Design. It’s all around us. It’s on every Starbucks cup, every bus that chugs along, every leaf on the ground, every stitch on your clothes, every ray of sunshine… I’ve had more creative inspirations running through a nature reserve on a Saturday morning than thumbing through design annuals in the office. Creativity is not a 9-to-5 job. It’s 24/7. You’re always thinking and observing. Even your dreams are a fount of possibilities. Inspiration can strike anytime, anywhere. On your long runs, during your naps, on the shirt on the back of some stranger…. Your client’s brand doesn’t live in a bubble. Neither should your solution. The world doesn’t stop, your brain doesn’t stop. You – like Miley – just can’t stop.

At the HOW Design Live 2016 conference, the message was loud. Designers really embraced the message of “Unplugging”, courtesy of Tiffany Shlain, who advocated the concept of taking a technology shabbat, both at a keynote and on an episode of her web series “The Future Starts Here”. This basically means no screens for 1 day every week. No TV, no mobiles, no social media, no laptops, no tablets. Crap, what’s left? Well, what’s left is quality time to reconnect – with your family, yourself and your inner creativity. Read, rake, draw, converse, cook, crochet, play basketball, or simply daydream…whatever allows you to cut out the social chatter and compulsive need to be “liked” or “loved” or posture or “followed”. Instead, let your mind and creativity breathe and flourish. So if you are going to switch off at all, do so literally.

 

6. Great designers like being weird

‘Nuff said.

 

7. Great designers know how to sell

Not enough, however, can be said about designers who do not know how to sell. Guys, a picture doesn’t speak a thousand words. Words speak a thousand words. And your work doesn’t speak for itself. It’s frickin inanimate. Your design doesn’t sell itself. You do. If things sell themselves, there would be no need for marketing and advertising. Think about it.

Great designers explain their design choices and rationale. If you have done responsible design, such as conducting the necessary research, filtering your choices through what makes sense for the brand and the audience, you will have no trouble at all explaining and backing up your design. It comes from a place of credibility, expertise and authenticity. Work in a branding agency long enough and you’ll understand that seldom do clients approve a design just because you like it. So don’t just learn to design, learn to also hustle and sell.

By now the Tattoine dust has settled and in case you’ve been living under a rock in Dagobah but somehow reading this, yes, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a mammoth success. Defying all conventions that you can’t wait too long for a sequel to work (sorry, Zoolander 2), Star Wars is a force unto itself. There’s really no awakening when it hardly ever went to sleep.

Sitting pretty as the No. 2 worldwide box office champ of all time (and expected to break video sales in just a couple of weeks), it has successfully reinvigorated a 40-year-old franchise and introduced an old brand to a new generation of Padawans across gender, age and culture. What’s the secret sauce? Pent-up demand? Savvy marketing? Try branding. (And no, we’re not talking about Yoda grapes and BB-8 oranges….) Here are 3 key lessons we can learn from The Force Awakens about branding done right.

 

1. Commit to your brand narrative

Brands tell stories. They’re how humans are hardwired to understand the world around them. If you want people to understand your brand, yep, tell a story. It’s the best way to establish an emotional connection with your audience, and keep them invested and piqued to see what the next chapter brings. As to what constitutes a brand story, well, some brands focus on their backstory, some brands create stories around their beliefs and philosophies, other brands create a narrative around a promise. And every piece of brand communication produced should then extend and reinforce that narrative. When you tell your story, it is important that the tales you tell are not standalone chapters but are part of a broader story arc. And this arc needs to be consistent with your brand image and promise. Because there’s comfort in familiarity, and people want payoff. There is a great article in Forbes about the science and power of storytelling, in which the writer posits that storytelling has measurable utility; that attention is the reward that listeners bestow on the storyteller. So you want your audience’s attention? Tell a great story.

In The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams does this excellently. Sure, there are many who complain that The Force Awakens is basically retelling the story of A New Hope…. And that’s okay. When all is said and done, the Star Wars universe (and arc) that Lucas has created is a great mythological one, that of a hero’s journey. Film students will know that Lucas was inspired by mythologist Joseph Campbell’s influential The Hero With a Thousand Faces when writing Star Wars in 1975. In his book, Campbell purports that underlying all stories is a classical narrative structure and theme; in other words, that all mythic narratives are variations of a single great story. This in popular literary tradition is now known as the Hero’s Journey. And the Hero’s Journey myth has certain rules, beats and arcs that has to be followed. Lucas followed it faithfully, as did Abrams. At heart, Star Wars is a story about an everyman (Luke) who discovers his (or in the case of Rey in The Force Awakens, her) potential and fulfills his/her destiny. Along the way, they encounter mentors (Obi Wan/Maz Kanata) and aides (Han Solo/Finn), antagonists (Darth Vader/Kylo Ren) and defeat, discovery, purpose, promise and flight. Abrams understood the efficacy of committing to a narrative. He extended the story authentically and without losing sight of the original arc. And that’s what your brand should do too.

 

2. Build your brand on archetypes

Psychologist Carl Jung believed that some story characters are instantly familiar to us because they are primal and instinctive, part of a universal collective unconscious we all share. Campbell’s book itself was based on the German philosophy that myths from all over the world are built from the same “elementary ideas”, which Jung called archetypes. Jung believed that everyone in the world is born with the same basic subconscious model of what a hero, a mentor or a quest is, and that’s why people can enjoy the same stories across cultures, gender and time. I remember watching Star Wars as a kid in the late 70s in Singapore; speaking to my college mates in California 20 years later, we all understood exactly what Star Wars meant…our take-out was the same: What made Luke heroic, why Han couldn’t have shot first, why Vader was the not the real villain, and what a douche the Emperor really was. Different continents, different eras, same story, same understanding. This is why archetypes work. They are universally familiar characters or situations that transcend time, place, culture, gender and age. Archetypes represent an eternal truth.

Undeniably, part of the reason the Star Wars universe is rock solid is that it’s built around archetypal characters that people can understand and relate to. This is no stroke of luck but a masterstroke of genius. We know to root for Luke and Rey (the Hero), feel sympathy for Vader/Anakin and Kylo (the tragic hero or the Fallen), cheer the gumption of Han and Finn (the Adventurer/Rebel), seethe at the manipulativeness of Palpatine and Snoke (the Villain), admire the bravery of R2-D2 and BB-8 (the Loyal sidekick) and listen to the wisdom of Yoda and Maz (the Spiritual guide). Across the Star Wars films, there are undeniable parallels. The filmmakers know what people can relate to, and this helps inform how they write the characters and shape the way audiences approach and understand the story and its universe.

That’s why strong and successful brands are built on archetypes. Building your brand on an archetype helps you define your brand’s values, personality and behaviours. Brands with strong identifiable archetypes find an easier time guiding internal decisions and build lasting relationships with customers. It’s a way for brands to align what it says it is, what it does, and how it is perceived and known. People understand them better, and again, there is comfort in that. It appeals to human’s innate desire for truth and certainty.

 

3. Apply your brand identity with near-ruthless consistency

Die-hard Star Wars fans will tell you they feel goosebumps every time they encounter the familiar electro glow of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” followed by the sudden rousing swell of John Williams’s signature score and the iconic title crawl, and the inimitable hum of a lightsaber, and so on. In The Force Awakens, Abrams has taken this to a different level. Besides those iconic brand elements and archetypes that made Star Wars Star Wars, The Force Awakens brings back also much of the original trilogy’s talents and on-screen eye candy; from Harrison Ford and R2-D2 to Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon (all of which elicited cheers when they appeared on screen at the screenings I attended). He plays to the tune of familiarity and fan favourites.

 

And he didn’t stop there. Those familiar with the film’s marketing campaign will recognise throwbacks to the original trilogy in other ways. Retro-styled teaser poster? Check. Drew Struzan-styled campaign art? Check. And don’t even get me started on the landslide of marketing tie-ins and merchandising juggernaut. Prevalent in the 70s, 80s and 90s, almost omnipresent now.

So yes, in branding, consistency is king. Confusion is the no. 1 killer. What is signature about your brand is what brands you as you. Just as archetypes don’t act out of character and therefore build an ironclad relationship with the audience, brand identity assets cannot be applied out of character either. Pay attention to your brand guide and all the rules of application. This goes beyond basic visual symbols like logos, colours and fonts, but also to the context within which your brand appears and the experience you’re giving customers. When running brand and marketing campaigns, be mindful of where and how customers see and interface with your brand. Some brands go so far as to advertise only in specific spots within a magazine, or secure only a certain kind of shop unit with a very specific floorplan. It’s ruthlessly consistent. And it’s such shrewd consistency that builds strong and recognisable brands.

So can a brand grow and evolve, or must it rehash the same old tune over and over again? Of course a brand can grow (and it must grow with the times). Identity can be updated and stories can take on new chapters to remain relevant…but brands must grow in a way that still remains authentic to the original arc and not wander from their core archetypes.

And The Force Awakens has gotten this right. Abrams has managed to produce a film that is as good as the original ones, and that continues a tradition, while being “new” in its own way. Female roles are more prominent now, Stormtroopers have sicker equipments, and the emotional stakes are higher too. But through careful calculation, creative alchemy and an unwavering commitment to the Star Wars brand, he’s managed to retain loyalty of its original fans (hooking them back in) while growing awareness and affinity with new ones…across generations and cultures, and with the same currency: Brand.

Circuses are the tofu of branding and advertising. It takes on the personality of whatever you marinate it in. So iconic, yet so flexible. It is little surprise that everyone from Britney Spears to Rob Zombie have co-opted the circus theme to hawk their own brand of showmanship, from wholesome pop to fearsome goth rock. And I love them all.

As a proud Gen X-er, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience the circus in the most classic sense of the word. We’re talking Ringling Bros-style extravaganzas. While parents got down with their disco rump-shaking and Bacardi-swigging antics back in the days, we 70s kids had mustachioed ringmasters, phenomenal fire eaters, high-wire trapeze artists, larger-than-life exotic animals, pranking clowns, hot roasted peanuts, candied popcorn and soda (or more likely, artificial bird’s nest drinks)…all under 1 colourful big top at the neighbourhood fairground. To an impressionable child growing up in the 70s, it was the most enthralling, fantastical experience you could ask for. It was our disco and drug of choice. The circus was where we got hypnotised by people in crazy, skimpy get-ups; entranced by frenzied parcan lights that searched the audience and showcased headlining acts; got our minds blown by feats of human derring-do; and be transported to a different dimension. It was an explosion of music and lights and imagination, a chance for us ordinary people to crawl out of our daily lives and enjoy extraordinary spectacles and illusions that made our jaws drop. The circus appealed to our sense of wonder, amusement, and showed us a bigger world than the one we knew. It was an event.

For better or worse, animal rights activism and shifting standards in entertainment over the years (thank you Playstation, thank you cable TV!) have contributed to the demise of the old-school, Ringling Bros-styled circuses. Seeing elephants stacked atop each other like dominoes is no longer wondrous but a tortured sight of animal abuse; seeing an animal wrangler stick his head into the mighty jaws of a ferocious Bengal tiger no longer provoke gasps of admiration but screams of horror; and the sight of monkeys pedalling a bike no longer induce giggles but snarly comments like, “Don’t they have better things to do…like type?” I kid. But you get the idea.

The closest thing we get to the modern circus are Cirque du Soleil spectacles that dispense with animal acts but focus squarely on human acrobatics with a multi-million-dollar storyline and carefully choreographed light shows. Circuses today no longer resemble a carnival, but a high-art cultural performance unfolding under the comforts of an air-conditioned tent and overpriced Chardonnays.

At the risk of offending Cirque fans (and they are legion), the art of circus branding has, to me, lost its shine. Ironic, considering their ads are extremely polished feats of digital imaging and art direction. The advertising for circus extravaganzas in the past were resplendent works of showmanship. Illustrated works of art with big, bold and confident typographies that evoked a carnival-esque sense of wonder and appealed to our sense of adventure and fun; inescapable splashes of bright orange, yellow and red that made your lungs burst with excitement; and improbable headlining acts (human and animal) with over-the-top headlines that made you want to believe. They had pizzazz!

The designs of Cirque ads today, in contrast, brand the experience as sensual, mystical, alchemistic. They are beautiful, for sure, but are also tinged with a slightly dark, overwhelmingly surreal sensibility. Do they work? Well, the artwork is beautiful, and the brand works. There’s creativity in full glorious display here. But seldom do they make my heart pound, or work as effectively as a prelude, to the main event that’s about to come. Their branding and ads are representational to a theme and not for a mood. They appeal to the minds, rather than baser instincts like wonderment and fun. Or perhaps what I need is a swig of chardonnay and a hit of Rick James to appreciate the nuances.

Which is why I’m grateful for Chinese New Year. Chinese New year celebrations are often loud, brash, convivial and colourful affairs that are not set up to appeal to the rational mind but to the emotions and heart. The icons of Chinese New Year festivities feature very much the same elements as circuses of yore: Bold, confident lettering; an unapologetic overdose of reds and yellows; pun-ny in-your-face copy and overclaims; and music cues that instantly conjure a carnival-esque mood that can be both anticipatory and numbingly grating. When CNY rolls into town, the country is transformed into a carnival, an explosion of sights, sounds, smells and colours; resplendent with candies, peanuts and sodas; where kids continue to be tickled (or terrorised) by strange people they have never seen before in gaudy get-ups. It’s the closest thing we have today to the 70s circus, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Today, in many countries outside Europe and China (where circuses are preserved for their artistic and cultural merits), the old school circuses have become something of an antiquated guilty pleasure…as is – I’m sure to many adults in Singapore – Chinese New Year. I mean, look at it, it has all the ingredients! And so I speak for many at antics@play, we love the lost art of circus branding, and can therefore think of no better opportunity than CNY, to bring that particular brand of gaudy back. Circus branding can survive just about anything…perhaps just not Cirque du Soleil.

Thanks for reading, and Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Are you a Cirque fan? Or a PT Barnum/Ringling Bros fan? Sound off below!

Last month I ran what’s called the Boy Scout Tree Trail. Located in Northern California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, this is a magnificent sprawl of ancient redwood forests sprouting out of plush carpets offerns, which a few miles in, give way to huckleberry bushes. This undulating trail is a breathtaking showcase of the world’s best redwood scenery. But it isn’t a very long one, and I quickly found myself reaching Fern Falls, which is the turnaround point. Instead of hoofing it back, I continued pounding the trails and soon found myself traversing the Shasta-Trinity Mountains, a rugged region of remote beaches, with more ancient redwoods and thundering herds of Roosevelt elk. We’re talking hundreds of miles inland.

Before you get too impressed, it’s not because I’m that great a distance runner. I owe it to great equipment. So bless the good folks at LifeFitness; they have produced a treadmill that lets runners run from the New Zealand mountains to the Arizona deserts without so much as lift a passport. The machine is truly intelligent. Besides giving the runner a first-person view of the trail (there are several to choose from) on an LED screen, the machine automatically adjusts the incline to match the undulations of the terrain. It’s as close to being out on the trails as you can get.

Is it cheating? You betcha.

With technology, we can cheat just about anything and anyone. We’ve worked with photographers who can convincingly turn day shots into night, I’ve seen water bottles sweat cold beads under the sun even though it’s holding just lukewarm water (and there wasn’t any sun). Add to that the neverending parade of clients’ requests: Can we make her eyes bigger, make me smile wider, erase the years from those trophies, have the dog wear glasses and happier….

Yup, clients are onto us. They know everything is possible with the marvels of modern-day digital imaging. Unfortunately, they’re also less likely to want to invest in original photography now (when a generic stock image, coupled with some nifty DI will do!), and are reticent about spending much time at shoots (“Two days? Let’s do it in one. You can make up for it in post, right? It’s cheaper.”). They’re taking approvals more lightly too; after all, they can always change their minds and make us “fix it later”. It’s lamentable.

I attended the Adobe Create Now event back in July, where a photographer said something that struck home: That we shouldn’t take a photo and spend half our lives manipulating it to perfection, but that we should aspire to take perfect photos, which we can then improve if needed. (Ironic, considering the event’s programming highlight was wowing us with the latest image manipulation tools that we can adopt into our creative process)

It just isn’t the same.

J.J. Abrams and the Star Wars cast knows this. There is just no substitute for real sets and real actors. When we see The Force Awakens in a few weeks, it will be a much richer experience that feels more believable and present than anything Lucas ever conjured up in the prequels, where everything was digitally rendered. Tarantino and Scorsese know this, which is why they’re passionate about championing films as films rather than mp4s. There is a certain quality – a warmth, urgency, ineffable beauty and authenticity – in real life constructs that will forever be missing if we’re merely pixel pushing. Anyone working with creativity ought to know this.

So maybe we deserve the bad rep we get in advertising: That it’s a sham. There is no authenticity in design and advertising. Not when there is so much creative sorcery we are all capable and guilty of as an industry. Our plea to clients (if you are one and reading this), is to work with your agency to create perfection, and then improve it if necessary. Your first instincts shouldn’t be to ask them to cheat authenticity. Authenticity always wins.

So for awhile now, I’ve been craving the headwinds in the forest, acknowledging fellow runners on the trail, and pining for the smell of nature (oh the smell of nature!). But until the haze clears and nature smells less like polluted air and burning wood, visual trickery and self-deception – and LifeFitness – are all I’ve got.

I recently watched the documentary Altman, which chronicles the works of maverick American filmmaker Robert Altman. From a hired director of industrial films in the 50s to recipient of an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006, the film cycles through his oft-celebrated filmography, pausing to reflect on watershed masterpieces like McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville, M*A*S*H, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park. The movie talks about how he had bucked the Hollywood system and broke all rules of film narrative to create a cinematic language and legacy all his own. Don’t know who he is? Check out Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin’s delightful tribute to Altman at the 2006 Oscars.

I grew up watching many of Altman’s films. But watching this documentary a few nights ago I was struck by how much of my approach to the creative process, and the approach we adopt at antics@play, has been influenced by him. I had subconsciously “Altmanesque”-ed our creative philosophy. The term has been used to describe the filmmaker’s trademark stylistic predilections, including overlapping dialogue, a restless camera, an ensemble cast, spontaneity, improvisation and a touch of impudence.

At antics@play, we obviously don’t have a cast of hundreds, but we are an ensemble effort nevertheless. Everything we put together is a beautiful collision of influences and ideas…from the strategist, the client servicing manager, the creative director and the designer to the hapless pizza delivery guy. Each brings to the table his or her unique gifts and perspectives (and if nothing else, lunch). Sometimes conversations happen all at once, sometimes not at all. Like a typical Altman film, we start from the same jump-off point, but as the project develops – be it brand or PR – a colourful cast of characters weaves in and out, sometimes influencing ideas and decisions, sometimes not at all. But the process seems so real, so present, so necessary. If it all sounds a bit chaotic, it can be. There is no typical approach to project development here. We don’t colour by numbers. Like Altman, we like to colour outside the lines. We thrive on spontaneity and improvisation – the bedrock to our play methodology. That’s how we liberate our minds to capture the ephemeral. They support the twin pillars of play and creativity, one of which cannot exist without the other. And the outcome is almost always amazing.

Like many improvisational directors, many creative directors seldom like to stick to the script, but will always start with one. And sometimes getting your cast into a room, giving them a scenario and then watching things unfold…that’s magical. It’s important however to know when to call “cut”, when to let the camera linger for just that little bit longer, and when to jump in and give notes. You need to direct it but not too much… just to a point where you know how to stitch it all together into the final product, while still giving cast members ample room to flex their creative muscle and grow new ones. Is this the best approach? Maybe not. But it is a helluva great one. One thing you cannot take away from the legendary director and this Altmanesque approach is that it is very much about the process and not just the final product. At antics@play, we are very much about the process too. The process inspires the team and inspires the client. It helps them push beyond themselves, and the merits of that surely outlast any foot cream or deodorant we sell.

In the film Altman, many Hollywood luminaries who’ve had the fortune to work with the director, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis and Julianne Moore, attempted to define the term “Altmanesque”: “Inspiration”, “rebel”, “human”… they go on and on. Many such adjectives they proferred surely captures not only the works of a late great master but the collective aspirations and the lifeforce of all creatives out there.

I recently visited with my friend Renee who stays in Moorpark, California. But who works in Thousand Oaks. Geographically, the city is about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles.

Moorpark and Thousand Oaks are connected by either Freeway 23, a leisurely 8-mile cruise down those wide-open California highwaysyou see in a Katy Perry music video; or a stunning, bendy, 2-mile stretch of Moorpark Road called the Norwegian Grade, seen only by the privileged few. For the several years I’d lived there, I never knew this place existed. And boy, is it breathtaking.

The historic Grade started as a one-lane trail carved out of a steep hillside by Norwegian settlers in the early 1900s to help farmers move harvested crops down the hill to Oxnard, a neighbouring county. A century later, today, the Norwegian Grade serves not farmers but some 6,000 commuter cars each day shuttling between Thousand Oaks and Moorpark, Camarillo and further cities. Besides the fact that you effectively shave 6 miles off your commute, the view along the grade is beyond words. And I can certainly see its appeal. Cradling the windy, narrow 2-lane stretch of road are rolling hills, green leaf cactus, brown sage, wild oats, old wooden fencing, the occasional grazing cows, and at dusk…the most magnificent sunset you will ever see. Never mind the fitful shocks of rusty barbed wire, a palpable lack of guardrail, and the absence of road shoulders and passing lanes. Negotiating the Norwegian Grade is therefore an understandably frustrating and rewarding experience. You can’t tear your eyes off the beauty that unfolds at every bend with great aplomb, but doing so would be deadly. Local media and residents call it “dangerous,” “really rough,” “patched up with lots of patches,” you get the idea.

And if you pay close enough attention, you can make out also the occasional accident shrines. I was told they were roadside memorials for cyclists who were killed traversing the Grade. Jim, who was with us as we travelled down the Grade, didn’t understand why cyclists continue to cycle up and down it, where there is virtually no passing lane or shoulders; only annoyed drivers being forced to share what’s already a difficult drive. Brush a little too close, and less sure-footed cyclists might plunge to certain death or become human-metal carcass. But that hasn’t stopped many cyclists from tackling the tricky Grade daily, bringing much consternation to drivers who’d rather be risking their lives for the beautiful sunset than having second-degree manslaughter on their conscience. Renee, a cyclist herself, simply said, “Maybe to some cyclists, this is their Everest”.

We know the aphorisms: No guts, no glory. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. Yes, cyclists do trade in cliches sometimes. But dig deeper and cliches are grounded in kernels of human truths. Whether you are a cyclist, a brand strategist, a creative thinker, a designer, or a business owner, you can cruise comfortably along an 8-mile stretch like everyone else, and be one of many; or you can grit yourself, strap on that helmet, peddle as hard as you can, and be a giant among few. Go for the glory and the bragging rights. And when you get to the top, you’ll pump your fist in the air like Tenzing and Hillary when they conquered Everest.

The best brand strategists, business owners and creative designers always stare up the grade and peddle as hard as they can. Never mind that they risk getting sideswiped by more conservative drivers or elbowed to an inch of their life. They have a date with the summit, and are determined to make it. The more treacherous the risks, the sweeter the taste of success. And if you get sideswiped, well, at least you leave a wakeful legacy for others (and yourself) and you trip up to the most amazing sunset of your life. And the good thing with what we do is, you’ll wake up again the next day, and live to see another sunrise. And be the wiser for it. That’s when you strap on your helmet and go at it again.

I love LEGO. And I love movies. Which is why when they announced they were going to make a feature film out of LEGOs, I was in geek nirvana. And then when The LEGO Movie actually rolled into the cinemas, I was at the front of the line. Delightfully, the film did not disappoint. Everything about it was, well, awesome.

Till last week.

To many Hollywood observers, The LEGO Movie was a shoo-in for the Oscars, with many predicting the battle for Best Animated Feature to be between The LEGO Movie and Big Hero 6. Both major studio releases did extremely well at the box office, featured the beloved classical hero’s journey storyline, and were at the top of their craft. One had heart and pathos, the other had big laughs and celebrated freedom of expression and the very idea of creativity. While Big Hero 6 slid in to the 2015 Oscar race, The LEGO Movie didn’t. What gives?

Interestingly, the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards that were given out mere hours after the Oscar nominations were announced awarded The LEGO Movie Best Animated Feature. Awkward…. So how is it that the broadcast critics (a notoriously snobby bunch) can laud a broad comedy about creative freedom that the Academy didn’t? Is it possible that of the 6,000 Academy voters – all creative practitioners – there just aren’t enough supporters for a film that celebrates creativity, the very engine that drives their industry? Evidently. The fact that Hollywood has been up-in-arms over the silencing of The Interview by North Korea has made the lack of support for The LEGO Movie at the Oscars even more deafly ironic.

Theories for the snub are many. But I guess it’s mostly because Academy members are just not as enamoured with populist, big-budgeted marketing vehicles as fans are, opting instead for artsier films like Song of the Sea, even if the movie’s theme strikes at the very heart of their chief preoccupation. For shame. I believe that in our line of work, there ought to be room for art, room for commerce and a room where the twain can meet. (My colleague tells me that twain is advertising.) Truly, The LEGO Movie speaks of what we creatives believe: That creativity knows no bounds. Except – apparently – at the frontyards of a few thousand Academy members.

If it’s any consolation, Team LEGO can always build their own statuette. And I bet it’ll be spectacular.