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Brands in the Key of Real

Artists, entrepreneurs—and your company

Paola Norambuena in conversation with Peter Cenedella and Daniel Diez

When a brand is not a brand, it’s still a brand. After the many exciting conversations with artists and designers, architects, activists, and media mavens were finished, that phrase was reassessed to see what it really means and how it might inspire any organization.

Peter Cenedella: So what does it mean to say that “even when a brand is not a brand, it’s still a brand?” What is a “non-brand”?

Paola Norambuena: Well an artist, to some, is a non-brand, but as we’ve seen in our conversations with Paola Antonelli, Massimo Vignelli, and others, a great artist, designer, or musician is, in the purest sense, a brand. Not because he sets out to be a brand, but because he inherently knows who he is, and stays true to that. He listens to his passions, listens to the pulse in the marketplace, follows that pulse, and then leaps off from there to do something unique. As we get to know them, as we want to like what they like and own what they have, and recognize ourselves in their expression, they become brands for us. A painter like Mark Rothko is a brand because I recognize the meaning, I recognize the vision, the name alone tells me something I can imagine, even a price point.

A lot of companies aspire to that kind of status, but they often think it can be had in the machinations that go into defining a brand, and a lot of strategizing. But in the end, it is about intuitively being oneself. And although this is often harder for an organization than it is for an individual artist, it can be done.

Daniel Diez: How does that become useful information for a corporation, say?

PN: The inspiration that a “non-brand” would give me is that all of the decisions they have made have been pure to their vision, even if that vision was never articulated in a positioning statement. It’s fair to say that organizations of all sizes and stripes have something to learn from these artists, these “non-brands.”

DD: Why?

PN: Because they tend to do, more intuitively, what we as strategists do for an organization. It’s knowing what I stand for, not compromising what we stand for, it’s listening to logic—and discarding it when needed, creating a very definitive style and sticking to it And the art world is full of the kinds of behaviors that I would say brands should follow.

DD: Are there any companies out there that behave this way?

PN: The Kidrobot brand has taken that kind of approach. And it’s largely because their founder, Paul Budnitz, is a young entrepreneur who set out to do something, was passionate about it, learned from challenges, and then focused in on what he loved and did it to the Nth degree. That’s generally something that you see with younger brands, smaller brands, companies that have that renegade spirit in their DNA. When you listen to 26-year-old Internet startup guys talk, they have a very clear sense of who they are, of what they want, a very clear sense of the cultures they want to build and of the products they want to deliver.

But just as Budnitz embodies that, so does the older and more established Steve Jobs. So it is possible to be established and large, yet still true to an intuitive and artistic approach—a visionary approach—to brand.

PC: You hit on the notion that young and hungry brands often learn from failure. What are some primary lessons of failure?

PN: It’s about getting to know yourself that much better. And part of that is understanding your limitations. So Facebook decided they needed a grown-up to come in and sell advertising. Kidrobot brought in financial people because they wanted to focus on the vision and let someone else deal with the spreadsheets. So it’s evolutionary. Big artists do it, as well. Lady Gaga and Madonna are artists and entrepreneurs, they understand how to build themselves out, what their brand can and can’t sustain. Successful brands do this, whether they do it intuitively or by the letter of the business plan.

This process of building out, bringing in the grown-ups, evolving without losing the core—it allows the brands to be true to themselves but still reckon with the by-products of growth, of success. They cede some terrain as part of learning how to succeed. But you don’t give up the essence of what makes you unique. For instance, Kidrobot took its early cues from New York City, but eventually relocated to Colorado to get a fresh start on the creative side and shake things up. Sometimes what seems counter-intuitive turns out to be the most logical way to build a great brand.

PC: If one of our jobs as a brand consultancy, often to larger brands, is to help them behave more like a lean, agile, wild-spirited entrepreneurial brand in certain respects, how do we do that? What does that look like?

PN: So many large organizations tend to ask: How can we be more nimble? Nimble, agile, all those words, seem counter-intuitive to size and scale. But the proof is in companies like Apple that can make what appear to be very nimble decisions at the creative level and then bring the rest of the organization in behind it to deliver. Sometimes it’s celebrating scale because it’s what helps us be nimble. And sometimes defining who we’re not is more important than defining who we are.

DD: That’s interesting, it reminds me of what Vignelli said about his design epiphany, his a-ha moment, when he saw how Mies van der Rohe didn’t add elements to arrive at a finished design, but subtracted and subtracted until he knew: It’s done, there it is.

PN: Yes. It’s authenticity that compels you to take away and to know when to say no, because deciding what you won’t do is often much, much harder. It’s deciding who you are and sticking to it, and that’s the larger lesson we can learn from the brands that are not brands—artists, musicians and entrepreneurs, who no matter how much they shy away from the traditional definitions of business or brand, we still want to wear as a badge.

FYIQ