There’s a wonderful chapter in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (affiliate link) called “We Are Not the Poem.” It’s my favorite chapter of the book, and it’s one I’ve gone back to many times in my professional and personal life, for many reasons.
I’ve shared with writers and designers when they’ve had to deal with particularly trying edits or critiques — or what was perceived as personal attacks disguised as edits or critiques.
I’ve handed out copies of the chapter to a journalism class right before I handed back their first assignments, covered in my red-ink edits and remarks.
I’ve read and reread that chapter to remind myself that whatever I create — a blog post, an article, a book, a song — is not me, but merely a reflection of an aspect of me and my thoughts at a particular time and space, and that I should not interpret reactions (positive or negative) to my creations as critiques of me as a person.
And now I’m about to use it to talk about branding and logos.
“Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers,” Goldberg writes, “I realize they think those poems are me.”
It is important to remember we are not the poem. People will react however they want; and if you write poetry, get used to no reaction at all. But that’s okay. … Don’t get caught in the admiration for your poems. It’s fun. But then the public makes you read their favorites over and over until you get sick of those poems. Write good poems and let go of them. Publish them, read them, go on writing.
We are not the poem. It’s a good way to think of ourselves and the work we create.
We are not the award-winning articles we’ve written, or the rough drafts we’ve wadded and tossed into the wastebasket. We are not the deck we built last summer, or the garden we tended, the marvelous magazine cover we created, the website we redesigned, the blog post we published.
Which brings me back to branding and logos.
Our brand is not the logo. Right?
On Wednesday, Twitter and the marketing/branding blogs (including this one) were blowing up with chatter about the new Starbucks logo. (Here’s my contribution.) In the wake of that news, several of us higher ed marketing types spent about 20 minutes exchanging a flurry of thoughts on the topic of branding and logo design. It began when Paul Prewitt tossed this morsel to me and Seth Odell:
Why do people equate brand to graphic identity? The graphic elements are only a small part of a strong brand. @andrewcareaga @sethodell
Seth and I responded, as did Travis Brock (via @EMGonline) and Eric Hodgson. Due to Twitter’s 140-character limit, none of us could very easily respond to Paul’s question, but I believe we all agreed with the second half of his tweet, that “graphic elements are only a small part of a strong brand.”
At one point, Seth tweeted, “I think graphic identity may be the strongest point of brand connection for low level stakeholders.” And he’s probably right — especially when it comes to big brands, such as Starbucks, that spend truckloads of money to get their logos, slogans, taglines and other more tangible brand elements out into the media space.
But back to Natalie Goldberg and poetry. I think people assume that an organization’s visual identity — i.e., its logos — is in fact the brand.
Because, despite what Natalie Goldberg says about the differences between the poet and the poem, what people see and react to is not necessarily the poet, but the poem — the tangible creation.
Let’s do a little word association. Let me toss out a name to you — Robert Frost. Now, what do you associate with that name? Perhaps one of his more famous poems, like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” or maybe one of the passages from that poem, like “But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep.”
Now, why would those associations come about? Because you’ve read or heard them so many times. They’ve become what you associate with the “brand” of the poet Robert Frost.
Maybe poetry isn’t your thing. So let’s try Baha Men. What comes to mind? (I’m not going to type the song title here, but if you listened to the radio or went to a club at all in the early 2000s, I’m sure you and I associate the same tune with this band.)
But I’m supposed to be talking about logos here — visual things. If logos are supposed to embody and communicate the essence of an institution’s brand in a visual sense, then the best ones should be associated strongly with the institution they represent. Just like a Picasso looks like a Picasso, and a Dali looks like a Dali.
So, your brand is more than the visual identity. But these days, in our highly visual culture, the visual identity is a crucial component.
Also, creating a brand isn’t writing poetry. It’s more like alchemy. That’s the way Scott Bedbury, the guy who helped create the Starbucks brand, describes the process it in his book A New Brand World (another affiliate link).
The alchemical process … — the transmutation of “base” materials into gold — occurs in the deepest recesses of the human brain as a memory. This memory may be sharp, or it may be out of focus; it is of everything that the consumer in question has seen, heard, or felt about that particular brand. The products themselves are just one contributing factor among many in this mental construct.