Alina Wheeler: Branding and Bowie

Alina Wheeler knows from branding. A highly regarded author, frequent speaker and in-demand consultant to marketing executives and design consultancies, Wheeler has guided countless brand launches and reinventions. Her book, Designing Brand Identity, has become the foundational instruction manual for the discipline, a reference for both practicing pros and design students around the globe; its fifth edition is due out later this year.

Wheeler will take the stage at HOW Design Live on the closing day—Saturday, May 6, which is just over a week away—for a keynote presentation: Change. Change. Change.

We recently asked her about the trajectory of branding as a cultural phenomenon and business discipline.

Designing Brand Identity coverThe first edition of your book, Designing Brand Identity, was published in 2003. The fifth edition is due out this year. In that decade-plus, what’s the single biggest change in the discipline of branding that you’ve seen?
Take a moment and think back to 2003—no smartphones or apps, no social media, websites akin to online business cards, and shopping was conducted in brick-and-mortar stores. Branding was one- way corporate communications, analytics were not predictive, and big data was small. And oh by the way, my first edition was in black and white.

The single biggest change in branding is that the customer now has power and a platform to communicate and to be heard. The smartphone has become her megaphone, her command central, her spa and shopping mall, her personal museum and archive.

Every aspect of our life is now online. The blur between our technology and ourselves is quickly disappearing. Our lives are now an open (face)book. Reputations now hang on a thread—a single tweet or video gone viral can make or break a brand’s equity.

You’ve prescribed a definitive process for developing and implementing a brand. What do most design and marketing teams get wrong?
The design team and the marketing team view themselves as two teams and not one. Your question reminds me of my favorite Von Glitschka quote: “Marketing without design is lifeless. Design without marketing is mute.”

The hardest thing is busting through the silos and working together across disciplines to make the customer and the work the hero. The most common mistake is not trusting the process, not taking the time to build trust, and not doing the hard work to build agreement on core precepts of a brand: What does it stand for? How is it different? Why does it deserve the business? In the rush to launch and rebrand, not enough teams take the time to build a solid, sustainable foundation based on competitive research and insights.

Are there a few brands out in the world that you think really nail it?
My favorite brands keep moving and are irreplaceable—I can’t imagine life without them. They understand me, and they find ways to delight and surprise me no matter where I am on the digital physical spectrum. They keep on innovating. And I trust them. They pay attention to all of the touchpoints, pay attention to their culture and leverage good design to build brand equity.

Apple is still my number one—I can’t imagine my life without them and I feel that they know me.  I love Airbnb because they disrupted a whole industry. They think about my entire experience, and make it easy for me—before, during and after my stay. Their core values are strong and clear. Target continues to delight me—and I admire how they are experimenting with new, smaller stores in urban areas. I also love IBM Watson—they are advancing the possibilities of the way man and machine work together to solve complex problems. IBM has always been a strategic and effective communicator; they have a long history of demonstrating that good design is good business.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a whole new generation of brands that redefine making a difference—like Ashoka, TOMS and (RED). I could make a very long list now—brand building has really evolved over the last decade.

The transfer of brand ownership from companies to consumers. The rise of social media. The concept of “brand experiences.” What’s the next disruption in this field?
The decade of disruptions is gaining momentum—we are all eager to benefit from what’s next.  The big disruption is simulation—from simulating human intelligence by machines to simulating experiences. We will be designing virtual experiences that feel true. We will participate in dialogues about what is tangible vs. imaginary, real vs. fake, actual vs. virtual. We will be designing our own personal robots to join our branding teams and then renting those robots to our clients.

The other big disruption is mass customization—every object becomes personalized and custom made, from our homes to our clothes to our body parts and personal digital assistants. Great news for customers, and hell for intellectual property lawyers.

David Bowie ImageCollage

The description of your session heavily references David Bowie. What about him inspires you?
I am, quite simply, fascinated by David Bowie. OK: obsessed. I have always wanted to give a speech with music so the audience could dance! What better time than the end of a conference!

Bowie’s deep influence has really touched and changed us—not just music, art and fashion—but larger ideas of compassion and acceptance. He recognized that all of us contain different personas—he gave us permission to rethink gender fluidity, to redefine beauty, and to be an alien.  He was in a constant state of creative and collaborative flux—a hybrid thinker and a shape shifter. This talk is a gift to the audience and an homage to him.

If you still haven’t registered for HOW Design Live, there’s still time to book your ticket for this career-transforming experience. Still time to hear from experts in design, art, branding—and beyond—including Alina Wheeler, Seymour Chwast, David Carson, and more. Still time to find your tribe of creative peers. HOW Design Live starts on Tuesday, May 2. There’s still time for you to be there, so register now and pack your bags.