Debbie Millman: Brand (& human) thinking

[Tom Biederbeck] Debbie Millman’s visionary ideas have shaped global brands like Pepsi, Gillette, Colgate, Nestlé and many more. In her new book Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, she brings the insights she’s gained in her work to conversations with top brand thinkers, strategists and critics — Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Brian Collins, Stanley Hainsworth, Virginia Postrel, Sean Adams and 16 others. Here she shares what she learned in these searching, memorable and above all entertaining discussions: the lessons, the surprises and why brand thinking is ultimately a noble pursuit.

One of the unique things about this book is that you ask each subject for a definition of branding. Was there a single definition where you went, “A-ha! That’s it in a nutshell.”
There was one “a-ha” moment that really influenced me, and there was a definition of branding that was most insightful. The definition I felt was most accurate was from, not surprisingly, Wally Olins, who I feel with Walter Landor is one of the fathers of branding. What Wally says is, “Fundamentally, branding is a profound manifestation of the human condition: belonging to a tribe, to a religion, to a family. Branding demonstrates that sense of belonging. It has that function with people who are part of the same group and also for the people who aren’t.” That’s it in a nutshell.

The “a-ha!” moment for me came from Dan Pink. It might be something everyone subconsciously knows, but I thought it was really profound. He says, “This is the dark side of brands. Let’s go back to the analogy of food and hunger. Whether it’s a big-screen TV or a car, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that human beings metabolize these things very quickly. I’m specifically using the word metabolize because we are talking about hunger and thirst. If a big-screen TV is your symbol of stature and significance, it’s a fool’s game. These kinds of external objects do not provide enduring satisfaction.”

He goes on to talk about what psychologists call the “hedonistic treadmill.” If you’re always looking to validate yourself from buying things, then you are never going to be fully satisfied. You’re on an endless, addictive treadmill. The brand’s only purpose is to get you on that hedonistic treadmill. It may be good for the business in the short run, but in the long run, you’re doomed.

There are things we need to survive — food, shelter, etc. But we are constantly looking for ways to articulate what is “food” and what is “shelter.” We do that even with our bodies and the ways we signify what tribe we belong to. But if we use these things to feel better about ourselves, we will never get there. Ultimately, having that knowledge gives us power.

The definitions of branding your subjects offer are all different. Are there elements that unite the definitions?
It’s all very much about telegraphing a point of view. The brands that we choose or don’t choose, even in the act of defying by not choosing, telegraph who we are. Even the choice of not branding something still has its ramifications.

Take the idea of anti-branding. Advocating being against brands often means using the very tenets of branding that are so obviously disdained. No Logo has a name and a position. Adbusters is using the tenets of branding on their own website and the products they’re developing. Their own positioning is all about branding.

I get very interested when people talk about brands or corporations being bad: How bad things are. How bad the capitalist system is. How bad certain products are. These are all constructs that humans have created. What are we saying when something is called bad? There are good brands, bad brands, good people, bad people, good movements, bad movements. Ultimately, when you take away all the constructs, you’re left with the way humans behave and the way humans believe. Every single thing we do is a choice, as is every brand. What we’re actually talking about when we’re talking about brands is human behavior.

Do you have your own definition of branding?
Yes. I don’t know if it’s beautifully tied-up with a bow, but it goes something like this: We use brands to project who we want to be in the world, how we want people to perceive us, and how we want to feel about ourselves.

This is the part that really fascinates me: How do we incorporate these brands into our psyche and how we do use them in our lives? Why do we do this as a species, marking things the way we do? We’ve been documenting our history and experiences since the caves of Lascaux. We don’t just talk. We create symbols and language to find and describe our life experiences.

I’m almost too shy to ask you the next question … almost: Do we really need another book on branding?
I like that question. This isn’t a book about selling ideas or processes or ideologies. This book is about why we do these things. It’s really a book of 22 and a half points of view, my own being the half because I’m directing the conversation. It isn’t a book about how to brand, it’s about the perspectives of people who have been thinking about these things most of their lives.

Are there characteristics those 22 people share that make them particularly good at branding? As opposed to being great designers or great business managers — both of which those who do branding are good at.
They are multidimensional. They’re certainly seen as masters in branding, but they’re also deeply knowledgeable about cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, to a degree neurosciences, economics. They’re almost Renaissance thinkers in a way, because they are using everything around them to answer questions.

I don’t think the people in this book would describe themselves as brand strategists or brand thinkers. They see themselves very differently. I don’t think Malcolm Gladwell thinks of himself as a brand consultant. Maybe Tom Peters would, but he’s more of a guru than a consultant. I approached them through this filter of who they are, and then we talked about branding.

The subtitle of your book is, “and other noble pursuits.” Throughout there are linkages made between branding and sciences — economics, anthropology, liberal arts, history — which are considered serious undertakings. To a lot people in the world, branding is synonymous with advertising.
That is certainly how it’s thought of. A brand, though, is a condition of the culture and therefore a condition of the species. For me, the noble pursuit is looking at how we are human: We do this, so why and how do we do it? Brand thinking is really human thinking.

Debbie Millman’s Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits will be officially released Sept. 27. Order a copy here or from the publisher, Allworth Press, or see your local bookseller.

Debbie Millman is the president of the Design Group at Sterling Brands. She is also the president emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design. Millman is a contributing editor at Print magazine, a design writer at and chairs the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005 she began hosting the first weekly online radio talk show about design, Design Matters with Debbie Millman, which is now featured at She is the author of three previous books: How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer (Allworth Press), The Essential Principles of Graphic Design (Rotovision) and Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design, (HOW Books).

This article’s pull quotes set by Parker Biederbeck.

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