On Branding: products and.. places

Joe Duffy, one of the most respected and sought-after creative directors and thought leaders on branding and design, writes in a recent piece for FastcoDesign that naming is about much more than words; it goes beyond linguistics and phonetics.

Consider these names–alone. Apple. Amazon. Target. What do any of these words say about the products they sell? The services offered? The groups that started them, or more important, the companies that they have become?

Not much.

Then stop for a moment and think about the way the world communicates today. Paraphrasing. Colloquialisms. Jargon. Even when you have a brand name that defines your raison d’être, it often gets abbreviated. That’s what happened to Federal Express and America online.

And then…they embraced it.

These are but a few examples of truly relevant brands. Their true meaning comes from getting to know them, watching them evolve, seeing them for more than the letters that make up the words in their names.

Making a decision on a name, without the benefit of seeing it in its visual form, puts a person at a significant disadvantage. Done well, the power of the graphic presentation adds significant meaning. The interplay of positive and negative space (the arrow in FedEx); unique logotype (Saks Fifth Ave., Diet Coke); a symbol (I love NY); and color (Tiffany). These are some of the many elements that can work in concert with words to deliver greater meaning to a name. These are the cues that transform a meaningful name from being a mere product descriptor to a brand with differentiation, relevance, and personality.



As our world becomes more integrated, with the ability to see many cultures and readily buy and sell goods from multiple nations, as businesses cross borders more consistently, as our interaction with technology and the visual communication of graphic user-interface design increases, and as we are constantly pushed to process more and more information, we’re beginning to see some brands evolve to a place of “wordlessness.” Apple, Levi’s, Starbucks, and Nike are a few of the noteworthy brands that are leading this branding evolution. Perhaps this is because we’ve come to a point where we see new opportunity that can come with transcending the differences and struggles that verbal communication presents.

The product branding principles may still apply, but in the case of nation branding we are certainly dealing with a lot more complex ‘products.’

Anthony Ryman explains:

According to Simon Anholt, author of Brand America: The Mother of All Brands, a select group of countries have national images so powerful and so positive that they amount to megabrands. Other countries have successfully turned around, or repositioned, their national brand in recent years. Still others are actively working to polish their brand identity.


Countries effortlessly synonymous with a number of valuable attributes:

  • FRANCE: chic and quality of living?
  • ITALY: style and sexiness?
  • GERMANY: quality engineering?
  • SWITZERLAND: purity, wealth, integrity?
  • JAPAN: technology, entertainment, design

Turnaround Brands

Spain under Joan Miro's sun
  • SPAIN: Once thought of as a European backwater, Spain capitalised on the 1992 Barcelona Olympics to successfully re-brand itself as a hip Mediterranean playground (think of the Joan Miro sun symbol). The resulting rise in inward investment, property development and tourism has lifted Spain to an economic powerhouse within Europe.
  • IRELAND and SOUTH AFRICA re-branded themselves as countries on the move, based on their economic and political turnarounds, respectively. And the resulting increase in GDP, especially noticeable in Ireland, coupled with the rise in inward investment and standard of living has lifted Ireland to the top levels of healthy economies in the European Community.

Brands to Watch

  • BRITAIN, having already positioned London as a cosmopolitan, investment-savvy style capital, it now wants to extend the image to the rest of the country (Cool Britannia), coordinating efforts across government agencies.
  • SLOVENIA’s brand strategy has focused on transforming its image from that of a post-communist state to the new crossroads of Europe, building highways, lowering trade barriers, promoting foreign investment, and selling itself as an alternative tourist destination for those tired of Italy and France.
  • NEW ZEALAND: On the back of the successful worldwide smash hit Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Zealand launched a successful tourist campaign which has made the country the in place to visit and immigration and inward investment has soared as a result.

The Spontaneous Brand

According to Wally Olins, one of the foremost branding gurus, some nations develop a national brand in a kind of controlled or formalised way, but with others it happens almost spontaneously.

If you look at what is happening in India today, and the perceptions around India, none of these are controlled. India has emerged in the last five years in terms of perceptions in a quite different way from the way it was perceived ten or fifteen years ago. (See our post on India’s creative economy).

It was spirituality and poverty, and now it’s software; it’s highly educated people. And in some countries, Indian clothing: textiles and fabrics, are fashionable…. None of this is managed. It’s all spontaneous.

However India has recently launched a very powerful and dramatic tourist promotion, which really encapsulates the essence, spirit and beauty of Incredible India. Surely a sign of its increasing sophistication and power.


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