Unbranded

Or how old school ‘branding’ is giving way to a new school—and why that’s good for literally everyone

As anyone who’s spent any time with any of us at Sequitur can likely attest, we have a tendency start mumbling a lot whenever we’re asked to define what ‘branding’ is. Our agency got pinned with that moniker very early on — partially because we got our start as a traditional design-heavy house focused on helping companies refine their identity—their look and feel, not their raison d’être.

But then, about eight years ago, things took a radical shift for us—when the good folks at eBay tapped us to help them figure out how to get their mojo back. Very much not a design gig. And certainly only marginally an identity project. Instead, the ask was much more expansive. And much, much harder to pin down. In retrospect, what they were looking for was help clarifying their intent. And getting their story straight. They wanted figure out how to show up for consumers in more meaningful ways again. They wanted to rediscover how to reconnect (internally) around their original vision (which had gotten blurry as the company had scaled and the business model shifted). Net-net: they wanted to start sounding and acting like their better selves again.

And that is SO not an old-school branding gig. It’s an exercise in introspection, and being fiercely curious about what your audience actually cares about. Easier said than done, right? But not impossible. Turns out, this new approach worked. And in making it work—in helping eBay begin to look (fearlessly) inward and outward—we suddenly found ourselves in an entirely different business. One that continues to shift and evolve to this day. Thus our seeming difficulty in answering the simple question ‘So what do you guys do again?’ in a quick, pithy way.

Which is interesting (for us and, we hope, for the people doing the asking) because it points to a larger, macro business trend. Basically, the old notion of ‘branding’ is no more. The tried and true (or, actually, tired and not so true) techniques for luring customers into your tent no longer work. People care less and less about what your logo looks like, and more and more about what you’ve done for them lately. You know: what value you bring to the table — on a day-to-day basis.

“Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
- Jeff Bezos

People rally around brands that ‘get’ them — that offer something of demonstrable value. Something useful. Something real. Time has come for companies to stop shouting and start listening. And here are five ways to do that. Think of them as (relatively succinct) maxims that we’ve seen work out nicely for our clients — and for those of our other pals in the constantly evolving, ever-amorphous world of new school branding.


Show Don’t Tell

Sounds obvious. But still, it’s astoundingly hard for some companies to do. For decades, the traditional MO of anyone in marketing has been to double-down on crafting a clever, repeatable story and then shouting it from the rooftops at the highest possible volume. Thus the days when Mad Men carpet bombed the airwaves with earworm-y jingles shilling soap or soda or shoes. Today though, the brands that stop commanding people to buy stuff and start making things that people actually want to use and/or tell their friends about are increasingly the ones in the winner’s corner. It might be a bummer for the media buyers out there, but moving your advertising spend into the engineering column is an increasingly savvy idea — one that’s paying real, measurable dividends.


Create Experiences

Basically, this means moving beyond the logo. Good example: Netflix. Though it drew the ire of many in the design community when it first launched the new Netflix N, the company has basically proven how little the traditional artifacts of old school identity actually matter to consumers these days. Sure, corporations will always have to signal their presence in the world to consumers in an arresting, recognizable, and hopefully elegant way. But, these days, what matters more to consumers is what happens once they actually decide to engage with you. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. And people are increasingly tolerant of, well, mediocre identity moves. They can forgive the seeming unoriginality of the Medium, AirBnB, Flipboard, and Beats marks — so long as the brands themselves create experiences that they can get behind. So, short version: deliver real utility or meet a deep emotional need, and your brand will suffer the slings and arrows of gimlet-eyed design critics and rabidly change-averse rebrand haters (remember the consumer-led Gap logo switcheroo?) alike.


Connect at Shared Points of Passion

Again, another seemingly obvious one. But true. And something that bubbled up in our work with Clif Bar. Unlike a lot of companies out there, Clif is (really) in two businesses. Sure, they’re in the CPG sector (and increasingly showing up in the snack aisle). But they’re also still very much in the adventure business. Their core offering is comprised of products that, quite literally, fuel adventure. And unlike Quaker Oats, Nabisco, or General Mills, Clif can credibly show up in the world of adventure sports as a soulful participant. Which makes them a storytelling goldmine. They can tell their story through the stories of others — and how they played a part (however small) in those stories. Whether it’s Geoff Roes telling the epic tale of bonking on the Western States 500 (until a Cilf Shot stoked his inner comeback kid), or Clif founder Gary Erickson telling the brand’s origin story through the lens of his white roads journey through the Alps, Clif is able to signal their intent clearly and connect with consumers about what they care about. And that’s the stuff that builds real loyalty these days.

And, even if your company wasn’t founded on a bicycle, you can still always find the places where you’re passionately engaged—whether it’s around elevating the experience of flight for Virgin, having a great night’s sleep for Casper, or living like a local for AirBnB. You get the idea…


Rally Your People

This is a big one — that more and more companies (and more and more of our clients) are seeing the importance of lately. If you want to tell a story that resonates with consumers, you have to tell a story that’s true. Before you start figuring out how to segment your audience or deduce what makes your your demographic tick, you need to do the hard work of discovering (or in some cases rediscovering) what makes you tick. This often means taking a good, long look in the mirror — and acknowledging the real strengths and weaknesses of your company, your culture, your products, and your leadership. Warts and all. Then and only then (we’ve seen) can the rockstar CEOs of the world paint a compelling picture of the way forward for the rank and file on the inside. Which is THE job of the ones in the fancy corner offices, isn’t it? If you’re like Elon Musk, who can cultivate an evangelical fervor in the board room and the break room, odds are you’re going to be able to do the same thing on the main stage (no matter how un-smooth your presentation style might be). Why? Because real belief, real zeal, is contagious. Especially when it resonates with the people and culture of the company. Nurturing that zeal at HQ is the new, new secret to nurturing it on Main Street (no matter what Madison Avenue might tell you). Even though the share price might not immediately go through the roof (come ON Tesla…), good storytelling pays real dividends. We swear.


Work With Partners That Get You

Now, this might seem entirely self-serving (and, truth be told, it totally is) but we still think it’s important to call out. Because, hiring the right agency can supercharge your storytelling, these days especially. We’ve seen it ourselves. Case in point, a biotech start-up called Counsyl that recently rang us up. Their ask: ‘We used to be a first-mover in the genetic testing space, and we’re suddenly losing ground to a bunch of competitors who are flooding the market with choice and playing sketchy pricing games. Oh, and we keep trying to make in-roads with consumers, but we’re wondering if our real audience might be doctors (who see us as part of the problem, not part of the solution)’. Long ask. But our answer was longer. We told them there are essentially two schools of branding. The old school and the new school. The old school is all about ensuring that the company wins (by telling the biggest, loudest story — you know, the earworm approach). The new school is about ensuring that the customer wins (by doing the hard work of really understanding what customers need, and then going above and beyond to meet those needs). In the end, we worked with the folks at Counsyl on the quick to get a crisp and clear picture of what world-weary, time-starved doctors actually care about. Turns out, it’s precisely the same thing that the MDs, PhDs, and whip-smart robotics engineers within Counsyl care about too—doing the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons. All with the larger goal of actually helping people.

With that in mind, we helped them shift their focus from saturating the airwaves with feel-good broadcast advertising (that, no matter how brilliantly executed or beautifully shot, still wasn’t moving the needle) to telling an honest story about doing good, done right. That story showed, in a concise way, how everything they do as a company flows from their true purpose. That story hit all the right notes, right away — and offered demonstrable proof of Counsyl actually making good on their intent in a way that benefited doctors and consumers alike. Win-win. Win.

We know that every organization can’t live up to the Hooli promise. But we’re honored to work with companies that really are trying to make the world a better place. In Counsyl’s case, by building a hyper-efficient lab, lowering the cost of their tests, and not gouging patients and insurance companies on pricing, they’ve already saved the healthcare industry over $400M.


See, that’s basically the new school in action. It’s about building a brand that radiates a real and true sense of purposeful ambition. It’s about demonstrating intent via concrete action (not empty promises or lofty slogans). It’s about creating visceral experiences that your audience (on the inside and the outside) can rally around. And it’s about telling your story through the collective pursuit that you and your audience are engaged in, together. When brands do that, like Counsyl did, they and their consumers win. Big time.

And that, we think, is what modern branding is all about.