So, what exactly is branding?

A beginner’s guide to the power of association

Brands and branding are a curious thing.

Most people can name several dozen brands off the top of their head, but few outside the profession can actually put their finger on what a brand actually is. Many in the profession can’t, either.

I don’t blame them. Brands are notoriously difficult to define; continually evolving and reinventing themselves to stay fresh for today’s customers yet relevant for the next generation. They do this in an infinite number of ways, a small sample of which I cover in my 101 Building Great Brands deck.

Let’s get stuck in.

A brand is a unique set of associations in the mind of a customer

It sounds abstract, but really it’s not.

Take watches, for instance. Mention a luxury brand like Rolex and the associations that spring to mind are likely to include wealth, prestige, status, craftsmanship, heritage, exploration. Whatever your take on someone who sports a $30,000 Daytona, it’s probably going to be different from what you think when I mention Swatch. Fun, colourful, cheeky, playful, inexpensive… and no less a reflection of its wearer than a Rolex.

Intrepid explorer or nouveau riche wanker?

The fact that a cheap, mass-produced Quartz timepiece keeps time more accurately than a hand-crafted masterpiece costing the price of a small car is irrelevant. Substitute Rolex and Swatch for any brand names in the same category — cars, fashion, bottled water — and the same applies. Is a white tee with a sweatshop-embroidered A&F logo better at a product level than a plain white t-shirt from Target? No, but certainly more desirable for many people. Brands ceased to be expressions of product truth a long time ago; in branding, perception trumps reality.

A $100 moose, today.

I said a unique set of associations.

Brands work hard to create associations they can own in their category. This is an intentional process. Range Rover continues to promote the go-anywhere, off-road capabilities of its upmarket SUVs in the full knowledge that 95% of owners will never climb anything steeper than a carpark kerb. It’s about knowing that if you wanted to, you could, and that for most owners is enough. That’s the difference between positioning and usage.

A Range Rover Evoque in its natural habitat

Branding is everything you do to create or influence those associations

Most people think ‘visual identity’ — logo, colour, packaging — when they hear the word branding, but it’s much more than that.

Abercrombie & Fitch use the same logo today as they did 25 years ago, but their brand exploded when they decided to reposition the company from a wholesome family-oriented brand in the early 90s (believe me, it was homely) to an edgy, sexy brand in the early 2000s. Their policy of hiring beautiful young people as salespeople in their flagship stores coupled with raunchy advertising worked a treat with the narcissism of the look-at-me generation.

Partially clothed young men forced to work in appalling conditions at an A&F store

At the same times, new brands like Beats and Toms spent very little on advertising and a lot on celebrity endorsement. Carefully planned paparazzi shots of Justin Bieber donning a pair of oversize Beats bestowed the funky looking headphones with instant mojo. A-listers were snapped wearing Toms alongside captions that explained founder Blake Mycoskie’s unique ‘one-for-one’ company philosophy. Cause branding is veneer-thin, but it works.

Toms founder Blake Mycoskie shodding the poor in Honduras, driving sales in the West

Other companies have created powerful associations with their brands through utility alone — especially Internet brands (more on that later). Wikipedia is a great example. A very plain logo and user interface, no marketing, no advertising, but a ubiquitous presence in Internet search results that transformed a secretive, peer-managed network into a household name and the #1 resource for lazy students the world over.

Wiki-ing Wiki is strangely meta

For years, Google eschewed branding aesthetics in favour of plain-Jane utility — their search engine homepage has remained largely unchanged since the beta days of the late 90s — and many would argue that the company only embraced brand design when it internalised the importance of UI design in mobile. After years of Apple tinkering with skeuomorphic and then flat design, Google came along with Material Design and blew us away (yes yes, I’m a Google fanboy.)

Branding is important because it transforms perception

Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in the retail food industry.

Take the re:bar chain of juice bars in Israel. Fresh juice bars have been arounds for decades in this country, all offering the same juice combos at pretty much the same price. A commodity. Then along came re:bar positioned themselves as a healthy lifestyle brand, and their drinks as remedy-in-a-cup. Sprinkle a little branding pixie dust and… Kapow!

Orange+pineapple+wheat+mint becomes re:cover.
Banana+granola+honey+yogurt becomes re:charge.

The 27 shekels isn’t for the juice, mate

re:bar didn’t invent fruit juice, they simply reframed it through the lens of perceived health benefits. By inventing a brand, they created a product that was greater than the sum of its parts. With a much higher price point.

(Don’t even get me started on coconut water.)

Starbucks didn’t invent roasted coffee, but they demystified it and created a retail phenomenon that had never existed in America before. (Nevermind that their overpriced brew tastes like dirty bathwater to me.)

Unilever sought to change the perception of female beauty through their famous ‘Real Beauty’ campaign for Dove. It was an inspiring, groundbreaking campaign — but that’s all it was.

Carefully selected ‘real women’ pose for a Dove campaign

It said no more about world view of Unilever’s senior management than the raunchy, sexist campaigns for another Unilever-owned brand, Axe / Lynx deodorant. Remember the ‘Spray more, get more’ ad from 2006? Proudly brought to you by the sponsors of Dove’s Self-Esteem educational campaign for young girls. Owning two mega brands with diametrically opposing messages is perfectly normal in the world of advertising.

There a gazillion more examples of brands and how they work in different and magical ways, which I’ll talk about in future posts.

So, where to from here?

I am loath to make any sweeping statements about the future of branding (you always look like a tit a year later) but my experience as a mentor for the Siftech Accelerator in Jerusalem, where we focus on digital brands, has made me think anew about the meaning of brands and the role they play in our lives.

Dieter Rams. ‘Less, but better’
  • Design. Dieter Rams nailed it in the 1950s, Jony Ive in the noughties. IKEA have been doing it for decades, Google have just started. Our (first world) lives are filled with more beautiful, more functional design than ever before. Design sells, and brands that have internalised this are going to do well. I think.
  • Utility. The eye-watering market caps of digital entities like Uber and Airbnb and rapid growth of SaaS brands like Slack, Hubspot and Marketo attest to the power of creating something useful… and being able to scale quickly, of course. Apparently we still haven’t run out of things to invent.
  • Transparency. The information age has limited companies’ ability to hoodwink the masses with bullshit marketing. We’re wiser and savvier now, and we expect companies to be accountable. Social media is the new People’s Court etc.
  • Emerging markets. Bullshit marketing is alive and kicking in new-money economies for whom 1980’s consumerism is relatively new. If you’ve ever eyeballed Chinese shoppers on a Bond Street Fendi spree you’ll know what I mean. Future growth of (low utility) luxury brands lies here.
  • Smug-but-oh-so-gullible Westerners. Put money in thy purse! As clever and clued-in as we think we are, we’re going to continue making mainly emotion-based purchase decisions and buying a whole lot of crap we don’t need. Believe me, I’m 42 and I own a mountain bike.

That’s it for now.

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Next Story — 3 top tips for aspiring creatives.
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3 top tips for aspiring creatives.

I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned and experienced, in the hope I can contribute something meaningful to those sailing in the uncharted waters of the Creative Ocean, needing all the navigation advice they can get their trembling hands on.

There is hope for a long successful creative career just by following a few guiding principles, so here are my top 3:

1. Draw inspiration from everything.

Every single day I see something that takes my breath away, created by an individual who leaves me feeling awestruck. After the initial 10 second pang of overwhelming jealousy has subsided I then feel a rush of inspiration having realised that I’ve just learned a new technique, approach or style — I have been creatively enlightened.

Sometimes it’s about simply observing the everyday, looking at something from a different perspective, imagining an object in another environment or a situation in another setting, drawing inspiration from interesting conversations or random anecdotal situations.

Above all, I find listening to others is one of my greatest inspirations. Record these things however you like. Some people sketch, some photograph, some write, some just remember. Use whatever method is easiest — get it tattooed on your partner’s posterior if that’s your thing. Just get it stored.

The trick is then to apply those insights and moments of inspiration when the time, and the brief, is right.

2. Stay level-headed and down to earth. (This one is tricky.)

I’d like to help inspire young creatives to pursue their dreams, follow their hearts and remain unbending in their quest for creative utopia without either becoming disheartened and quitting, or becoming egotistical maniacs along the way. Neither of those routes lead to happiness. Believe me, I’ve witnessed both the mighty fall and the talented crumble.

I’ve learned invaluable lessons through positive and negative experiences alike throughout my career. Often the harshest words and the cruelest people have made me more determined to succeed. It’s always about hearing the brutally honest truth, accepting it, learning from it and moving on to greater accomplishments. Keep believing in your ability, regardless of the setbacks: you got this far, you can go all the way.

My sensitive skin has gradually grown thicker and thicker, year after year of being in the industry, by learning to take every bit of feedback on the chin, accepting that it’s nothing personal, learning from it and applying those learnings to the next iteration of that project or future creative challenges.
It’s all about resilience, sheer determination and knowing when to listen. Lesser creatives make the mistake of thinking they know it all and their arrogance is their inevitable downfall.

Conversely it’s also about not letting great feedback and admiration of your work get to your head. This game is a marathon and if you rest on your laurels, you’ll quickly lose focus. You’re only as good as your last creative piece, so it’s about remaining consistent over a long period, so keep your feet on the ground even if your head is in the clouds.

3. Remember to switch off

Although the creative brain never really takes a holiday, it’s essential to break from a creative task, especially if you’re struggling. Go and make a coffee, have a chat, read a book, ride a horse if you like — just remove yourself from the situation and it will help. Sitting dwelling over the issue is a waste of time and energy. Come back refreshed and you’ll crack it.

The temptation is to submerge yourself in the problem you’re attempting to solve, but be courageous and walk away from it. Everyone needs time away from stressful and challenging situations and the creative process can be just that.

Try sticking to these 3 principles and hope, with a big dose of talent and levelheadedness, will overcome fear.

This is an extract taken from my longer article on LinkedIn.

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Next Story — Crew Creative Monthly- July, 2016
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Crew Creative Monthly- July, 2016

A monthly curation of the thought-provoking, the interesting, and the inspiring.

Campaign of the month

Click here to Watch

A new spot from Love Has No Labels takes a new stance on an age old subject- patriotism. Watch as former WWE wrestler John Cena redefines what it means to be a good American in this Independence Day tip of the cap.

Agency: R/GA New York
Director: Rocky Morton


Breaking News: Some companies are actively slowing down their app and software speed because, apparently, people just can’t handle it. An eye-opening delve into the heart of user-centered design.

from Mark Wilson at Fast Company Design


Seth Godin’s take on the way narrative shapes our lives, businesses, and how the things we make interact with the world.

from Seth Godin’s Blog


Get into the mind of Belgian designer Veerle Pieters of Duoh! as she serves up some lovely curation for your aesthetic aspirations this month.

from Veerle Pieters in Smashing Magazine

Social Consciousness

“Let’s be very clear here. Being concerned about cultural progression ‘damaging us as a society’ always repeats itself with the current trend and will continue to play itself out again and again and again.”

Is social media just a tool like the pen and paper were, or is it fundamentally different?

from Gary Vaynerchuck on Medium

Communicate your Design Ideas.

Make it easy to make and share design ideas with team members with Crew’s Go Moodboard. Try it out!

from Crew Labs

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Next Story — Designing for fashion
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Designing for fashion

Recently I was approached by art director Miran Tomičić to design a wordmark for an upcoming fashion brand. I thought process is worth sharing and would make an interesting read.

Fashion world is packed with houses, brands and designers of all kinds, each of them naturally having their own wordmark/identity. When talking logotypes, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of different stuff that has already been done. However, part of my job is to dig into it and together with the client/art director come up with the solution that not only stands out, but it makes sense for the story business is trying to tell/sell.

Fashion industry logotypes — at first glance one can argue all of them are unique, but looking closely helps to detect most of these are derived from 2 or 3 styles with variations in weight, width, uppercase, lowercase etc. Sometimes details are what matters, but only few are truly different, standing out from ‘fashion brand’ canon.

When stepping into the project, it’s essential to get more familiar with the subject — google, books, magazines, you name it. Being aware of what already exists helps, but it’s crucial not to limit yourself to the things you see there. This, together with the brief is a solid foundation to start.


Two sisters are starting a fashion brand. Both born on an island in Adriatic, one is Croatian top model, always on the road, influenced by worlds fashion hot spots, while other sister spends more time with the family and is more locally oriented. Not to stretch things too much — two styles, two fashion tastes, two worlds coming together into a single business idea.

From that point on, it was clear it’s all about duality. Think London + New York vs. think small traditional island of Pag. Think glamour vs. think ethno. Still, there wasn’t any specific parameter I should stick to, so window of possibilities was entirely open.

To make things easier for both myself and art director on the project, I broke sketching down into 3 parts:

First set of sketches focused on all-caps solutions referencing different styles: hairlines, ‘20s sans serifs, classic Roman Capitals…
Second set of sketches explored connected scripts, cursive forms and in general more relaxed direction.
Third set was more experimental — different effects applied such as shadows, dots, outlines, lace structure…

During the sketching process, I’m trying to put down anything that crosses my mind. I’m going rough and fast first, refining later. Many of shown examples were discarded the very moment they appeared on paper, but it’s hard to know what to eliminate without making it at first place. It really doesn’t cost more than couple of minutes.

Narrowing down

After evaluation, we picked best from each set of sketches and decided to explore those a little further. At this stage sketches are becoming more detailed, already revealing pros and cons for each solution:

Direction 1

Input Double stroke shapes or ‘inlines’ they are producing were interesting enough to move on with, but it felt like strokes are all over the place, serifs were inconsistently applied and overall color was out of balance.

Output Separate sans serif shapes from serif shapes more clearly. Create sans serif skeleton and try to add just a hint of classical contrasted serif shapes around. Introduce more classy feel to it — more contrast, more space around letters.

Direction 2

Input Shapes are somewhat sharp and aggressive which makes it interesting. However, it lacks elegance and grace in it’s blackness. Let’s use black shapes as areas that are filled with lace pattern — traditional motif from island of Pag.

Output Raster density would have to change from small sizes to big ones. Applying it on fabric and unexpected material would ruin the idea completely. Not really. Maybe some other time.

Direction 3

Input Dots are symbolising needle going through the fabric, drops of water, salt, city lights — plenty of branding possibilities. But shapes themselves weren’t even close to attractive. Either increase or decrease amount of dots in order to get more legible image. Make it look more refined. Another potential problem with this direction was that Stella McCartney already uses dots in her logo as well.

Output All three versions look much better after facelifting, but none is strong enough to carry the brand. Here it was more likely to develop the idea of a ‘responsive’ logotype that changes density of dots as size is increasing/decreasing, but it still visually wasn’t on the spot. Apparently, it was time to say goodbye to the dotted fellas.


Just to be sure we’re not missing something important, I also created some quick digital prototypes of different inline/line work. Thanks to amazing RoboFont editor and it’s creator Frederik Berlaen, it’s a matter of seconds to test different effects on your vector drawings.

Different levels of inline effect applied


We finally agreed on Direction 1. Testing logo in various sizes, colors and mockups helped to detect shapes are a bit too dark overall and especially in smaller sizes, spacing could be more generous. Therefore, to open up some space inside the letters I made O wider, while P and R got their bowls slightly bigger. Letters also gained more space around them — an old trick to make letters look monumental that already Romans knew about.

Adjustments in spacing + seriffed outlines gained more contrast to emphasize elegance and make whole thing lighter

When dealing with fine details it’s important to predict sizes shapes will appear in. Not all shapes work in all sizes — this has been proven by size specific designs already in 16th century by early punchcutters. Sometimes letters only need more space in smaller sizes to stay readable, but often details get lost. Knowing this wordmark will be scaled down in some applications, sharp endings were made flat. This small feature makes sure stroke tips don’t get faded out while they’re still percieved as sharp.

And here is the final wordmark already in use

Thank you for reading!

— Marko Hrastovec, June 2016

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Next Story — 7 Signs It’s Time to Rebrand Your Business
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7 Signs It’s Time to Rebrand Your Business

We get it. In the throes of passionately doing what you love, it’s easy to throw up a website, scribble a logo, and bang out a mission statement for your business. After all, it’s the work that you want to do that matters. Not your brand. Right?

Wrong answer.

Your brand is your organization’s number one spokesman, shiny shoes and all. And you know what happens to shiny shoes?

They get scuffed up. You grow out of them. You decide to go barefoot in the rain.

Before you know it, it’s time to get a new pair. And just like slipping into a new pair of shoes, it might be time to move into a new brand. Ocean Pacific can’t be cool forever.

1. When Elements Are Looking Dated

Are you embarrassed to put the logo on your collateral, or ashamed to use your Papyrus typeface on another letterhead? If things are looking like a pre-war can of beans, and not in a cool hipster “Kilroy was here” type of way, then it’s time to get back into the brand trenches.

2. When You Can’t Articulate Who You Are and What You Do and it Pisses Everyone Off

Has your language and copy become so esoteric and convoluted that no one at the company even gets it? Is your website filled with buzzwords that don’t mean anything? Would you rather dunk your head in a bowl of ice than articulate your value proposition? Yup, time for some brand CPR.

3. When Being “On Brand” Feels Constraining

Does the current brand and its guidelines temper your team’s ability to speak authentically and creatively? Is it more constraining than an iron maiden? If the team cannot stay focused, or agree, and their ingenuity is being stifled, that is killer to morale and innovation. Your brand’s gotta go.

4. When Your Website Is Stuck In 1996

Think CNN-levels of confusing content, sidebars upon sidebars, reels of testimonials from your mom, and nowhere explaining what exactly you do. If you find yourself reluctant to share your website with anyone, just know that there’s a cure to this website shame. Time to bring your brand into the 21st century.

5. When You’re Screaming the Wrong Message

Do you have to qualify everything you say on your website? Has your message evolved and your focus shifted? Does your brain think one thing and your mouth say another? Congratulations, time to step it up in the brand game.

6. When Nothing Matches Anymore

Is your website copy super aspirational, but the marketing materials visually all over the place? Does the MailChimp template font match the blog font? Are headlines written in the same tone? Are left and right brains attached at all? Time for a little brand rewiring.

7. When Shit Gets Hella Negative

Did you recently cause a massive oil spill that affected billions of people, ruined businesses, and destroyed people’s financial futures? Are you Bernie Madoff? For the sake of yourself and your business, it might be time for your brand to check into the witness protection program. Dude, it’s time to clean up your act and step out into the world with a new look.

So it’s officially time for a rebrand. Now see how it all comes together.

About ABC Design Lab

Born out of West Coast ingenuity and New York grit, ABC Design Lab is part design firm, part product development team, advancing the way businesses are born and evolved. As a team of artists, scientists, and strategists, we build brands and digital products that emotionally and intuitively connect.

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