Brands as patterns

Question: What is simultaneously definitive, iterative, different and consistent?

Answer: A pattern.

“Brands are no longer definitive. They are temporal. Brands are informed by multiple voices, and they exist in multiple mediums and through multiple contexts. The media that a brand inhabits is no longer fixed or linear, it is iterative, with no beginning, no end, and little permanency.”

So goes the first few lines of Brands as Patterns, by Marc Shillum, Principal at Method and central figure in my favorite SXSWi 2012 panel of the same name. The panel was certainly tweetable, but also cerebral; these two qualities don’t often commingle. Our world, Shillum and the other panelists argued, is increasingly dynamic. But the traditional notion of a brand is one of unwavering consistency, carefully-designed, gradual evolution or dramatic (but infrequent) re-brands. The question: What should a brand look like when everything around it is changing faster every day?

A pattern.

Greg Johnson, Global Creative Director at HP, called for more responsive brands. “Our experiences are liquid,” he argued. Eight-hundred page brand guidelines and putting creative handcuffs on agencies are artifacts of a less-dynamic era, when brands were rewarded by being static. But now, Johnson told the audience, “we have to be digital first.” Digital-first brands are designed to be distinctive, relevant and active. Brand equity comes from where we meet our customers—not what we say to them. And in the single most memorable quote of the session, Johnson turned the notion of the siloed digital brand on its head: “Digital isn’t a medium; it’s the age we’re in.”

“A story is a description of a series of events that conveys meaning,” said Microsoft’s Robin Lanahan. In other words, a pattern. That meaning—the why—is what many brands are missing today. The story they create from the elements of their brand is chaotic, and sometimes vacuous—it makes little sense, and conveys no larger meaning. Not so with patterns, which “connect unconnected things,” according to Shillum. One of the most powerful examples of this truth didn’t make it into the session, but appears in the Motive 10×10 that inspired the panel:

“Rseaerch icntidaes taht the oerdr of the ltteers in a wrod dnsoe’t relaly mettar. Waht relaly mtteras is the frist and lsat leettr in the wrod. If tehy are in the rhgit palce, you can raed the wdors.”

Branding and composing are similar, according to Walter Werzowa of Musikvergneugen. He should know, as the mind behind Intel’s famous mnemonic. Werzowa played a loop of the four-note motif from Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5, and explained to the audience that successful music, and successful brands, are “built through the right combination of what is expected and something new.”  In Symphony Number 5, there is repetition; you hear the motif 45 times in one minute. But there is also uniqueness; almost every instance carries with it a slight variation of rhythm and notes. In both brand and music, “we lose audiences with either the lack of the expected or lack or repetition.” And in both brand and music, “the reward is dopamine,” the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.

The Conversation Index Vol. 3