News & Views

A Safe Distance

by Contagious Contributor

Sarah Watson, CSO at BBH New York, argues in favour of a consensus-based shorthand that gives creatives a sense of a brand's vividness and depth in the final essay in our dialogic brands debate

Read John V. Willshire's original article here, and responses from Martin WeigelMark Earls and Marcus Venner.

Every Sunday, sometime after 4:30pm but always before 5:00pm, a tower block-sized cruise ship goes past the window of my apartment. If you look carefully, you can just about make out the long row of people standing on deck, and it often saddens me to think that this will be the last some of them will ever see of New York. But they are also at the perfect distance to take in the iconic New York of the popular imagination; from 10 floors high and a quarter of a mile away, they see the Empire State, Freedom Tower, Statue of Liberty and then they're off under the Verazano Bridge, out to sea.

It is so different from what New Yorkers see. We each live in our own corners of the city, tripping up over the squalid sidewalks, kept awake by dull bass beats and noisy neighborhood disputes and forgetting - because it is impossible to remember the whole time - that we are actually in New York, New York.

I noticed the other day that there is something very similar which happens with brands. There are so many that I've admired from a safe distance because they seem to be so incredibly sure of who they are and what they stand for - only to work with them and find them inhabited by warring sects disputing what the brand is really about, teams dissatisfied with the current articulation; angry and uncomfortable at having to work with such shifting sands.

In fact, the brands I've worked that have their articulation peacefully agreed upon are the exceptions. Brands are living things; it is extremely hard to contain their richness in a neat set of words. Some are easier than others - a mature, single product brand is a different case from an emerging service brand, but it is always going to be inexact.

It isn't specifically the internet that is a 'dialogic space where no consensus and no single points of view exist'. All the internet does is expose the brand in many more ways - the likes, the fan sites, the archive - and record the churning chaos. Even before the digital world, our brand onions were never really fully satisfying - but they've been just about sufficient to bring us together to move forward.

And it isn't specifically brands for which a single definition is reductionist. The whole world operates off easy but insufficient short hands. It's the only way we can proceed. None of us could live with the true complexity that underlies the veneer of our everyday lives - ie that everyone's experience of the world is different from the next person's and that what we see as 'real' only exists in our own imaginations.

The real question is whether the brand short hands we work with contain a sufficiently nourishing narrative for those working with them to create something good. I always remember Tom Ford describing how he was able to simultaneously design for Yves St Laurent and Gucci; 'one is Audrey Hepburn, the other Sophia Loren'. A quick shorthand but one that had enough vividness and depth for him to create collections and communications season after season. Otherwise, the closer you get, the easier it is to lose touch with what's going on. For those of us floating by observing from the deck of our cruise ship, it all looks fine. It's those of us living in amongst it all who have to work with it every day who need to make sense of it all.

Brands work best when those working with them feel it in their bones. That's the main task for those describing them. Of course, if the same tight group of people is controlling the product and the brand voice - a dialectic approach is ideal. Just go with the flow! For the rest of us in more traditional client-agency relationships, an enlightened pragmatism is required.

So, in summary, we do need consensus-based brand short-hands to work off, we definitely need to be less rigid in how we describe them and we must always, always seek really vivid, instantly telegraphic depth.

Sarah Watson is chief strategy officer at BBH New York

Image via Dan DeLuca