Originally published as Introduction for Graphis Branding book

Many years ago I read a book whose protagonist, upon returning to his old Brooklyn neighborhood, noticed that Feinberg’s Funeral Home had changed its name to Death ‘N Things. At the time, I thought it was humorous snipe at modernization. Today, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear the idea proposed in a marketing meeting. It seems so, well, now. “In conclusion, Mr. Feinberg, our proposal puts a positive spin on your core business, makes the public image more user friendly, involves your customers in an interactive pre-burial experience and broadens the retail model towards a upscale inventory and greater profit potential.” The new branding should, of course, avoid family labeling in order to provide the broadest base for franchising. If Death ‘N Things doesn’t float the boat, The Funeral Barn™ or Caskets ‘N Baskets would certainly fit the bill. Large and corporate? Consider Ameritual®. Add a snappy positioning line such as “Put some FUN in your FUNeral” and, given the swelling ranks of the aging baby boomers, you’ve got yourself a new billion dollar concept: Hereafter Marketing. All you need now is a really hot branding program.

We live in extraordinary times. The Nike swoosh and banded Apple logo which heralded the last latest new era now seem so last decade. There are, however, those among us who believe technology is wreaking a terrible toll on our culture. Its constant, exponential evolution is the culprit; depriving us of our privacy in exchange for convenience, burdening us with unimaginable stress in hopes of increased productivity and, worst of all, creating a disposable culture that views virtually all products and services as merely transient. These doomsayers cite the last decade as the first in history whose buildings were designed with no expectation of permanence, whose products were often obsolete within months (if not weeks) and whose consumers were clamoring to swap fundamental rights for new products embodying the very latest cultural caches. They view the preceding decade as an omen, the chrysalis of a short attention span society fluttering from product to product and service to service, perpetually fascinated with the latest and greatest. Bummer! Break out the Prozac.

The silver lining to this admittedly Orwellian cloud is that the scramble of commercial interests to continuously re-package and re-position themselves has created an unprecedented business bonanza for designers of all sorts. Generation -D (children of the Baby Boomers and the only generation to grow up totally immersed in digital technology) is the first since their parents’ to have any lasting impact on American culture. Not so much by virtue of their numbers, but because of their affluence and influence. They alone have a truly innate and instinctual understanding of technology and its transient nature. They alone embrace the ever-evolving pathway. Oldsters may know the technology, but they will never “feel” it. The Boomers, who created “youth culture”, youth marketing and who are now firmly in control of corporate America, are very, very insecure about this fact. Hence, they ‘re repositioning like Hell in an attempt to remain relevant to the youth market, its many older emulators and, to some extent, themselves. In any event, it should come as no surprise that virtually every major corporation in the country is now trying to put a new spin on their old looks. For the most part, this means selecting a strange name (there are no normal names left for which a .com URL can be secured) and creating a new identity system that reflects the techno/surfer/slacker look. Ditch the hard-edged monolithic logo and get soft and friendly. Casual. Cool. Approachable. Adaptable.

While it was a little embarrassing to watch the duding-out of corporate America, some interesting and quite imaginative work was being produced in the process. Examples of this are everywhere, but none more perfectly demonstrates the phenomenon than Bell Wireless. In my particular corner of the world, that entity was the telephone company formerly known as Southwestern Bell, whose cellular division mutated into Southwestern Bell Wireless. They had the familiar chunky bell in a circle logo that legendary design guru Saul Bass created decades ago and which had come to represent reliability, stability and stifling corporate bureaucracy. Their white vans with the sky blue and puke green graphics were an inherent fixture of the American landscape. At the beginning of the last decade, this matron of telecommunications was dethroned and replaced by an extremely fun, personal, hip and technologically endowed company called Cingular®. The change came with a soft edged, X-shaped quirky little logo guy and a new orange and white action color scheme. The changeover was handled very professionally, occurring with such speed and thoroughness that it was almost as if, one morning, I awakened in a different country where Bell Wireless didn’t ever exist. The illusion lasted until I received my monthly statement which, though thoroughly branded, still had the breathtakingly itemized, incomprehensible detail I had come to rely on from Bell. So while Ma Bell never truly changed, the facelift was so utterly upbeat that even looking at my bill seemed somehow better…a sort of, like, totally connected, warm and fuzzy experience. That’s what good branding is all about. Right? Of course, just when I had come to grips with this identity, the leviathan of communications, AT&T, decided to swallow Cingular whole. The next thing I know, the friendly little M&M-like character and the tricky name were goners. Now it was AT&T Wireless and the only two surviving remnants were the orange & white action colors and the daunting, incomprehensible bills. AT&T seemed to embrace the original Ma Bell’s zeal for indecipherability, plus added a few new wrinkles, by bundling services into hundreds of ever changing plans and making it virtually impossible to speak to a human if you had a problem of any kind. Any lingering doubt of the return to yesterday theme could be easily squashed by glancing at the AT&T world logo, a slightly tweaked version of the mark created for them by (guess who!) Bass & Yeager, the design firm responsible for the original Ma Bell logo back in 1969. So in a bit over four decades, we have almost come full circle. Any day, I expect AT&T introduce a new color scheme featuring sky blue and puke green. This is progress, right?