Profile: Interbrand

Visuals are just half the picture for worldwide branding agency Interbrand, as Graeme Aymer finds out.

Back in the early 1970s, Dunlop employee John Murphy came to the conclusion that Britain needed something: a naming consultancy. So in 1974 he founded Interbrand in London. He was certainly visionary in his outlook, because not only has the company been phenomenally successful in the UK, it also has 30 offices in over 20 countries, employing between 1,200 and 1,300 people.

It continues the naming services Murphy established 34 years ago (HobNob biscuits and Prozac are among its credits) while also carrying out a range of branding and verbal identity work for clients that include BMW, Nissan, Barclays Bank and InterContinental Hotels. In 2006, Interbrand's gross profit grew by nearly 27 per cent, significantly outstripping 2005's 23 per cent, to around £11,000,000.

Despite the range of services, Interbrand's approach is far from fragmented. In fact, it has a very targeted approach. It's all spelled out on the back of Interbrand's business cards: 'Creating and Managing Brand Value.'

"This is really important for us," says executive creative director Andy Payne. "Brand is a representation of your difference in the world; why someone should feel attracted to you, why someone should feel that your services are superior or different to somebody else's."

Working method
Interbrand approaches each job according to a formal framework of distinct phases. It begins with a process characterised by Payne's frequent use of the word 'immersion'. "The first thing you have to do is get a complete trust and synergy between you and the client, because this is a journey you're going on together," he says. "You need to immerse yourself in the client's problems, so in a sense there is no us and them. There is no agency and client. We are seconded to you as the business and become part of your team in solving your issues."

Payne describes phase two succinctly: "You have to evaluate what's working and what isn't," he says. It's simply a matter of working out how and where the brand is working.

And then comes the 'creation' phase. "Creation is not just visual," clarifies Payne. "It's a richer expression of behaviour change, environmental change, product change."

Next up is testing, to make sure the changes that have begun are heading in the right direction. This is followed by rollout, which sees the introduction of the new or revitalised brand, as well as the education of the workforce. Interbrand will then undertake another testing or validation phase, involving the measurement of metrics to make sure that the brand is headed in the right direction, and establish an ongoing consultancy basis with the client.

This framework can be applied to any branding job, whether it's for a two-person clothing label or a giant multinational corporation such as Barclays Bank. But Payne has a word of warning about any testing phase. He cautions: "You have to be careful with that phase, because if you over-research something, in the end you start picking holes in it." Furthermore, interpreting consumer feedback needs to be taken in context and with an insightful mind, rather than taking it all literally. Payne adds: "They might say they don't like green, and you might think they don't like green, but it just might mean that my wife hung green curtains in our bedroom and every morning I wake up and see them and I really hate them; it's very easy to take things out of context."

It's not what you see
One thing should be clear here: Interbrand's primary product is its knowledge rather than its visual design output.

"That's a really important point for us because as soon as you try to sell the graphics, graphics without meaning, for us, don't have as much value," Payne says. "The reason that Apple's graphics or design philosophy is worth something is because of the meaning that it puts into that visual expression." To illustrate his point, Payne sketches a jug and says: "You can imagine that the visual expression of the brand is sometimes like a vessel, so you can say, what colour is it? What sort of personality have I drawn? This looks fine, but you can fill that vessel with whatever meaning you want, and it's only when you fill it with the right meaning that it becomes valuable. Graphics are a trigger to remind you of a reason that the brand exists.

"We think Interbrand's the perfect balance between the left and the right brain," Payne continues. "We have the same number of consultants as we do visual expression creators, and we like those people to work in partnership, so there's a direct crossover. It's not like saying, 'I've thought of a strategy and off you go Mr Visual Designer.' It's very much all the creative directors and consultants working together on a project all the way through.

"The key is that during that process, there is a point where consultancy and creativity come together and you decide what is the right visual representation or expression to make sure that you're different from everyone in the market, to make sure the brand will resonate with new customers and get new customers to try it, and to make sure that it will engage staff and be clear for them to understand how to work with it. Reaching that magic point is something we spend a lot of our time on, because once you get that point right, you've actually created something that's more valuable."

It's easy, then, for Interbrand to apply this thinking practically. "The first question we always ask a client is: What are we trying to do here? What is it that you require?" says Payne. "The brief from InterContinental Hotels, for example, was very simple. It wants to be able to charge a premium for the brand in terms of an owner buying a hotel and thinking that he/she wants to turn it into an InterContinental Hotel experience, or a customer coming into that hotel and thinking that he/she would like to stay there, and is therefore prepared to pay a premium for a room rather than go to a Marriott instead. Our task was to make sure the brand can substantiate that value."

For telecoms giant at&t in the United States, there was a different requirement. The company has just finished a round of merger and acquisitions activity that included merging with SBC Communications in 2005 through to a recent acquisition of mobile carrier Cingular. Interbrand's brief here was to develop a brand strategy that would seamlessly draw together the formerly far-flung companies with differing corporate cultures and aims. "We also run a 24- hour hotline for them," says Payne. "This way we're available to help them manage the brand on a day-to-day basis."

Brand charisma
Just as people are put off by dull, boring people, so too are we attracted to or put off brands according to brand personalities, and defining that personality is the brand consultancy's job.

"What is the personality of a Ford Mondeo?" - This is a question Payne poses when asked to consider how car makers differentiate their marques. "What is it? Is it freedom? What is it you're trying to sell me here? You know that when you buy a BMW, for instance, you're getting the ultimate driving machine."

He continues: "I think Honda has been a really good example of a brand that's come into the market and actually said: 'It's the way we make things.' Its advertising about Honda's philosophy is then rippled out onto the product, so you feel good about driving around in a Honda car. This marque means something to you when you're driving in it, over and above its product attributes."

Personality is not always that easy to bestow, however. Barclays Bank, one of Interbrand's clients, poses interesting challenges, because it must be as reassuring as it is authoritative: weighty enough to advise government on debt relief while being approachable enough for consumers to consider walking into a branch and applying for a mortgage. "The financial market is only just learning to deal with having a personality," says Payne. "If you look at the newer entrants in the financial sectors such as First Direct or Egg, why they gained a lot of traction, I think, is because they've been able to have a bit of personality.

"The work we've started to do at Barclays now is to push them into an expression where they can be confident about having a personality. Although it's still no Nike in terms of its personality being transparent, Barclays is giving itself the licence to talk to its consumers in a more emotive and personal way than simply putting the rate card out there and saying, 'Take it or leave it.'"

But it's simplicity and clarity that will be the major challenges for branding in the coming years, Payne believes. He says that as technology converges, there will be a temptation for brands across various channels to share the cost of promotion. However, this bombardment of concurrent messages will confuse, perhaps even displace the relationship between consumer and brand at crucial moments, such as visiting a website to shop. Brands that are brave enough to hold onto their own space and present a clear and simple message in this way will succeed.

"I think we'll be looking for those oases of simplicity," says Payne, "where you can understand what it's doing for you, you trust it and you'd like to be with it because of that."


We asked Andy Payne, executive creative director at Interbrand, for his finest branding solutions. Here's what he said

1. A brand must have a reason: a point of view; a belief in itself and what it provides that it can communicate to its customers; a point of view that is different from its competitors. It must have total and complete conviction about this idea. If it does not, no one else will. The idea behind the brand must guide the business as a central organising principle helping it achieve its goals.

2. The translation of that idea into an expression needs to be done very carefully. The tone of voice of the brand and the visual expression need to accentuate and bring uniqueness to the brand idea.

3. You must be completely consistent with how you communicate the brand idea. Be very single-minded with your message. If you're inconsistent with what you say to customers, employees, clients etc. everyone gets confused and fails to believe, and you risk losing credibility.

4. All channels are important and all touch-points of a brand are interrelated and affect the perception of the brand. So make sure the brand works through all touch-points, but, when you design a specific channel, get back to the core idea and design.

5. Express your brand with style, with flair, with humour. Make it entertaining and stimulating. There is far too much that is average in the world and people gravitate towards strong entertaining characters.