4 golden rules of branding

G-Star RAW's global brand director Shubhankar Ray reveals his branding formula at Design Indaba.

Day two of the world-class Design Indaba conference in Cape Town was laced with humour, with the stage nicely set by a hugely entertaining and inspiring opening session from endearingly foul-mouthed Nando's founder Robbie Brozin, whose famously subversive, non-PC attitude helped drive the South African chicken restaurant's global success.

Nando's founder Robbie Brozin at Design Indaba 2015

Nando's founder Robbie Brozin at Design Indaba 2015

The theme continued with maverick architect Santiago Cirugeda, who delivered his guerrilla call-to-arms to reclaim public spaces with plenty of mischievous gusto in his native Spanish, as well as softly-spoken British product designer Dominic Wilcox, whose dry wit and quirky inventiveness really brought his talk to life.

Four-step branding manifesto

But for us, one of the stand-out highlights from day two came from Shubhankar Ray, G-Star RAW’s global brand director - who delivered an engaging formula for success in the modern branding marketplace, with a methodology informed by his perspective as a former scientist.

We caught up with Ray after his talk to explore his hypothesis in more detail.

01. Develop your brand hypothesis

"Look at brands on at atomic level, and get things vibrating," said Shubhankar Ray in his Design Indaba talk. It's the first reference point to his scientific background, a thread that runs throughout. So how does this work in practice?

"I think, being a scientist, I know very well that everything operates on a molecular level," Ray explains. "It's about drilling down into the brand to find out the essential DNA elements that make a particular brand different. If that point of difference defendable, or ownable?"

The secret is to build the different aspects of this brand DNA - the atoms - into a brand molecule. "I relate this to a set of dials," he goes on. "Then I work out what to turn up or down. With G-Star, we decided to turn up the dial of modernism in a denim market where generally it's nostalgic, retro and heritage."

02. Prove it, and stand by it

There are three types of 'truths' that you need to consider as a brand, argues Ray:

  1. The product truth: what's unique, special and ownable about what you produce.
  2. The human truth: a manifesto or philosophy that you as a brand believe in and will stand by.
  3. The brand truth: a holy grail that can only be attained once you've confidently established yourself in the market.

"Once you have all these elements, you work out what catalyst to put in to energise that atom to deliver that truth," he smiles. "A concept is a little bit like a theory in science. You're not going to pass a degree because of a theory. You've got to prove it. So the creative process, for me, is a little bit like proof of concept."

Crucial to this is "finding out what people give a shit about" and tapping into it. "In the modern era, it doesn't take a genius to work out that people care about the planet," observes Ray.

"So if you can do something in the process of manufacturing, branding or whatever that turns up the sustainability dial, then you know that people can bond with that beyond product."

3. Own and earn media, don't just buy it

One of the most pertinent lessons in modern branding is that the public are too savvy to be fooled by an inauthentic attempt by a brand to push their buttons.

G-Star RAW has worked with Dennis Hopper and Pharrell Williams on campaigns - but in a way that uses their involvement as a catalyst to take the brand to the next level.

In a genius move that sent ripples through New York Fashion Week and turned convention on its head in 2009, Hopper modelled G-Star’s latest range, reciting Rudyard Kipling’s If as he walked down the catwalk (see above).

Meanwhile, Pharrell was associated with RAW For The Oceans, a widespread sustainability campaign by G-Star RAW to harvest plastic debris from the oceans and recycle it into clothing.

"We use celebrity as an accelerator, and don’t just to put their face in an ad," explains Ray. "As soon as you do that, people know the celebrity's bought. You want a celebrity to be the catalyst that moves the chemical reaction, and amplifies what you’re trying to say."

4. Make your brand stand for something

In a marketplace where consumers are searching for authenticity and social responsibility in a brand, RAW For The Oceans saw G-Star RAW partner with NGOs to clear 712 tonnes of plastic debris from beaches in Australia and Indonesia, of which 25 per cent was recycled into yarn.

"We live in an age of increased transparency where everybody can find out information. People don't believe the hype anymore," he insists. "If you believe in something, they believe in it too, and it's true, they'll only respect you for it."

The example Ray gives is if a fast food brand announced its belief in ending world hunger, put its money where its mouth is and opened food stations for refugees in war-hit areas. "If they followed it through, which modern human being would not be tempted to go to that restaurant?" he shrugs. "But you can't just talk about it. You've got to do it."

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Head over to the Design Indaba site for a video interview with Shubhankar Ray filmed at the conference, in which he discusses brand DNA and unexpected combinations