13 secrets for creating game-changing branding

When Jason Gregory, Mark Bonner and Peter Hale met at the Royal College of Art, they found an invigorating, cross-disciplinary "Bauhaus atmosphere" that sowed the early seed for the eponymous London agency they would later co-found: Gregory Bonner Hale, better known simply as GBH.

"The hub was the art bar. You'd be talking to people that made furniture and were designing cars and making films," recalls creative director Bonner, who also took up the role of D&AD president in September 2014.

"That's a big part of the way we are now," Bonner adds. "We hate doing the same thing twice, that's our problem."

Here, Gregory, Bonner and Hale discuss the secrets to the agency's game-changing work, and explain how GBH's refusal to be pigeonholed works in practice…

01. Starting over keeps it fresh

The Verb Hotel. GBH rebranded an unloved Howard Johnson motel at the centre of Boston's buzzing Fenway neighbourhood

The Verb Hotel. GBH rebranded an unloved Howard Johnson motel at the centre of Boston's buzzing Fenway neighbourhood

"We start over each time," confirms GBH creative director Hale. "Everything's new, which is not the most efficient way to do things, but it's certainly very enjoyable."

02. Begin with a simple idea

GBH is proudly multi-disciplinary, but the agency dislikes complexity. "The ultimate challenge is to have a simple idea that gains in power as you take it across all these other touch-points. It's about keeping that story tight and condensed, and not letting it become over-elaborate," says Bonner.

03. Sound thinking is essential

GBH branded the PUMA non-corporate box, packing it with details celebrating the red and white army

GBH branded the PUMA non-corporate box, packing it with details celebrating the red and white army

"We do a lot of thinking – deep brainstorms; locked away for days," says Gregory. "So the results can look effortless, but often it's not been a particularly smooth process to get there."

Bonner agrees: "You've got to try to stop all the various interferers and outside forces from destroying the purity of vision. When you go across all these other disciplines, the amount of people that can bugger up what you planned to achieve exponentially grows. You need to fend them off with rock-solid, core, sound thinking."

04. Every project should be your best

GBH doesn't believe in settling for bread-and-butter work to keep the business ticking over. The studio sets out to over-deliver on every brief that comes through the door of the characterful old station building it calls home.

As Bonner puts it: "There's not a single project we wouldn't consider entering for awards, or showing peers. We were brought up to think any project could be a good project."

05. Never compromise

A refusal to compromise on quality is part of GBH's DNA: "We never set about our own agency as a kind of sausage factory approach where we're good at one thing and repeat that recipe," adds Bonner. "For us, every problem is individual, and the solutions should be completely different from one another."

06. Collaboration keeps it interesting

Collaboration is crucial to the GBH process. "We've been lucky – our clients push and pull us into areas that they need to go in, and we're happy to do that because we enjoy working in different disciplines in different ways," says Bonner.

Gregory continues: "That's been a good thing for us. They've shown us an opportunity to work in advertising, or create a commercial, or work in social media. Bring it on."

07. Choose your clients carefully

The GBH team says that their clients have no real fear of boundaries. "We've never pulled out of a project, but I think we're mindful of what we're getting into," Hale reflects.

"We like to work with smart, creative people who've got interesting challenges. Usually the best thing is to hit them with a concept so strong it starts a sort of snowball effect relationship that lasts for years."

08. Turn tradition on its head

GBH strives to turn an already great brief into something exceptional, as the studio's second yacht livery for Puma's entry in the Volvo Ocean Race shows.

Two years earlier, the agency had transformed the yacht into Puma's Mostro shoe, famous for its zig-zagging strap. "Every graphic element added weight," says Bonner, "so the sailors wanted the least amount of design possible. It was a battle between Puma's desire to win the race, and the desire to maximise its brand exposure."

The latter desire was certainly sated with Mar Mostro – "monster of the sea"– a bold, aggressive, menacing livery that depicts a tentacled creature battling the water, subverting the traditional look of a racing yacht.

09. The future of design is multi-disciplinary

If you've spent years crafting your own specific niche, Bonner recommends adding to your well-honed skills. "I think a multi-disciplinary approach is sharpest if you are at the top of your game in each individual craft area," he says.

"We try to sharpen every point we can, and like to collaborate with real specialists – but bring them together with an open-minded, no-fear approach to all the different disciplines. You need craft, but it's good to be aware that there are other ways to skin a cat."

10. Think: anything goes

GBH looked to Yoko Uki – the first woman to have a full-body suit – for inspiration for its branding for luxury Parisian restaurant Miss Ko

GBH looked to Yoko Uki – the first woman to have a full-body suit – for inspiration for its branding for luxury Parisian restaurant Miss Ko

"It's becoming a landscape of extremes out there," reflects Gregory. "We have that 'anything goes', anything-can-be-achieved kind of approach, and try not to be too fazed about what area we're working in – but we need specialists too. Perhaps the place in between those two areas would be less desirable, or less interesting."

11. Get out your comfort zone

"We sometimes think of ourselves as 'specialist outsiders'," says Hale, "as we're often in situations where we've never been before. That's when that almost child's eye view – backed up by 20 years of experience – really comes into its own."

"It empowers you to make leaps that aren't really possible if you're a specialist in an area, when you know how to do it, you've done it before and are a safe pair of hands. If you haven't seen it before, you've got the craziness to try. That's what makes this the most exciting thing to do."

12. Be ambitious

On 9 July, Bonner will co-chair the judging at Computer Arts' Brand Impact Awards 2015, joining a stellar panel of talented creative directors at top agencies including Wolff Olins and The Partners. Uniquely, the panel will also contain client-side creatives from leading global brands, such as Coca-Cola, Mars and adidas.

It's ambitious, which is one of the reasons why Bonner was interested in being involved – and increases the relevance of the Awards, infusing an elite level of expertise and collaborative insight into the panel's search for the very best in commercial branding design across all market sectors. "That extra layer of judgment makes success attractive," explains Bonner.

13. Tell the story in a memorable way

"For the Brand Impact Awards, we're looking for work that tells a story that connects with its audience in a very memorable, straightforward way," reveals Bonner.

"It's the power of a simple idea – crafted so it dazzles; so it really sings. For me, it's about the marriage of a great, original insight and idea with wonderful craft – so it's the best it can be. The more likely you are to be stopped in your tracks by that work, the better."

Watch the rest of the GBH Designer Series over on the Computer Arts YouTube channel – and read the full interview in Computer Arts 239, a stunning celebration of all things print and digital.

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Julia Sagar
Editor-in-chief retail

Julia is editor-in-chief, retail at Future Ltd, where she works in e-commerce across a number of consumer lifestyle brands. A former editor of design website Creative Bloq, she’s also worked on a variety of print titles, and was part of the team that launched consumer tech website TechRadar. She's been writing about art, design and technology for over 15 years.