Thoughts on branding from one of our founders - Henry Hankin
People talk a lot about “crypto speed” in my line of work.
It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to respond with “yesterday!” when someone asks for a deadline.
This is an industry that has grown at a meteoric pace. ICO, IDO, NFTs — these trends erupt volcanically. They have a startlingly sudden explosion, capital pours in and flows out, and its movement seems to swallow up the world. Six months later the dust is settled; some people have surfed the lava and are richer, and many more are holding nothing but pumice. The majority of projects turn to cold black rock, or worse.
But, some seams of white-hot heat that still permeate the landscape persist, and in fact, continue to glow brightly, even against nascent calderas. The question then is this: how, amid this maelstrom, can we manufacture something that will stand out and survive the test of unforgiving time?
Branding may be an ethereal concept but its root objective is to achieve longevity. When I first started working in video games I worked in PR. PR is an easy enough thing to get your head around: the PRs are the people who are going to talk to the media about your product — they’re the people who say the things that get into newspapers, magazines, and so on. My idea of branding at this stage was superficial — beyond a logo, I didn’t understand what was happening.
It was something that a colleague of mine said to a young child on a school trip that made me realise I was wrong. When this primary school student, innocently passing through the biggest game development studio in the UK, asked the Global Brand Manager what their job was, her response was thus:
“When you first hear about a game, it comes to life in your head. The first trailer, the logo, even hearing your friend mention it in the playground — it all serves to feed that thing. It’s a part of you, and it grows inside you. It’s something that starts at that point and continues all the way through to release and beyond and even when you’re finished playing with it and you put it down and think you’ve forgotten about it, it’s still there; you still have that part of it. It makes up a part of you. It’s my job to help it take its shape and find its place”.
The adage “explain it like I’m five” exists for a reason.
I’m older now, and a little wiser, now I know that branding is a magic weapon when wielded in the right hands. You can take a t-shirt, and you can put a tick on it, and would-ya-look-at-that! you can charge a hundred dollars for it. You can buy a phone with decades-old tech and they’ll tell you it’s new and they’ll charge you a thousand when the same tech under another name would’ve cost you three hundred. And they’ll do the same thing next year. Don’t fall behind! It’s not USB-C, it’s ‘LIGHTNING’.
First, it was just Bitcoin, then it was crypto. Crypto’s not cool anymore, now it’s ‘Web3’ baby.
We’re all suckers for it. And so what? All the world’s a stage as they say; a platform. And that’s what a brand is. It’s a platform. A platform for social expression. An amusement of objects and colours that allows you to say a little about yourself in a certain way. The greatest brands in the world are ingrained into our collective psyche: a crucifix, an airport, someone’s name on the elastic of your underwear, a man with a moustache inviting you to eat his specially curved delicious crisps.
We use brands as tools to help us identify, both with ourselves and others. Humans are social animals, we have an innate need to belong. An earthworm left alone is fine just so, humans not so much. Religions, football teams and Levi’s are all just tools we use to better cement ourselves together. I like Windows, you like Mac — I like spots, you like stripes. Like hermit crabs we find a little piece of something other than ourselves that feels right; that we relate to, and we carry it with us for comfort. It becomes a piece of who we are.
How we choose which brands we identify with is a different story. We might like to imagine ourselves as reasoned creatures driven by logic and process, but this isn’t true. Anyone worth their salt in the art of Jedi mind tricks knows to “lead with why”. Proffer an emotional proposition to an audience ahead of a logical or didactic one and you’ll have them hook line and sinker. As Simon Sinek rightly states, Martin Luther King Jr didn’t say “I have a plan”, he said, “I have a dream”. It’s much easier to get behind a dream, and once we’re on side, the remaining rhetoric is readily received. All we need is a reason for our emotional ‘system 1’ neuroprocessing to believe and our logical ‘system 2’ brain will do what it does best: tell a story, connect the dots, on the spot, to fill the gaps.
Brands are powerful. The reason Andy Warhol chose to paint Campbell’s soup cans is the same reason that people across the globe are more likely by far to be able to recognise a can of Coca-Cola than a Rembrandt. Done right, brands take on meaning beyond even the products or people they represent. It’s why my teenage sister-in-law wears a Joy Division T-shirt, without having ever heard one of their songs. Italian teenage tourists in Camden Town buying a Zippo (another fantastic brand) with Che Guevara engraved into it don’t need to know a single thing about the man, beyond the fact that he promises to them a fleeting wind of easy defiance and an echo of coolness. A brand is a feeling, a perception. It’s as much owned by the consumer as the creator, though only the latter can light the spark.
Here follows the question: how can we apply brand methodology to a business as fast-paced as Web3? The answer is to meet it on its terms. Move quickly and be unafraid. I’m paraphrasing someone and I’m not sure who but if you’re not embarrassed by the first expression you’re not moving quickly enough is a line I’ve heard and said more than a few times.
Unless you’re comfortably a top exchange there’s little room in Web3 for a behind-closed-doors nine-month rebrand campaign. Speed is paramount. Several times we’ve been asked to take a project from having zero brand presence to launching in under a month. It’s not ideal, someone’s going to lose a few hairs, but it is possible. And here’s how:
1. Don’t throw anything away.
Every time we create a brand identity we start with typically four concepts. Hanging onto these is the only way you’ll ever be able to actually deliver something yesterday.
2. Don’t imitate, steal. And always evolve.
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” T.S. Elliot proves his worth by stealing this quote and its attribution from Oscar Wilde’s “Talent borrows; genius steals”. God knows who he stole that from, but he was a pro. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, just make sure to take the right parts, respectfully, and use them to propel your own creations. Wear your influences with pride. There’s nothing new under the sun. That being said, Web3 design fatigue (ooh, another purple-on-black diffuse gradient with some abstract 3D primitives thrown in for good measure? Daring today, aren’t we?) is real. By amalgamating the things that inspire us and drawing on a wide range of references, we want to build the trends that others follow, not fall in line with them.
3. Prepare to fail.
If you get it right on the first go then damn, you should’ve bought lottery tickets that day. Every opportunity you have to accommodate for feedback and development is valuable. Treat nothing as final, but make every output usable. As a wise man once put it: “Perfect is the enemy of good, just make your good f*cking great”.
Give rods, not fishes. The aim should always be to build the machine that builds x, not to build x itself. Taking stock of your process and progress will save you immeasurable time in the long run. No need to reinvent the wheel every time.
5. Use shareable tools.
Figma is a godsend. Miro is a blessing. Decentralising your working files means no more chasing designers late on a Tuesday to grab that INDD file or wondering which version on whose PC is correct and up to date. Being able to collaborate; to top-and-tail work with a colleague or even give a client the means with which they can explore and make their own assets (if you trust them! Not for everyone!) removes unaffordable inefficiencies from the creative process.
And that’s it, really. The industry really does move at a pace. All of this will probably be out of date by the time I finish this sentence. But, to my mind that’s one of the reasons the importance of proper design thinking and clever concepts — creating brand hooks that elicit an emotional response to imprint themselves and achieve lasting presence — is so important. Pure copycats, apes, ill-thought-out and slapdash projects without a concerted identity will struggle to latch onto and nestle into the consumer’s mind, distracted as it is by the tumult of this volcanic Web3 movement.
The most important thing above all, and it’s not always easy when talking about creativity, is to try your damndest to understand what’s working and what isn’t, and why. It’s a wiser man today who admits he was wrong yesterday.