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The new brand continuum

New York-based agency R/GA recently launched its new Brand Design practice. Clearly, brand designers are on the surge, especially in the digital space.

Durbin Media
What exactly does a brand manager do? I asked people who carry this title, but I could never quite figure out which responsibilities this most ominous job entails--besides creating hefty brand books with arcane brand architectures and guidelines (usually ignored by employees and vendors), auditing brand equity through some arbitrary tracking mechanisms, and chasing malicious brand violators all over the globe. If that sounds like a valuable job to you, fine. To me, it sounds more like a combination of the worst aspects of legal counseling and a PR internship. If the marketing 2.0 textbook holds that everyone's a brand steward, why have a dedicated brand manager? In the age of social media and "brand hijacking," how is "managing" a brand even a possibility? Seems like a pretty lofty but unrealistic idea.

Brand designers, on the other hand, are on the surge, especially in the digital space. Their task is not to manage a brand but to creatively co-shape its appearance on the Web, such that it becomes a viral conversation. Increasingly, brands are built (and destroyed) on blogs and Web sites, so that there is a strong need for experts who understand brand in the context of online interaction paradigms. Digital branding experts know that nowadays brand architecture is largely congruent with the information architecture on the corporate Web site--and brand identity is made of the content that is disseminated to online audiences through search results, online ads, blogs, campaigns, and micro-sites. At last, brand designers dispel separations that have been artificial anyway, establishing a brand-new equation: brand experience is user experience is user interface design. Digital branding is branding. And your Web strategy is your brand strategy and vice versa.

Traditional interactive agencies see this as an opportunity and have started adding brand design to their services portfolio. One notable example is New York-based agency R/GA, which recently launched its new Brand Design practice, led by Marc Shillum, who previously worked at TBWA, London, Wieden + Kennedy and BBH, along with a post at Netherlands-based design firm Studio Dumbar. In an interview with Creativity, Shillum asks for a more holistic view on branding: "Hopefully, what we're going to bring (at Brand Design) is a seamless experience. There are lots of digital companies that do 'customer-up' communication and a lot of branding agencies that do 'brand-down' communication, which results in a 400-page book sitting on somebody's desk that you've got to follow. What we're trying to do now is form an idea and an expression of an idea in one place."

Brand, user experience design, product design, marketing communications, PR, online advertising, etc.--what we're seeing is an increased convergence of all these creative disciplines. It is not a matter of strategic choice, more a necessity: The truth is that today's consumers demand that all these disciplines converge. As their experience of a brand spans different platforms, media, and technologies, ranging from the TV ad, blog review, the retail purchase, the out-of-the-box experience, to online customer support, the creative disciplines must, too. A seamless, convergent consumer experience requires seamless creative convergence--which means that there is not much tolerance anymore for agency-to-agency hand-offs in between. Branding is a "city that never sleeps." Creative firms that embrace this new brand continuum will win.