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So, You Want to be a Branding Consultant

Drew Letendre

I am often asked by students who aspire to a future in brand strategy – what books should I read; whose works should I study?

If you’re going to pursue a career in the branding profession—and excel at it—it may surprise you to know that my list doesn’t include the usual suspects such as Ries, Acker or Olins. Nor does it include authors who ‘practice’ branding in the more esteemed houses—Landor, Lippincott or Prophet. Neither does it contain familiar names from the pages of the Harvard Business Review, like Clayton Christensen, Michael Porter or Peter Drucker.

My suggestion is that you read widely and deeply in Art History and Art Criticism, Psychology, even dipping your toe into some Philosophy.

Why? Why would I steer you away from authors, books, and courses in practical, obviously relevant subjects such as Marketing Theory and Practice, Business Strategy, Economics, even Branding itself? Why would I suggest that you seriously spend your time with seemingly arcane and impractical works like E.H. Gombrich’s The Sense of Order, Rudolph Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception, and Languages of Art by the Harvard philosopher, Nelson Goodman?

The answer is simply this: because nowhere else—from no one else—will you learn better the subtle art of discussing, explaining, or defending with intelligence, elegance and objectivity, the uses to which visual design is put in business, than from authors such as these.

To be sure, one or two of these scholars touch on the use of images in business, but only in passing. Their remit was, of course, much wider. All the same, what is of particular relevance in the case of Gombrich and Arnheim was their pioneering role in bringing science and, especially the science of psychology, to the study and explanation of visual images and image-making.

Branding is, among other things, about certain uses of certain kinds of images and visual forms for certain kinds of business purposes. It therefore behooves the strategist, as well as the designer, to be able to articulate to and for her clients the provenance, purpose and rationale behind the choice of certain kinds of imagery.

In spite of the widely held conviction that all is subjective in the realm of—and response to—art and imagery, there are in fact, provocative principles and correlations that have been discovered by science, psychology, art criticism and history, between colors and images on the one hand, and emotional states, meanings and responses, on the other. Roundly educated designers—the best ones—know something of this and exploit it in visual branding (even if they cannot expressly articulate it).

To the names above I would add the work of several more: Professor Erwin Panofsky, who’s canonical Studies in Iconology, is a masterful instruction in decoding the symbolic meanings of pictures and visual forms. And then there is the American critic, Clement Greenberg, best remembered for his brilliant apologetics in defense of the Abstract Expressionist movement and particularly his courageous early praise of Jackson Pollock’s work. In psychology there is also the work of Heinz Werner and (my own teacher) Bernard Kaplan whose out-of-print, Symbol Formation is one of the discipline’s great, under-heralded books on the topic.

All of this may come in very handy, you might think, in presenting Corporate Identity and design, but what about strategy? What have these authors got to say about that? Indeed, there I would turn you to at least one great tome: Lawrence Freedman’s magisterial Strategy: A History. His grand book is an intellectual history of a concept in its various historical, practical, and theoretical manifestations.

So, with all due respect to the faculties of Wharton and Harvard, the Druckers, Rieses, Ackers and Olinses, yes, read them too, but leave them for later. My syllabus for a proper education for the branding professional is this:

Rudolph Arnheim Art and Visual Perception
Nelson Goodman Languages of Art
E.H. Gombrich The Sense of Order
The Uses of Images (collected papers)
Art and Illusion
The Image and the Eye (collected papers)
Clement Greenberg Art and Culture (collected essays)
Heinz Werner & Bernard Kaplan Symbol Formation
Edward Tufte Visual Explanations
Envisioning Information
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
Lawrence Freedman Strategy: A History