Many designers have a love/hate relationship with branding. They understand the value of communicating their identity to a broader public, but simultaneously they don’t want to spend time marketing instead of designing. FORM spoke with Geoff Cook, Partner at international branding agency Base Design in New York, on the importance of focusing on the end user, branding versus rebranding and why you should never let market research dictate your creative decisions. Base Design is known for high-profile projects such as the Louis Vuitton Foundation, NeueHouse and rebranding the Meatpacking District.
Can you talk a bit about your personal career path?
I came out of school in 1991 during the height of the recession. I did everything I could to leave school. I spent a good deal of it in Europe on different escapist programs. When I came out of school, my first major job was in women’s international sales at DKNY in the heyday of DKNY. After nine months, my boss realized that women were asking me questions that I had a tough time answering [and] that I was probably better suited for men’s. So, at age 22, he promoted me to Director of International Men’s Sales, which was sales, marketing strategy, visual merchandising. It was an all-encompassing position. For six years, I was traveling the world, opening the DKNY stores and negotiating a lot of the boutiques. It really taught me several things—certainly the business of fashion but it also taught me about international marketing and the nuances in different cultures around the world – from Asia to Europe to South America to the Middle East.
So you weren’t focused on marketing, it was a natural development in your professional career.
I remember sitting on a beach in Brazil and saying to myself, if I were to do a hotel here what would I do, how would I attract people, and why would they come here. Those were things I would think about for fun. When I studied languages, that was an excuse to get out of school, it allowed for a quicker exit. But what came naturally to me was always marketing before I knew it was called marketing.
Wow, you’re starting off with the big guns. I’m a firm believer that exceptional people are those that leave their mark on society in a way that is meaningful. So I feel like I’ve always wanted to lead a meaningful life and that means leading one that is exceptional in the way that I define it. The counterpart is mediocre.
Marketing is increasingly important in architecture. What advice would you give up-and-coming architects who don’t know where to begin?
Try to keep it very simple. Advice number one: Stand for something. I think that many of my architect or product designer acquaintances, more often in a younger age demographic, take on any job, which is understandable. I need to survive; I need to take anything that comes my way. But often times those that become really great are those who stand for something. It can be a style or a certain type of work, i.e. residential, civic, institutional. People sense your conviction and they seek you out.
Another thing from a branding point of you, and what I always discuss with our clients: If I were to ask you three words that define you and your company, that become a filter for everything you do—not just your work but who you hire, who you fire, how you talk to the press—what would those three words be? Once you’ve defined those [words], try and develop relationships with the press that closely align with what you stand for. Find people who are aligned with your value set or your beliefs rather than carpet bombing the press or sending out a thousand press releases.
I see it as a sign of maturity. We probably, in our early days, designed for designers. I often say, we’re not artists we’re in the service business. My ego isn’t bruised to say that. At the end of the day, architects are in the business of building buildings that better the lives of people that work in them. We are in the business of communicating better so people can find information easier. For me, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do exceptional design but it does mean it needs to function for the ultimate end user, which is in each case that I’ve mentioned the public at large.
So you focus on whom you’re serving?
Ten years ago, we used to speak with highfalutin language about your brand DNA, your brand essence, your brand promise and write reams and reams of information that we would deliver in a robust strategy. And now, we try and keep things much more simple, thinking of who our end client is, and 99 percent of the time [they] are not branding experts. So now we try to say things like, “Brands are like people and just like people have identities, personalities, and we have experiences with them.” The reason we’ve tried to simplify the language that we speak in is so that our client, can understand, relate to and participate in what we are saying as opposed to trying to intimidate them with language that shows that we’re experts.
It starts with business strategy, so when large companies come to us and say this is our idea, we’ll often push back and question at the very highest level. It starts with pure business strategy, and extends to marketing and communications strategy. Obviously, identity is what we’re known for at our core and how that extrapolates to above the line executions—digital, print and experiential.
It seems like your specialty is rebranding identities.
I’m not sure that’s accurate. If I think of our “greatest hits” – Milk Studios, NeueHouse, Louis Vuitton Foundation – they were all new companies. Whereas it’s true if you look at the jobs for MOMA, Chanel, Missoni – those were evolutions of existing identities. I would argue it’s a 50/50 split.
The questions for a start up are much more pure, and they’re very rational. What’s your business about? Who are you trying to communicate to? What are you trying to communicate? The nuance within an established business is why are you evolving? What catalyst triggered the need to evolve the brand? Or, if it’s an arm of an existing identity, such as the case with the Louis Vuitton Foundation, there’ s always a relationship question to the mothership. For example, when we worked on that brand we said to Mr. Arnault, why don’t you brand this with the Louis Vuitton branding? His response was, I want this to have nothing to do with the Louis Vuitton branding because this is a cultural endeavor not a commercial endeavor within the Louis Vuitton brand.
When you’re working on revising established identities, there might be some risk to alienating the public?
People are adverse to change. That’s human nature. It’s defined by a scale. Oftentimes, if you’re reach is smaller then the need to explain is less. First and foremost, as branding agents we need to anticipate where the brand is going and what’s relevant today, tomorrow and beyond. We need to be courageous enough to put that out to the world and to stand behind it. By way of an example, the way Google announced their rebrand was sheer perfection. They wrote very succinctly and thoughtfully why they did the rebrand and all that was involved, not just the logo but the system. Whether you like the logo or not, you can say to yourself I understand why they did this. By being transparent and explaining through a very clear rationale why an existing brand would go through developing a new identity, you can gain the public’s understanding and trust. By way of comparison, when the GAP rebranded, they launched it without explanation. There was huge pushback and they ended up reverting to the original brand.
You mention you need to address what’s relevant today, tomorrow and beyond. Where does your gut instinct play a role?
It’s huge. And in fact, I would say we never let market research dictate our creative decisions. Of course, doing a market analysis gives us a certain base of information from which to work. But after that, the inspiration for the creative work comes from all around us and in New York City there’s no shortage of visual cues. In our case, we have a very talented group of Base designers. We attract a certain type. We’re unusual because we work on a broad array of subject matter, so the people who want to work here need to be as interested in branding a project for Chanel as for a car wash. Which means that in order to be inspired enough to do both, they need to be curious enough to be receiving information on trend, on design, on style from a myriad of sources—contemporary art, fashion, pop culture, street culture.
Can you describe the culture of your agency?
Cultural fit is as important to me as talent. I always reference the Real Madrid soccer team that loaded up on all the stars, David Beckham on down. And, they only won about 50 percent of their games because there was a cultural clash. We value culture as much as we do broad talent. Culturally, we’re often described as a very human agency. By human I mean understanding, empathetic, friendly. I think we deal in a world that is high glamour, high style, high fashion but we choose to not follow those codes. Our designers across the board are conceptual thinkers. One of our mantras is: First concept then design. Anybody who doesn’t think in terms of concept here doesn’t succeed. And, of course, they have to be best in class. We intentionally keep a smaller team and we pay for talent.