Voices

Voices // Open not closed

by Kendra Futcher

A large crowd gathered at the Arnolfini on a balmy evening in June to listen to the eponymous Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks talk all things brand and to share his ‘black box of brand secrets’ with us.

Michael’s new book Branding: in Five and a Half Steps follows the evolution of brand, from the Bass logo famously painted in Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergère and exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1882 to the game-changing 1980s ‘prosecco and sex’ style brand of Virgin Atlantic. Delivered with charm, cheek and a heavy dose of Northern wit, he spoke irreverently about the mysterious smoke and mirrors world of branding and talked us through his own studio’s mission to de-mystify and simplify the design process. Michael’s book Branding: in Five and a Half Steps opens up this strange world and explains how he and his studio work in simple terms.

The talk was inspiring fodder for creative folk of any discipline. Johnson Banks famously started out designing ‘nice little projects that students dream of’ for clients like Royal Mail. Their approach was one I can relate to from my years at Browns design – ‘take a brief, design something and get on with it’. Johnson talked about making the difficult leap to fully fledged branding consultancy taking on big brands such as Virgin and the Science Museum, but the importance of keeping it simple and avoiding the plethora of cliché brand strategy terms such as the ever hilarious, ‘brand onion’.

Having recently returned from his first Glastonbury, there was a sense that Michael’s candid storytelling was further enhanced by a lack of sleep and a LARGE weekend. We laughed out loud, a lot. 'Cheesy brand man' and his friend 'bearded hipster creative' made an appearance and Michael distinguished between the two types of design books that adorn many of our studio and home book shelves – massive tomes by large egos and highly specialist books on pink logos and French typefaces, etc.

Branding: in Five and a Half Steps explores the blurred line between design and strategy and is structured like a design project: Investigate, Strategy & Narrative, Bridging the Gap, Design, Implement and Engage/Revive. I was especially interested in the blurred line between research and concept generation that he talks about. Authenticity and truth sit at the heart of his approach. Oh how we laughed at Superdry’s authentic Japanese brand. Based in a Cheltenham industrial park, with no connection to Tokyo whatsoever. And in contrast, the intense Japanese-ness of Uniqlo that permeates every touch point, even down to the way they hand your credit card back to you.

Michael’s highly engaging and intimate talk was punctuated by a timely text from his wife, asking ‘how you doing?” The power of being human shone right through Michael’s own personal brand at that very moment.

I welcomed insight into Johnson Bank’s more recent work and was especially interested to hear about the unorthodox approach to their
re-brand of Mozilla. This project took the idea of rule by committee to another level – branded ‘in the open’ to reflect the brand’s ‘open source’ ethos, Johnson Banks’ design concepts were critiqued online over 9 months, even with people being able to submit their own ideas.
‘First one remind me of vagina’ was one of the more memorable pieces of constructive criticism straight out of Russia! Huge respect to Michael and his team for taking this very public assault on their work in the name of collaboration and client services.

In recent years Michael and his studio have focused their energy on working with brands that ‘do good’ such as NGOs and impact investors. The studio’s ‘Dear Cambridge…’ project for the University of Cambridge epitomises their thoughtful and beautifully simple approach to branding campaigns. A great example of the power of great copy with strong design, this major project aims to raise £2 billion in research funds for the University and to ultimately attract more global students to this renowned academic institution. A series of over 40 posters capture the university’s achievements over the course of 800 years and those that have contributed to it. Beautifully shot films with the likes of Bill Gates and David Attenborough ask ‘What should Cambridge do next?’ because, after all, this is a place that solves the world’s problems. With £900,000 raised so far, it’s safe to say, this is another Johnson Banks triumph.

This was one of those talks that was peppered with trade secrets – from how Googol became Google to Byron’s unique approach to restaurant branding. Anyone else leave feeling enlightened?

Does Branding work? Michael asked rhetorically at the end… with him and his talented team behind it, yes it certainly does. So, whether you’re a cheesy brand man or woman or a bearded hipster creative, Branding: in Five and a Half Steps is a must read and a great reference for any creative studio.

Photo credit: Katy McDonnell