Whether you’re promoting a project, starting your own business, or working for someone else, understanding what it takes to make a brand successful will help you no end in your creative career.
What is a brand?
There’s almost no limit to what a brand can be. Shops can be brands. Art galleries can be brands. Club nights, cities, even people. But really, Romilly Martin, Managing Director at East London arts venue Village Underground believes, ‘A brand is a set of associations you have with that thing. These associations can be rational or they can be emotional. And brands invest a lot of time and money in shaping the way we think about them’.
To illustrate this, Romilly gives the example of Heinz ketchup. Something about it makes it more desirable to a shopper than a supermarket own ketchup. What, exactly? How do brands make themselves stand out?
Know why you do what you do
The best loved brands don’t just sell you stuff, they tell you a story. Apple, and Patagonia are examples of brands that do this well, says Romilly. She recommends watching Start With Why, Simon Sinek's TED talk. ‘He says that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. That’s what makes the difference between having customers and having fans or ambassadors.’
Village Underground, Boiler Room and VICE each have interesting origins, which infuse their brands with a spirit of authenticity. Village Underground started in 2006 as a co-working space in four old tube carriages, VICE as an alternative magazine in Montreal, and Boiler Room was born the day someone taped a webcam to the wall of their Hackney warehouse and invited people around for a DJ set. ‘It was DIY bedroom broadcasting,’ explains Ahad Elley, Head of Channel 1 and Marketing Analyst at Boiler Room. ‘It was just something people were doing because they wanted to. But it became clear that there was a lack of platform and a lot of talent.’
Now Boiler Room is international - broadcasting from Warsaw or Mumbai, say, to anywhere with internet.
Like Boiler Room, VICE is a brand that has become increasingly global in recent years. The company now has 35 offices across the world but, as Olly Osborne, Head of Social, Europe at VICE stresses, the brand adapts in order so that it’s culturally sensitive and relevant to each country. ‘We take the points that young people care about and distribute them on a platform, hiring people in those places,’ he says. ‘We have become more global by being more local.’
For VICE, adaptability is key. Olly describes them as ‘agnostic’ when it comes to medium. What he means is that, although VICE began in print, it isn’t wedded to one particular way of conveying content. They have partnerships with all the major platforms: YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Twitch. ‘As platforms evolve, VICE evolves and adapts,’ says Olly.
Similarly, VICE covers a massively broad range of themes, including music, food, travel, technology, news and fashion but within the overall VICE brand, there are smaller brands focusing on these themes - for example, Broadly, aimed at women, Munchies, which is about food or Noisey, about music. ‘This allows us more creativity, so we can build distinctive, niche communities’
Start a conversation
When Romilly started out in her career, then working in advertising, it was a different world. ‘There were fewer TV channels, far less social media,’ she remembers. ‘Now brands aren’t just broadcasting messages, they’re creating a dialogue, they’re much more responsive. People can very quickly tweet something negative or put a bad review on TripAdvisor so there’s a lot more investment in community management.’ Instead of simply announcing when there are tickets on sale for a concert, Village Underground tries to develop a connection with people through social media by talking about what’s going on in London, in culture or in politics.
Francesca Neumann, Head of Events at VICE, agrees that the way brands market themselves today is subtler. ‘You don’t necessarily want to shove your brand in people’s faces.’ Although she started out in the music industry, her current role at VICE involves setting up creative events in partnership with other brands. Last year she worked with Chanel on the Mirror Maze https://thefifthsense.i-d.co/en_gb/hero/es-devlin/, an immersive video installation by groundbreaking set designer Es Devlin in a Peckham carpark.
Study data but go with your gut
At your fingertips you have oodles of quantifiable information about your brand. You can know your newsletter open rate, how many clicks people make on different sections of your website, count the likes that a particular picture or article you share gets... ‘Data is important,’ says Olly. At VICE number crunching helps decision making but data it doesn’t make the final decision - people do. ‘If we just used data, stories about LGBT or mental health would never be on the top of the homepage because they don’t get lots of traffic but we feature them because they’re important,’ he adds. There are things data doesn’t take into account, Francesca points out. Music has always had anomalies. ‘You might have a band that aren’t very well known internationally but sell out Brixton Academy because they have a cult following.’
One side effect of brand success is that you might find yourself torn between cashing in on your newfound cachet and upholding your credibility. Village Underground do experimental arts events that don’t necessarily make lots of money so they subsidise these through corporate events. ‘There’s always a debate in the office about authenticity versus finance,’ says Romilly. ‘As a brand grows, other companies who have money are drawn to that brand. We always end up prioritising the art stuff.’ Olly argues that it doesn’t really matter where your funding comes from, it’s about how it’s used. He gives the example of a project VICE did during Refugee Week where they commissioned young refugees to write articles for the site. ‘The bulk of our 400-strong workforce are under 30 so we are investing money in young people,’ Francesca adds.
If things sometimes go wrong - learn from it
As your brand grows, there are bound to be hiccups along the way. In 2016 Boiler Room put on a weekender in Pennsylvania that got shut down by the police. ‘It was heartbreaking at the time,’ says Ahad, ‘but it did mean that more people heard about it than might have otherwise.’
See complaints about your brand as opportunities to improve. After someone got in touch with Village Underground because he felt like he’d been turned away because he was black, the venue developed an Equality and Diversity Policy which all staff are now briefed on.
The pay off? Loyalty
If your brand inspires genuine affection, people won’t just use your service or buy your product, they’ll support you when you really need them. In 2014 London nightclub Fabric was set to close after some young people died after taking drugs there but their fans rallied together, raised awareness and funds for legal fees and in the end they were able to stay open.
Another example is 6Music, which was saved from closure in 2010 and went on to become a hugely important brand in the music industry. And when Village Underground was coming towards the end of a 10-year lease, their devoted following in the community convinced Hackney Council to renew the lease for another 15 years. ‘And that was a decision they were proud of,’ says Romilly.
Words by Rachel Segal Hamilton
This session took place on 11 April 2017