Brian Collins In Conversation: Reinventing Brand Design
By Kate Bertrand
Brian Collins is executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, where he leads the Brand Innovation Group (BIG), the agency’s brand experience and design division. Its acronym is certainly appropriate; Collins and his team have only big ideas.
They designed Hershey’s 15-story “chocolate factory” in Times Square, Kodak’s new brand design system, the new identity and packaging for Motorola, and the “Real Beauty” photography exhibit for Unilever’s Dove brand. Mattel, Yahoo, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, American Express, IBM and BP are also BIG clients.
Collins speaks globally on innovation and team creativity—this year as one of the first designers to participate in the World Economic Forum. He also teaches. In the Graduate Design Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Collins leads a thesis class, “Designer/Storyteller,” where he teaches students how their most compelling personal stories can be turned into innovative design and business ideas. Collins says designers in the corporate world can learn to do the same, and, in a recent conversation with BrandPackaging, he tells us how.
BP: Media and advertising have changed profoundly in the past 10 years, and many of the old rules for brand building no longer apply. How can companies create brand loyalty in the “new” marketing environment?
Brian Collins: We live by two simple rules: First, your brand must be authentic. It must remain honest to itself, its core values and what it stands for. If it’s not, people will bust you online within an hour. Second, your brand must maintain cultural congruency—remaining relevant to the times, always evolving to inspire people and the culture at large. And these two rules must always be aligned.
BP: How do you link the two?
BC: Through storytelling. We like to uncover a personal story about a brand based in an emotional, human truth, then we use design to amplify that truth in an unexpected way. Over time, I’ve learned that the most personal stories hold big ideas. The biggest, in fact. So we use my team members’ own, unique stories— or even our client’s or audience’s—as fuel to start the journey.
BP: Where do these personal stories come from?
BC: The best ones come from one of two places: where people have been blissfully happy or where they were incredibly sad. We’ve all enjoyed experiences that make us so giddy we can’t help sharing that feeling with others. On the other hand, we’ve all suffered through tough times that leave our spirits broken. Sharing those sad stories lightens our burden. Whether it’s Aeschylus, Mark Twain or Joan Didion, great stories are like a punch in the gut. You feel them. And they always make you ask, “What happens next?”
KB: How do you teach your students at the School of Visual Arts Graduate Design program to use their personal stories?
BC: Steven Heller and Lita Talarico founded the MFA program on the idea of designers as authors. So I start my class by asking my students to tell a personal story that has their full emotional investment. Then I ask them to make their story so simple, so potent, they could tell it on the “Today” show in 30 seconds—without a visual—and keep Matt Lauer interested. Any design idea born from such a story becomes more powerful because it carries that story’s original emotional charge. People can’t always touch or see the artifact, but they can always hear the story. Here’s one in just six words: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never used.”
KB: That’s Hemingway.
Exactly. He once said it was the best story he ever wrote.
KB: Getting back to your students, some have enjoyed great commercial success with designs they developed in your class using the personal storytelling method.
BC: Oh, yes. Jennifer Panepinto told the class about her lifelong weight problem. After dieting on and off for years, she realized portion control was the most important aspect of losing weight and keeping it off. But measuring a half-cup of this and a quarter-cup of that—and then washing all of those damn measuring bowls every time—became awfully tedious for her. She hit the wall when she started eating straight out of a Pyrex measuring cup.
KB: How did Jennifer turn her story into a design?
BC: She created a line of dishes that lets anyone control how much they eat without using a measuring cup. They’re beautiful nesting bowls—the exact size of a cup, half-cup, quarter-cup, etc. They’re called Mesü. Each bowl is marked with a simple graphic indicating how large a portion it holds. They’re an elegant solution to the problem of portion control without feeling like a punishing “diet product.” They’ve been uncommonly successful, selling at and the Museum of Modern Art store. The last time she was on QVC, Jennifer sold 3,000 of them in 90 seconds. Mesü was also featured on the “Today” show; her website ( exploded that morning.
BP: So Jennifer’s story met the Matt Lauer test.
BC: It sure did. That was very satisfying. And it let our students see what’s possible.
BP: Have any of your students used their personal stories as a springboard to package design?
BC: Absolutely. Debra Adler’s story was about her grandmother, who got terribly sick after she took her husband’s medication. Her grandmother and grandfather were both taking the same medicine; the only difference was the dosage. The dosage information and the patient’s name on the prescription label were in tiny type and impossible to read. Debra’s grandmother wound up in the hospital, and the whole family was terribly worried.
BP: What was Debra’s design solution?
BC: Debra designed a completely new prescription bottle system. It clearly stated the drug’s name, dosage and warnings. Her bottles had bold graphics and flat fronts—so patients could easily read them—and a big slot to hold more information. Target loved her idea and worked with Debra to develop it, adding color-coded neck rings to identify the prescriptions for each family member. Her “class project” is now the Target ClearRx packaging system. It’s been a big success both commercially and in the design world. It was even exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. Debra’s story about her grandmother has been told and retold through the media. And the story grows: Some people drive far out of their way just to get their prescriptions filled at Target. A result is that the chain’s pharmacy business is up about 14 percent from last year, according to a report in Business 2.0. That story should make any business leader’s heart sing.
BP: Both Jennifer and Debra were passionately invested in their stories and their designs. But they were working, at least initially, within an academic environment. Is it realistic to think designers working in the real world can use your design approach?
BC: We work this way at BIG. Our strategy and creative thinking to revitalize Sprite came right out of the unique stories and experiences of the youngest members of my team. A number of them really liked Sprite and have since they were kids. They knew the brand intimately—and what they wanted to improve. We fused their stories and first-hand knowledge with our strategist’s insights and Coca-Cola’s consumer research.
KB: How did the consumer research play into it?
BC: It’s a global brand, so it got a worldwide research effort. One comment from a girl in Atlanta stood out: “When I drink Sprite, it’s like lemon-lime icicles exploding in my head.” That was her “brand truth”. I passed that thought to the team. They ran with it, amplified it, turned it. They used their gifts in graffiti, spray paint, collage, drawing, typography—whatever they loved—to sculpt the solution. I watched them as they drove their quirky, personal voices through all of it. In essence, they designed it for themselves and their friends. They rejected all of the dumbed-down, simplistic, conventions of that category. They despised them, in fact.
So no idiotic, slick, swooshy, 3D logos, drop shadows and swirly Photoshop backgrounds. Who produces that lifeless, look-alike drek, anyway? Robots?
Leading brands lead. They copy no one. And Sprite should lead. Our clients and our team got so excited with what they were seeing that they ended up creating not just one, but four new, wildly different systems. We lobbied Sprite to use them simultaneously.
KB: Why were there four systems?
BC: The young people on the team knew Sprite so well, they knew exactly how the brand needed to behave to remain relevant. Working with our strategists, we examined how it needed to evolve in different situations. What you hold in your hand at a Kanye West concert is not what Mom buys at Safeway or what you see up on a billboard or on TV. These expressions should be linked, but not be identical. Old-school marketers still believe in banging that one, dreary, familiar note—repeating it endlessly, everywhere. But it’s mind numbing. Ubiquity destroys intensity.
To thrive, we believe a brand must keep one foot grounded in the familiar, using its legacy and visual root system to retain loyalists, and the other foot planted in the provocative, using constant innovation to recruit new people who might otherwise ignore the brand.
For Sprite, the four systems supported the many different occasions of the brand; teenagers at a skate park; on a vending machine on a hot July afternoon; on a convenience store poster; online; and in a refrigerator pack for Mom. It’s a global program, so it needed to be open to co-creation in the countries where Sprite lives.
KB: To which media did you apply the platforms?
BC: Advertising, animation, trucks, coolers, packaging, was designed to live in 360º, from drinking it to wearing it as credible fashion.
KB: How do you see the relationship between advertising and brand design in today’s media environment?
BC: Well, it’s not about media anymore. Or design. It’s about creating culture. Design, media, entertainment, technology, architecture, gaming—everything’s all mashing together. The Hershey store we developed with our client for Times Square is an example where all of these elements collide. What integrates them is one simple, driving story we wrote: A spectacular chocolate factory grew uncontrollably over the last century, then threw open its doors to the world. Each discipline was aligned to amplify that one narrative. And now I have a terrific place to take the kids after seeing “The Lion King.” We designed unique products for the store, too, so they can take their Hershey’s experience home and share it with others. Three million visitors a year at that place. It’s a tourist phenomenon.
Look, the world’s biggest brands still buy a lot of TV advertising, but its role is narrowing to awareness building. My team makes awareness tangible—bringing a brand promise to life. Smart marketers realize the work of brand building today is increasingly carried out in myriad intimate encounters, products and experiences. Our job is to make those experiences amazing.
With the impact of design available today, and the speed at which new ideas can get to market, it can be easier to improve consumers’ reality than to change their perception. Research for one of our service clients found that the design of its billing statements had far more effect on brand value than advertising did. The company’s customers spent fleeting seconds with the ads but minutes with the bill. That bill was the real moment of truth: Is this brand worth this much to me?
What gets the plane in the air? The engine? Or the wings? Both remarkable advertising and design are needed to fly.
BP: You spoke of bringing the brand promise to life. Could you say a little more about what that means, and ways to achieve it?
BC: If you don’t have products, environments or communications that move people to talk about you, you’re dead. The sad era of copycat, lowest common denominator, focus-grouped, second-guessed incrementalism that drove the careers of the dull and unimaginative is ending. Smart, nimble, innovative competitors are hell-bent on devouring your market share. They’re carnivores. And they’re terribly, terribly hungry.
In this environment, any company’s best option is to take its great, hardworking people in design and unleash them from the chains of risk-averse convention. They should be supported to create something . . . original. Something astonishing. To invent a different game. Deborah Adler did.
Marketers used to win by screaming at everybody with one, loud voice. Today, we need intimate brand experiences that inspire them to talk among themselves. People want to really feel ideas, to become active participants, not simply passive observers. Don’t just show a film about an apple. Give them a big, juicy bite.
BP: So, how do you define a “brand experience”?
BC: It’s an emotionally charged engagement that turns you from observer to participant. It could be an exhibit, a pop-up store, theatre, a book, a magazine, or a package design. A good brand experience will shift your original perception of a brand. A great one will turn you into an advocate.
For example, the women on my team were frustrated with the parade of unreal, emaciated clones they saw in beauty advertising. Working with Dove, they invited women photographers from around the world to submit their personal views on beauty—and corresponding photos—that challenged those damaging stereotypes. We then designed a touring exhibit and sent it out to malls across North America. Thousands came to see these photographs. Some visitors were moved to tears. The experience was powerful because it was physical as well as social. The media attention Dove subsequently enjoyed has been far greater than any standard ad campaign would have delivered. It kicked off a national debate that eventually transformed Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and even Conan O’Brien into Dove brand advocates. The site is using real stories to build a community around these ideas.
What I love most is that neuroscientists can now explain just how smart Dove was to build its brand this way. It turns out memory isn’t message. Memory is stored experience. And one new encounter has the power to instantly change what we remember of any previous encounter.
BP: Like my new encounter with Ogilvy & Mather.
BC: I hope so. And mine with BrandPackaging.
The author, Kate Bertrand, is a San Francisco-based writer specializing in packaging, business and technology. Contact her at