Brand Communications: Art or Science?

How many times during my career in advertising and brand communications, spanning several decades, must have I heard the debate over whether creating brand communications is an art or a science. It never ceases to amuse me, and yet, many a time, I have found it exasperating to explain even to fellow colleagues sometimes, that it is both. Hmm… you’d think that settles it, but no.

Next follows the question about how you as a creative person, can possibly be involved with thinking on brand strategy; that is not your “area” (read: you are crossing into my turf), you are just supposed to deliver the work. At a pinch, they might allow you a little latitude in commenting or vetting the strategy or creative brief. Thankfully, I spent around half my career at Ogilvy, where it was expected of you as a writer to contribute to strategy and the thinking process, since you were part of the team on the business. I always insisted on it, before my team or I began work and I can tell you many agencies don’t take to it kindly.

“… Advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science. It is based on fixed principles and is reasonably exact. The causes and effects have been analysed until they are well understood.”

– Claude Hopkins in Scientific Advertising

Science and art have always been companions in brand communications

In my long career, I have come to see it as a mindset that cannot think laterally in an inter-disciplinary fashion, or at any rate hasn’t been trained to think that way. That said, I think most writers at least, who have spent years in the business, are pretty sound with their strategic thinking on brands.

I thought I would write about what makes brand communications an art as well as a science. For those of you who might have read Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising, it wouldn’t be news at all. For in 1923 itself, the advertising and communications business was becoming a science. In his book, Hopkins says:

“The time has come when advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science. It is based on fixed principles and is reasonably exact. The causes and effects have been analysed until they are well understood. The correct method of procedure have been proved and established. We know what is effective and we act on law.

Advertising, once a gamble, has thus become, under able direction, one of the safest business ventures.”

The creative or ideation process is one of synthesis: a magical meeting of two or more unconnected thoughts on different planes.

It is indeed, the principles of “how and why” of the way communication works or doesn’t work, that makes it a science. The understanding of the product, its attributes and benefits, understanding the market and competition, as well as the consumer segment, all involve a scientific thinking process as well as consumer research, quite often in order to gain a more complete understanding. David Ogilvy has also often stressed the importance of understanding the consumer and product completely and relying on research as much as possible to gain consumer insights.

Imagery and semiology play a role in brand-building

The strategy provides the writer with a roadmap in his or her mind about where we want to take the brand. Now, the task ahead is to translate the brand promise/consumer benefit in a manner that takes the brand in the right direction. It is best to think of the brand strategy as a springboard for the creative team to take a leap from. The creative process is where the writer and art director team try and find a way to connect two or more unassociated ideas or concepts in such a way that the message is delivered. There are several known techniques for generating ideas and, depending on the brand, several creative routes might be explored.

The creative or ideation process then, is one of synthesis. Of making the meeting of two unconnected thoughts on different planes a magical one. Indeed, many in advertising talk of the “logic” and “magic” dimensions of the task of creating brand communications. And semiotics, of which I had recently written about, is also extensively employed.

Let us move away from the brand communications business for a while and look at what Arthur Koestler has said about science and art. In his book, Bricks to Babel, he writes:

“Creativity in science could be described as the art of putting two and two together to make five. In other words, it consists in combining previously unrelated domains of knowledge in such a way that you get more out of the emergent whole than you have put in. This apparent bit of magic derives from the fact that the whole is not merely the sum of its parts; but an expression of the relation between its parts; and that each new synthesis leads to the emergence of new patterns of relations – more complex cognitive structures on higher levels of mental hierarchy.”   

Harmony of the disciplines is what we are always trying to achieve

I find this the best way to describe how we create brand communication as well. As examples to illustrate what he means, he talks of many such serendipitous discoveries and inventions, but the one that had great impact was Pythagoras’ discovery of the musical harmony of the planets when he found that different lengths of string produced sounds of different pitch. He called it the “harmony of the spheres”, a rather poetic description of planetary arrangements in the cosmos. And thus, began modern science.

Writing for brand communication is quite different from creative writing in one important respect, thanks to the discipline that science brings to the table: writing within the framework of a carefully defined strategy.

Today, it is well accepted that there is a connection between music and mathematics. If you look at it, mathematics itself is the search for and study of patterns around us. The kind of patterns that we also find in architecture. Is it an art or a science? Here, I must mention the creation of a new ultra-futuristic city in Valencia, Spain, called the Arts and Science City. It brings together the two disciplines in ways that open up man’s imagination to new possibilities and is said to be a huge tourist attraction.

I like to think of brands as architectural organisms that contain the affinity and attachment that people feel: they have form, structure and personality. They are living, breathing, growing creatures.

Looking at the world in new ways: the eye of L’ Hemisphere, Arts and Science City, Valencia, Spain

Think of all the art movements and how each signalled change through a reconfiguration of the scientific principles that underpin it. Think of Picasso who experimented with the planes of reality through cubism. Think of the Dutch artist, MC Escher, considered more mathematician than artist, who distorted reality by reimagining planes as well.

Where is the science in writing, you might well ask? It exists in the principles that govern good writing: form, structure, figures of speech, grammar and so on. All of these circumscribe the scientific aspect of written communication in order that we express ourselves clearly and engagingly. There are, of course, also writers who achieved such great command and felicity that they ventured beyond boundaries and wrote entire novels in verse or plays in verse.

Writing for brand communication is quite different from creative writing in one important respect, though. And that is the discipline that science brings to the table: writing within the framework of a carefully defined strategy. There is science after the creative idea as well, and it’s not just in the production of it, but at the evaluation stage. Having come up with a few ideas, one has to now evaluate which of the ideas works best and which is the one to recommend to the client. There are a few scientific principles for assessing the most appropriate idea and if the client insists it be researched (God forbid!), then the communication is tested among the relevant target audience group before it comes back for course correction or fine-tuning, as the case may be. I am not a fan of testing communication or even ideas as concept cards; I believe it is a huge mistake to ask consumers to be creative directors and we end up abdicating some of our responsibilities. I much prefer to have all the consumer research done before strategy, in order to understand the consumer better. That is research money well-spent.

Writing for brands, like poetry, often employs metaphors and allegories

All these stages of developing brand communication still require us to maintain an open mind, be sensitive to new experiences and ideas, and push the boundaries as far out as one can. I think of how it was possible to create a Scotch Whisky brand with truly Scottish imagery, as the whisky that was music to the ears. 100 Pipers = music + whisky that is a musical experience.

Or another Scotch whisky that was the “passport” or route to new experiences, or a blended IMFL (Indian made foreign liquor) whisky brand that epitomized a blender’s hospitable spirit to friends from all over the world and yet another that helped people “live large”. Four very different whiskies, each with its own distinctive image; there was more – an American gin brand that allowed people to take the smooth with the bumpy in their interactions with each other. It all added up to an image of a company that had “enduring traditions, enduring quality” at the core of how it helped people celebrate and enjoy good times with good taste. That company was Seagram (now Pernod Ricard) then a client at Ogilvy.

Meanwhile, I can’t help lamenting just how dull and sterile communication for cars have become: devoid of any distinctive message and idea with just a list of bullet point features, inset pictures and discounts and payment options. The automobile industry stopped trying to make people want to own and drive cars long ago. With all the technological strides the industry has taken and will continue to take, I think the ground is ripe for the scientific and artistic dimensions to come together in a way that will bring back the romance of road travel into people’s lives and make each automotive brand (not model) distinctive. This category is set for huge and disruptive change as I have written in my previous post on the automotive slowdown in India and it is high time brands geared up for the change.

The debate on arts versus science is an old one and will perhaps continue. Raymond Williams, in his classic, Culture and Society, writes about how capitalism is designed to promote science as opposed to the arts and Alexis de Tocqueville has written in Democracy in America of the American approach to science, which is to find immediate commercial value in it. In fact, right now, there is a raging debate on in the US about universities cutting back on liberal arts programmes and whether the race for supremacy in the 21st century, led as it is by technology, ought to propel us toward greater funding for STEM at the expense of the humanities, and whether that is indeed, a good thing.

That is, however, another discussion for another day. I will close this piece with the hope that art and science will not stand conflicted with each other, but will continue to blend into each other fluidly and harmoniously like water. Remember, music travels in waves; and, so do human emotions.  

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