Why An Understanding Of Culture Is Inseparable From Good Branding

SVA Branding alum tells us why the ‘human’ factor is key to brand identity.

Branding has become an integral part of the business eco-system, but how can we become experts on the subject? As part of an ongoing series, PSFK will be chatting with alumni from the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding program. We spoke with recent grad Billy Burke about the value of storytelling, a top-secret thesis project, and discovering culture before the Internet.

What made you decide to enroll in the Master’s in Branding program? What is it about our current society that makes branding so important?

I have always been a curious person. Having that curiosity has led me to travel a lot and become a cultural observer of sorts. Secondly, I am Irish American on my father’s side, and storytelling plays a large role in our cultural identity. The combination of my diverse experiences, my ability to identify what moves people and my love of storytelling has led me to this career. I saw this program as a way to further develop my raw abilities, and then nurture, strengthen, and sharpen them.

I believe branding today is important because there is so much noise and clutter that we need to weed through in order to find truth and authenticity. In my opinion, a good brand is just a clear symbol of a particular meaning. We as brand folk are obligated to help define and communicate a good brand story, allowing consumers to bypass all of the tricks and gimmicks which exist and get straight to the truth.

How has having a Masters degree in Branding helped you further your career?

It has helped my career now, more than ever. I can make the unseen connections. I can look at culture from 10,000 feet above, identifying changes and shifts to find spaces of opportunity. I now also have the ability to fully develop and articulate a solid strategy that can help construct or guide a brand along its path.

What is the most surprising thing you learned about the process of branding during your time in the program?

I was very happy to discover how important culture really is to this practice. You can come up with the smartest idea built on great business strategy, but if you’re out of sync with culture and you can’t resonate, it’s meaningless and will fail.

What do you feel is your most valuable experience coming out of the Branding program?

The thesis project was an amazing experience. We worked with an active Fortune 500 client and, due to the sensitivity of the task, had to sign some NDA’s, so I can’t really speak about it yet. However, the task was heavy, as we had to figure out a way to break a human ritual that has gone on for a very long time. Not only were we asked to encourage open discussion, but also our goal was to rethink an ingrained habit in order to ultimately change a deeply entrenched cultural taboo.

Name two brands you think are standout examples of innovation in terms of their branding strategy, and tell us why.

My first brand, in terms of innovation, would be Nike. With the wide reception of Nike+ and the current mash up of the digital information and everyday life, Nike is humanizing big data. This creates an opportunity for product innovation and enhanced consumer experience in ways that athletic footwear brands probably never imagined.

My second brand, which now has now gained mass popularity, is Supreme. You may not see this brand as innovative currently, but you have to look at where they were when they started. Personally, this was the first brand, in terms of crafting a retail experience, that really captivated me. I can still remember the first time I walked into the store on Lafayette in 1996 or 1997, and was mesmerized by what was happening there. The speakers were blasting Big L, this perfect scent of incense was burning and floating in the air, and a bunch of skateboard kids and downtowners were hanging around drinking Heinekens in the back room. It was a full-sensory retail experience and, for me, as a young, wide-eyed kid, it was perfect — like nothing I had ever experienced from a retail store before.

Supreme became one of many cultural curators for me. A t-shirt design, a sticker, or just the music they were playing on my visits would inform and influence me. It was special, and it introduced me to how a brand could curate and shape culture.

If you had to offer one key piece of advice to interested applicants, what would it be?

Do it. It will change your life.

What is the one lesson you learned during the program that you use today in your job on a daily basis?

Unify. Simplify. Amplify.

Thanks Billy!

School of Visual Arts (SVA) // Masters in Branding

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