A Huge Connect

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Brian Collins, executive CD at Ogilvy & Mather's Brand Integration Group in New York, is big on the phrase "huge disconnect." This is what a storyteller doesn't want his audience to experience, and Collins likes to think of himself as a storyteller. The story he tells is about brand identity, the design mantra of the '90s, still gaining momentum in the e-commerce eruption of the new millennium. Back in the good old predigital days, brand identity was more commonly called package design, but those days are long gone. "Package design is an old paradigm," Collins scoffs. "That business needs to be completely reinvented. The old-line packaging design firms are stuck. They say that they're brand identity specialists, but they're not. They're box specialists."

Collins is an outside-the-box specialist, in more ways than one. His group does everything from magazine redesign (Brill's Content) to office redesign - his own. When he joined O&M in 1998 from FCB/San Francisco, to head a fledgling group established by O&M CCO Rick Boyko, "I wanted to see if my team could generate the same kind of passion, the same sense of collaboration that existed at Disney in the Golden Age of Snow White and Pinocchio." The thirtysomething Collins, a Boston native who studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York and the Massachusetts College of Art, had done a stint at the Duffy Design Group before moving on to acclaim at FCB for his work as both a design director and an agency CD on Levi's, Janus Funds and other accounts. But it was very early in his career at Walt Disney Imagineering that he discovered a "furnace of creativity," which he traces to Disney's "sense of community and a belief in shared learning." So the first thing he had his O&M group do when he took over "was cover the blinding white walls in our area with black chalkboard," Collins recalls. "Floor to ceiling, hallway to hallway. Everything we did - the good, the bad and the mediocre - went up on the walls. Then we asked everybody what they thought of all the work. We got really useful information, not just from creatives, but from account people, traffic people, everyone." Collins says this is a "prototyping model," similar to the way architects operate, and it's "the antithesis of the way creatives work - they only put up the gems."

Collins prefers to coax diamonds out of the rough, and he still works this way, even though "my team is a little bigger now and we work on a number of projects simultaneously," he notes. "It can get a bit messy, but this is the best way to make 'integration' really work. There's just an awful lot of chalk dust on everyone's clothing." Last year his group went on to redesign the corporate identity of O&M itself. For starters, out went the old, stodgy serifs of 'Ogilvy & Mather' and in came a boldly cursive 'Ogilvy' in the handwriting of David Ogilvy himself. Skip the 'Mather,' thank you, except on formal occasions - it's not sufficiently brand-focused, though 'O&M' is still OK.

But clearing aside the chalk dust for a moment, what is this 'brand identity' and 'integration' deal, anyway? A hopeless cynic might suggest that it smacks of the Brit-import 'planning' craze of the '90s - one of those catch-all concepts that frequently turns out to be a house of straw. But brand identity appears to be more like the house of brick that can't be blown down; it's life, the universe and everything, a holistic hullabaloo with 360 degrees of consumer contact. "Branding is storytelling," Collins says simply. "We have to create the design cues that tell the story of the product. It's not that the package has lost its importance; it's that the brand has taken on greater importance. The package retains its linchpin role, in which it has to support the promises made by the advertising and all the other elements of the brand, but consider this: When you call a product's toll-free number, do you get someone who sounds like they're really interested, or do they ask you for your name and address before they start talking to you? That's brand identity." OK, but what about the product itself? Doesn't it count for anything anymore? "If the brand story is not paid off by your experience of the product, then there's a huge disconnect and you won't buy it again," Collins says.

So content still counts for something, thank heaven. And so does Content, one of the group's most impressive successes to date. "Steven Brill felt his magazine was in danger of losing its relevance," Collins explains. "He wanted an ad campaign that would explain that he stood for the plain, unvarnished truth. We told him, 'There's going to be a huge disconnect between the advertising and the magazine. The way it's packaged has nothing to do with being bold, gutsy and strong. We have to redesign the brand.' " So Collins, along with colleagues Luke Hayman and Judd Harner, developed a new "brand position, language and visual design," he says, based around the persuasive tag, "Skepticism is a virtue." And of course, "All brand artifacts, packaging and communication were integrated," which unifies the whole shebang from the ads and the media kit right on to the Content offices' lobby design and the blow-in cards. Sales have been up a very respectable 30 percent, according to Collins. And Hayman left to become Content's creative director.

Now if the group can only do the same for ailing Miller Lite. Not likely, but they do have a brand new print and outdoor campaign that "connects Miller to sports using the iconography in a way that's inventive and whimsical," Collins says.

No arguing with that. Now if only Miller had a toll-free operator who cared.

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