I started investigating Branding and found it would be a relevant angle to bring in people I admire and look up to for their work and eye ethic towards Branding. My goal is to demystify the word Branding so that anyone can fully understand its paradoxes and implement their version of Branding.
By collecting an eclectic panel of definitions and visions of what Branding is and implies from those who do Branding, use Branding, expand Branding: Brand makers.
I discovered Base Design, while working within the cultural sector. They are iconic and have always inspired a lot of French designers. So, when a former colleague posted the new Branding of the Théâtre du Chatelet, I had an intuition and acted upon it. I contacted one of my brand heroes, Thierry Brunfaut, co-founder and creative director at Base, and he said ''Yes''.
Discovering more about the conception of Base and Thierry's joyful process has been so motivating and liberating. Base's DNA and feel align with Thierry's vision at the core, which he enthusiastically shares. This conversation is an ode to creative leadership.
Hello Thierry, I am super happy to have you on the project.
Hello Keva. Glad to be here, as you see when someone like you kicks me with questions I'm always happy to share.
I would like you to introduce yourself briefly. What do you do, and what is your brand expertise?
I'm Thierry Brunfaut. I'm one of the founders of Base Design. Initially, we two founders never finished school because we started the company Base simultaneously.
We have now four studios: the original one was in Brussels, then we have another one in New York, Geneva, and Melbourne. Interestingly, all these studios, like New York and Brussels, are kind of the two Mother studios, but Melbourne is a start-up, and it's like a family. Our mother studio is more than 25 years old, and Melbourne's baby studio is two years old.
And I think it's amazing to have that, and another one is coming very soon—the family's growing. I mean, it's hard to keep your company evolving, changing, growing at every level.
Being the Head of Creation, are you watching over all the studios?
All partners must be active in the company, and we are about 70 people now. I am an associate creative director, mainly in Brussels, but other studios can ask me to participate in specific projects. Also, one of the key elements of my role is to promote the Base brand. Since the company is getting bigger, my primary part is finding how we keep the DNA alive across all Studios. How do you keep this entrepreneurial founder spirit?
Because as you grow and as you add studios, you have a bigger risk of losing what makes your company different or great or not great. That's why I'm also writing articles, giving conferences, talks, workshops, and I'm a teacher at various schools.
You just said why I asked you to be our Brand hero. You were saying you are part of the founding creators, so you have a 360° vision of what Branding is; I would like to have your definition of Branding?
I think Branding is the art of influencing perception. Many people are obsessed with logos, colours and codes, but at the same time, I think what is extremely important is the mental image that's made up in people's minds. And how do you change or transform this perception?
It's intangible. Yet we use tangible ways to do it. It's mostly emotional.
That's why I tend always to differentiate Branding from marketing. With marketing, you get short-term results because you do campaigns and aim at tangible results. With Branding, it's long-term and intangible results: it's culture.
So basically, it is how you transform perception and build around a brand, a specific culture.
Regardless of the client, whether it's cultural, commercial, food or hospitality, our core goal is to make these clients an influence in their sector or even beyond.
The size has nothing to do with that because you have big brands that nobody cares about and super tiny, mini brands that are super influential.
A reference that I like a lot: in the music business, you have megastars, right? You have Prince, The Beatles and Madonna, but if you take The Velvet Undergrounds, when they sold their first record, there were only 30,000 copies sold, but each copy made each one of the people that bought it want to start a rock band. The influence of The Velvet Underground is enormous in the Rock'n'roll business.
With Branding, it's long-term and intangible results: it's culture.
Wow, It's interesting! It's all about creating impact, and not everyone understands that. Entrepreneurs and anyone, regardless of their jobs, have to brand themselves, become an influence at some point and spread their knowledge. Why do you think it's so complex for people to see the mechanism of Branding?
Yes, I think you are pointing out one of the main difficulties. Almost every client who comes to us knows they need Branding and don't know what to ask us.
I think we can say that's the common denominator. They will always come to us in a moment of change, that's for sure.
They come when there's a change in leadership, when they merge two companies, or when they realize that they will decline if they continue the way they are. This change can be an evolution, or it can be a revolution, and it's on us to evaluate what needs to be done.
But I think when we address this question with the client, we also address the clients' sensibility and intelligence. If it's only about making money, we will never be able to work well together. It's about understanding what they want in terms of vision, future, and cultural impact.
This is what we can promise to people: when working with us, we will work first internally with you because it has to radiate from the inside towards the outside.
For example, I'm not so much interested in market research. I have the conviction that finding who you truly are or want to be from the inside will make your positioning adequate.
Sometimes it's extremely tough on clients because we are like psychologists asking all the painful questions.
We always try to have a direct connection with the decision-makers. For the branding process, we need to talk to the founder, the CEO, to the people that run the division internally; otherwise, it's impossible.
While I'm listening to you, I do sense the key idea that people need to be ready to talk about the beautiful and the ugly of what their business entails. Do you think the lack of knowledge in Branding is because people are not ready yet to educate themselves on the matter?
Yes, it's true. For example, I think what is extremely interesting is that since we have a studio in New York, Brussels, Geneva, and working in Paris, we feel a difference. For example, the American market and American brand leaders are, for the most part, really aware of what Branding and brand strategy is.
The difference with other European brand leaders is that they don't know. We need to teach them; we need to explain how it will go, how the process will be.
Here in Europe, part of our work is to explain how we are going to do that, why, and the important steps, and explain to them that they will have to work as much as we do on that process.
It's a partnership. It's not for us to execute anything without them; that's impossible; it will never work that way.
Explaining that in the initial meetings is extremely important. For example, one of the main rules I always ask to a client or potential client is that we will need total candour and honesty in every dialogue. If they don't feel at ease, they have to tell us immediately!
Since day one, we have tried to establish a sincere and transparent relationship.
When we can get to that level of relationship, it's wonderful because it can go fast. It's creative, open, dynamic, and these are the best relationships. At the end of the day, if you don't have a good relationship with the client, you don't have a good project. That's as simple as that.
Another good definition that I like is that Branding is just an interface between two people.
If you are a shoemaker and do great shoes, you need somebody to buy your shoes. The brand is simply the interface between you and somebody potentially wanting to buy your shoes, and this interface should represent you most accurately and adequately.
I always make the link with people; brands behave like people just the same way.
And what I love obviously about the job is that you cannot quantify; it's always about a gut feeling, emotional. Sometimes you do things, and it works tremendously well and sometimes it is not great. And at the end of the day, you don't precisely know why: which is the beauty of it, which makes all the financial people nervous because there's nothing carved in stone, there is no magical formula.
I agree; everyone has to find their own formula.
You said that you had to step up a little more to speak about the brand for the clients to understand what you do. Do you think that every entrepreneur or founder, who take their Branding seriously, has to get out of the passenger seat and be more upfront and share their whys, whats and hows?
Is it possible to do Branding being a little more passive?
Yeah, definitely. I agree. I mean, the people that would succeed are the ones that understand that communication is part of their business from day one. If they don't think that their business will not be as successful, the vision will not come to life. The most fruitful collaboration is obviously with the clients who understand the world they live in.
And the fact that a brand is not a fixed entity, it has to evolve and transform every morning.
That's why at Base, we're never doing something that says, ''this is finished''. No, it's always a dynamic system; it has to evolve, to transform the following day.
For example, during the COVID situation where suddenly brands were calling us: ''What should I do?'', ''What should I say?'', those that were so true to themselves, didn't have to ask us: they knew what to do and what to say.
In that sense, we need to build systems, visual systems, or verbalize things in a constantly changing way. And that's also kind of difficult for some people because they are like: ''but it means that I have to (re)question myself every morning?''.
It's an ongoing conversation you have with the rest of the world, and your brand and those who embrace that will succeed.
I think for me, as a partner when I'm dealing with clients, the thing I have to deal with the most is fear. People are saying ''yes, but it's expensive. And I don't know. I'm scared''. But how can we reduce that fear? How can we handle that uncertainty because I don't know how we will be next year or after? That's part of my work as well, which is extremely rewarding.
At Base, we have existed for 20 years, and we specialize in non-specializing; we are working at the same time for an opera, a baseball team, a big bank, and the things that we learned in one sector we can bring to another. There's no frontier in our work; it is how you put that all together.
I love the chaos of the creative work that we're producing because this is where new ideas are popping up the whole time and in no order.
I'm sorry to say that to many brand leaders, but it will be a challenging ride because we don't know what's ahead of us. But it can also be good and fun. And let's embrace that.
That's exciting for them and us if we can manage to have that kind of relationship, of course.
Amazing! The thing that I sense the most is your enthusiasm, and I can feel that you love what you're doing. And that is inspiring!
I just want to say that on a personal level, I am the oldest guy in the company, but in a kind of way, I am still behaving like a kid in my own company because I'm so enthusiastic. And my partners as well! We're still enjoying what we're doing.
And I think that's also key to the success of our company. If we would go to work and just want to make money and do it without pleasure, it would be a nightmare.
We have to be enthusiastic and love what we do, because otherwise, what's the point?
This capacity to be joyful from the start and in the making. Do you think it is the DNA you have and that your clients sense and tune into?
Yes! And it's super important they feel this kind of not only joy but a passion. We have a joyful ride while doing it. But it doesn't mean that it's always easy; obviously, we have difficult days. But I think that is also something that the partners and I transmit to the teams (the designers, strategists and writers) to enjoy their days.
And that is a lot of internal work in our company as well. How do we interact? How to make every day at work enjoyable? That's key.
For example, on a very personal matter, every morning, when I take my shower, I always ask myself the same question: ''do I want to go to the studio today?'' If the answer is no, I need to address that immediately.
Otherwise, tomorrow will be: "I don't want to go, I don't want to do it". That's the first thing I need to do.
If the answer is yes, I'm going to sit there happy while I'm working.
The picture that you loved behind me is a perfect example of that team spirit. We were for a year and a half, like all of us in lockdown isolated, so we thought that we could put an end to that. And I said, okay, I will invite the whole Brussels studio to Provence for a few days.
And the program of the team was ''no program''.
The only question on the agenda was, what are we eating? And what are we going to drink? It was amazing to be together and enjoy something that is not work.
We just spent two hours on how to use this COVID situation with new processes for the future. Then we got back to the ''apéro'', played ''pétanque'', and jumped into the pool. The whole thing makes the team so happy and thankful to be in a company that just ventures and does that.
But the next day, it was like back to business. Another example, we had a rule before COVID that two people from the studio will cook for each other each week, not ordering food, cooking for one another. It mimics moments when you're working and living together. I think that makes Base an enjoyable place for work and life.
I agree, and anyone in the creative field understands that having a solid relationship within a team is a stepping stone to doing better projects and having effective storytelling.
What tips do you give your clients to focus on this core team building as part of a solid foundation for their brand?
Two years ago, when we rebranded IFM (Institut Français de la Mode) initially, it sounded very complex. The team of the IFM were merging with L'École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne which had pioneers like Yves Saint Laurent. It was a case of putting two iconic schools together.
At first, there were hesitations, but the simple idea of putting them together during a whole afternoon of eating together, working together, doing workshops, etc., at the end of the day, they managed to design their schools themselves. The teachers, the students, did part of the new Branding, and we gave them the tools just to own their "new brand". It was a success because of that. It's not always like that; we can't ensure that for every project, but this one, was fascinating because it worked well.
As you start a process, you trust your process; you don't know how the outcome will be. You just trust the people. And then I don't know, we'll see. (Laughs)
I love that!
One last question, this morning while I was coming, I saw one of the posters from the Théâtre du Châtelet, I know you helped with their new Branding.
What do you think about the cultural sector and the challenges of making a brand?
I know that you're collaborating with many cultural institutions, so what makes it more challenging to create effective Branding in the cultural sector?
We've worked with a lot of cultural institutions: Théâtre du Châtelet is one of the latest jobs that we started a couple of months ago. And it was a bumpy road because COVID got in the way, and they had to close.
We have worked for many big cultural institutions, from the MoMA in New York to the Opera in Brussels, the Fondation Cartier in Paris and other big ones. But at the end of the day, it's not so much different from commercial brands.
The thing that kind of surprised me sometimes with cultural brands is that at the beginning, you would think that they're more open to change and more open to creative ideas. Not true! They're very closed.
There's are like "this is how we do this in theatre. We do this, and we don't think we should change".
For example, they're obsessed with printing content. When we ask why they respond "because we always did it this way" and I ask :
- "Okay, are people reading this?"
- "Oh, we don't know". I think so.
So my next question is: "Okay, do you read that yourself?"
- "Actually, not sure".
- "Do you read the ones of other theatres?"
- "No, no, never."
- "So why are you spending so much money printing leaflets that are just stacked in the hallway and that nobody cares about? Stop doing that?"
- "Yeah, but no, because in a theatre, you do that and like…."
- "You can change. You can do differently." I said.
You may think that in cultural institutions, changes are easy, and no, they're not easy at all; you need to accompany them into a similar journey to commercial brands, which is interesting!
Some leaders in the cultural institutions are very open-minded and visionaries. One of the most creative relationships we have is with the Opera here in Brussels, a great opera house.
The brief of each seasonal campaign is so interesting that we can do everything we want.
And we had tremendous success two years ago with a campaign where the director's obsession was about the decline of democracies. The Opera was like "power to the people" throughout that season. And all the opera shows selected for that season had that energy. We made all the campaigns using these beautiful images of white males fighting in Parliament.
We remembered one beautiful image that looked like a painting with white males fighting in a Parliament. I asked the team if they could find other pictures like this, and we found so many of them. Everywhere in the world, these guys are punching each other quite often.
And so, we used that as material for an Opera; it was a perfect bridge between contemporary news. Still, at the same time, the images were so linked to the history of Opera and the painting culture that I believe we did a good job at producing this perfect balance between past, present, and future.
That, you cannot do with a commercial client. So that's why you can produce compelling work for the public in some occurrences, but not with all of them, and not always sometimes you have other objectives.
The president or the art director comes with his vision in the cultural sector.
When it comes to Branding, you don't know if the identity will last for 10 years, and you're going to guide that vision for 10 years. It's a kind of paradox because it accumulates; after all, the leaders are different.
As a result, there's a succession of different visions, but all this accumulation of visual identities and visual branding experiences could confuse the audience? Where is the sweet spot?
Yeah, it's true. You have to put in place a system that is allowing change.
But I think our role, and this is the case, for example, with the Chatelet, is how can we make a new visual identity more effective for the internal team? We had to restore pride internally because they were closed for almost two years.
Even the director told me: "you gave us back the desire to do theatre, to be on stage thanks to you Base Design'', which is a wonderful compliment.
But at the same time, we had to put ourselves in the shoes of a person outside of the Théâtre du Chatelet. Do I want to go to see this show? Do I know what this is all about?
So this is our role, to just challenge the content and the stories. Because if it's not inspiring for us, it will never be inspiring for the potential audience
It's true! It is a personal comment because I worked in the cultural sector for several years, and I sensed this. But I'd like to highlight some institutions' confusion, where there's too much change.
The process of repeated changes is challenging the foundation of what they are.
How can we redefine what Branding is if it's constantly changing and people are always finding new angles?
How can we make it simple to use and adapt?
For example, It is no longer useful to produce heavy, lengthy, complex brand guidelines because to do a guideline will take six months, and it's obsolete.
So what we do now is a very simple toolbox; use this typeface, these principles, whether it's composition or colour principles or visual principles, and this should hold in a one-pager. This is how you do the brand; this is exactly what is happening now.
Every month, we meet with them to see how they use their brand and how they are building on their own. And it's incredible how now it's their brands; it's not ours anymore. And they just enriched the thing and made it a dynamic system.
Before, people in Branding had the idea that we needed to control everything. "This needs to be on the guidelines; otherwise, we will have to whip you because it's not good". "You have to follow the rules". I don't believe in that anymore.
It has to be a system that allows change and errors, but it's an ongoing, dynamic transformation.
And if you have that, I don't think you need to change the Branding every two years; you just need to make the initial Branding a living force that is transforming itself with the years. But to do that, it needs to be simple to address complex issues because otherwise, you're stuck.
Initially, it's frightening for the teams because they seek order, but they quickly realize this is just fun to use, and they want to use it.
- "Now I want to do a video. Can I do that?"
- And I'm like, "of course",
- "But it was not in the guideline".
- "There's no guideline; just try it and does it look Chatelet?"
- "I think so."
- "Then, do it".
(Laughs) They have to own it.
For IFM, we designed this very specific typeface. And the first thing we said to the teachers is don't keep that to yourself, give that to the students; they should use it. Which is amazing, now is that they're using it. Students book a room and stick paper on the door using the typeface. It's alive and owned by the people.
I think good Branding is always democratic; it's not reserved for the elite.
The more you give tools to people, the more influential the brand will be because then it becomes its own, and it can live, transform, change and become something else in one, two or three years.
Well, it's interesting because we live in an era where everyone can design. For example, you have tools like Canva, where people without experience in design can assemble and create something more readable, pleasant, and modern for themselves or their brand.
With all these accessible tools and everyone being able to do it and master it, prospectively, how do you feel Branding will evolve?
I think it's a great question. Most people are currently doing Branding without knowing it, and a lot of people are using their Instagram as auto-branding, their own Branding of what they do, or their business or the thing they want to promote.
So they're using Instagram and tell stories exactly as a brand would do. Some people are doing that extremely well, even designing and storytelling with all the tools. So that's why I think it's so exciting and we should discuss that further.
I'm designing a program, a five-day seminar for people who are not designers, people from any across areas. I tested that in a business school, and it was terrific. I mean, at the end of it, they could all do Branding; they could all design without even having any years of design. I specified different exercises and allowed them to create.
It was very funny because they were around 30 people; I told them: "Tomorrow, you bring three magazines, a pair of scissors and cello tape," and we did a straightforward exercise which showed them the impact and the relationship between an image and text only by cutting and pasting papers. And it was fun, and we laughed. This is very simple to do; you don't have to use a computer.
You can do any communication when you understand how the relationship between an image and a sentence works! In two days, you can become a designer; it just unlocks things in your brain.
At the end of the week, these people who worked in teams were able to create a brand, and it was fucking good! It was really creative, really surprising!
That's, for me, another side of my work, which I do in my teaching. And I will start next year to promote that specific program. And that excites me a lot because it means that Branding is accessible.
When people are gardening, they are not saying, "Oh, only us gardeners can do gardening".
No, everybody can do gardening. I believe this, and you just need a proper tool, and you need the authorization to yourself.
- "Can I do that?"
- "Of course, you can do that, and I will show you how, easy!"
That is so empowering, like imagining in 20, 30 or 50 years, there's no need to teach Branding, no need to teach design. Of course, we have a huge increase in AI. With this future in prospect, how do you feel?
Do you think you will still be teaching or sharing your knowledge?
Yeah. I do. It's funny because I don't see myself stopping working or retiring; no, I love this too much.
But I'm indeed coming to an age now where delegating and transmitting ideas. For example, there are two main projects that we are starting for January next year: the seminar and the book that I'm writing. They will be the main objective for the next two years.
For me, the priority is how can we do all the things I explained to you now because they need to be transmitted inside and outside the company.
You know, I did a series called The Five Minute posters, you know that?
Yes, I saw the series.
There are simple ways to give away your thinking process and share that with people.
As I said earlier, Base is more than 25 years old, so the key for us in the future is to remain relevant for a young girl or guy of 20 years old. We are dead if we're not attractive to these people!
So how can we do that? It's on us to remain exciting and inspiring because otherwise, my company will go down, and we'll be an old company producing shitty works.
I am looking forward to our talk on the podcast, another angle on you and Base Design. Thank you! It was super interesting and so knowledgeable!
Thank you for the invitation always happy to share.
For readability, the talk was rewritten and adjusted.
Special thanks to Ashwa for the detailed transcription and update + Rasha for a solid and respectful rewriting of the talk.
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