Alfie Spencer
Nov 12, 2014

Civic brands

What does brand-building have in common with actual building? More than you might think, according to Flamingo's Alfie Spencer.

Alfie Spencer
Alfie Spencer

Editor's note: This article is part of a series revolving around the concept of brands as intersections.

Imagine the job description: “You are to create experiences for society. Find ways to make daily activity better, more meaningful and exciting. Think about the people you are working for as users; offer them the best user experience, whoever they may be. Create moments and situations that help them to make sense of themselves and the world around them. If necessary, provoke them. Show them how they could live in a different way, invent new ways of seeing. Create rituals and practices that people want to take part in.”

You know that you are reading Campaign. So your first thought is that the job described above is probably for someone in advertising, branding or marketing—that kind of thing. It’s the kind of copy that demonstrates good ‘new branding’ mentality, with some of the important buzzwords of what is considered cutting-edge best practice in helping brands succeed.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is also a pretty good attempt at characterizing what an architect might be trying to do in designing a building, and then getting it built.

That shouldn’t surprise us, particularly. Looked at one way, architecture is a paradigm of creative practice with a social impact, and if brands are anything, they involve creative practice with a social impact.

In another way, however, it shows how far branding and marketing thought has come. Notice what the ‘modern’ brand thinking has in common with architecture that it doesn’t share with a more traditional way of thinking about the brand. There is no implication in the job description above that the job of the brand is to create loyalty. Nor—to pursue the analogy—is there any indication that the building / brand should stop people going to other buildings.  

There is no attempt to suggest that the brand should lock in a user to this particular brand. There is—sitting underneath the best ideas in modern brand management—a suggestion that a brand is an open and porous institution, interacting with the world around it in just the same way that a building has to actively engage with its surroundings, and take part in its social context.

Just as a successful building is something that people move through freely, the modern brand is something that doesn’t compete with its environment, but tessellates flexibly with the world around it.

This means that the modern brand is successful by taking part in society—by involving itself in its cultural context—in a way that may not have been necessary in the past. Whereas once it might have been OK to be a monolith, sitting trustily on the shelf and being consistent, there is now a demand to be flexible and adaptive to many contexts, just like good modern buildings. Not restrictive and demanding, but easily ‘remade’.   

This openness and porousness of successful contemporary brands is a distinctive feature, and its causes deep-rooted. What we can say is that somewhere between the concretization of social practices and the socialization of concrete environments, we have arrived at a place in which building a brand is rather like building a… building. Which is to say that we have arrived at the moment of the ‘civic brand’, where the brand is to discourse and thinking what buildings are to cities and walking.

Start hiring some architects.

Alfie Spencer is group head of semiotics with Flamingo


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