“What do you feel is your purpose in life?” Usually, my reaction to this question would be a nervous laughter or – if I’m in a funny mood – a rant about the number 42 which seems to be the answer to everything according to the Internet.
It’s even more startling when you get this question from a random YouTuber while strolling through the city with your friends after a long night out. However, when this scenario actually happened a few weeks ago, I was quite stunned when my hazy head came with a crystal clear answer within the splint of a second. “Connecting people, bringing them together so that they can understand and learn from each other”, I heard myself saying with enthusiasm. Well, apparently that’s the essence that takes control of my whole life. Luckily, I was wearing sunglasses – so you can’t see my astonished face in the clip.
On a party the night before, I had introduced the two friends who joined me for the hungover walk to each other. And as I already had anticipated, the two of them got along perfectly. Thus, I had the perfect real life example of how my purpose can be applied at hand. As if I’ve planned it all, I hear you thinking. Ever since this happened, I’ve been contemplating my mission as a human being. The more I think about it, the more I realize how deep the urge to “connect” is rooted in my life. In fact, you can bring all my “big life decisions” back to this essence. From leaving behind the Austrian Alps in order to study in Ireland and eventually ending up working in the depths of the Netherlands, to the choice of engaging myself in the creative industries. It’s all about gathering experience and insights, which consequently are applied as a glue between people and cultures.
By now, I’m convinced that everyone has such a small core that determines everything somewhere inside. However, not everyone can clearly tell what his or her essence is about. How did I manage, though, to have such a clear vision of my purpose? Spoiler: there were no spiritual practices or crystal balls involved (even though they might work for some).
For almost four years already, creating brands has kept me busy at my job as design lead at Studio Piraat. Coming up with visual translations of the purposes of companies and organizations is my daily business. And while you’re helping clients to discover who they are as a brand, you’re also given some insights about yourself for free. During the discovery, creation and realization of brands, you begin to create links between an organization and its people – the more human your brand is, the easier it is for you to connect to your target audience. Therefore, you sooner or later start looking at your own personality through a “branding-lens”. Branding isn’t only a way to reach commercial targets. It’s also a practice that supports you in getting to know yourself and others better, and – most importantly – it shows you how to apply this knowledge. Before we continue talking about my personal self-discovery, let’s get a better understanding of what branding actually is.
In a nutshell, the aim of a branding process is to make someone’s intrinsic motivations tangible and understandable for the outside world. The main task of brand designers and strategists is to reveal the essence of those motivations and to translate, not change(!), this essence into a coherent, clear story. This way, brands can access their target groups more naturally and are able to create meaningful and lasting relations.
Here at Studio Piraat, we spend a significant amount of time on getting to know our clients. You can compare it with a first date, where it’s all about asking the right questions (and also a lot of them) in order to get a clear idea of who is sitting on the other side of the table. Through playful exercises and tasks, we try to find out why a company, organization or person do what they do. The key is to keep on asking – almost losing yourself in a flood of “Why this? Why that?”-questions – until you eventually end up at the actual core of the brand.
Once the purpose is clear and polished, it’s up to us designers to visualize the essence in a way that exceeds the conservative idea of Corporate Design (which is basically just a logo that's surrounded with some nice colours). It’s actually about combining several building blocks (like colours, typography, language or photography) to a coherent system that can be scaled to all touchpoints of your brand. A consistent application of your system is essential to create a clear image of your brand in the mind of your target audience. The way of how you communicate or frame this image, your positioning, may change throughout the years. It’s key, though, to always match your positioning with your (hopefully) rock-solid essence. A good brand serves a guide for everyone who’s involved, from employees to stakeholders. Moreover, it helps you to implement more efficient processes. Your marketing department will be glad that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they’re working on a new campaign.
In the past years, organizations and people have become more aware of the value of such a crystal clear brand essence. The increasing number of branding agencies is - in my view - also in line with our generation of creatives.
Born somewhere between generation Y and Z, we’re strongly driven by our values and ideals and base our decisions on them (and not vice versa). We’re friends with people who pursue similar goals, work for companies that share our values and are quite vocal (maybe even cocky) about what we want and what we don’t want. We’re pretty sensitive to brands that pretend to be something they’re clearly not, and have an extra sense that helps us to expose sugar-coatings or green-washing (like for example with the latest Shell campaign on sustainability). And, if we’re using branding even more deliberately for ourselves, attracting the right people and opportunities will be easy as pie.
Branding is not just a tool that helps companies to bond with its community or that pays my rent at the end of the month. Working in the field also gives you a sort of therapy session for free. The awareness of my personal essence is not something that popped up overnight – it has been (and still is) a slow, unconscious process. And again, it’s no process throughout which you’re busy reinventing yourself. It’s about getting a clearer picture of who you already are. My job as a brand designer taught me, among others, that I’m pretty good at blending into different social groups – even if it’s just for an evening. My inner chameleon even finds ways to smoothly connect to bubbles that are miles away from my comfort zone – like amateur fishermen (despite my last name), fraternities or “Frühshoppen-musicians”. Branding didn’t only show me how to peacefully navigate in strange waters, but also where the urge to do so comes from.
As I’m often at workshops during which we’re searching for the core values or the archetypes of a client, I find myself contemplating my personal archetypes (somewhere between the ‘Explorer’ and the ‘Caregiver’). Therefore, I gradually started seeing myself as a brand – as a brand with essence and ideals, a brand that knows where its motivations originate. Whereas some people discover the essence of their existence through religions (like Buddhism), my holy grail turned out to be branding. Apparently, there are many roads that lead to Rome.
Discovering the core of your personality is in my view extremely handy. If you’re aware of the origins of your intrinsic needs, you’re able to base all major decisions on them. This makes it easier for you to judge whether someone or something suits you well. You can gear your vocabulary and your appearance to your essence, or even deliberately choose where you live or whom you’re working with. You can regard your brand as a compass that – based on your motivations – leads you in the right direction. Even if the terrain you’re moving in might change throughout the years, your compass’ needle will always point the same direction and supports you in making consistent decisions.
I’m fully convinced that everyone has such a compass. It’s already somewhere in you, maybe a bit hidden, maybe a bit rusty. But by seeing yourself as a brand, it may be easier for you to get hold of that compass. Once you respect your purpose and start aligning your decisions with it, I believe you’re a step closer to a life that’s actually your own life. And, as an add-on, you always have an answer ready for when a random person asks you for your purpose.