Holonomic Brand Values: What can we learn from a Brazilian gym?

Braun Radio and Apple iPod compared

Braun Radio and Apple iPod compared

Anyone with even a remote interest in design will know how the electronic products of Braun in the 1950s and 60s influenced the design of Apple’s iconic products. Much of these designs are the inspiration of Dieter Rams, who in 1961 became the Chief Design Officer at Braun until 1995. In the 1970s he became interested in sustainable design, and developed these 10 principles for product design:

Is innovative – The possibilities for progression are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for original designs. But imaginative design always develops in tandem with improving technology, and can never be an end in itself.

Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic criteria. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could detract from it.

Is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Is unobtrusive – Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

Is honest – It does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Is long-lasting – It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

Is thorough down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

Is environmentally friendly – Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

Is as little design as possible – Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Mac Mini

In terms of Apple products, I have my first 2007 iPod which I still use, I have my 2009 MacBook pro which I still use, I have a 2012 iPad2 which is still in use, and I now have a new Mac Mini. If you have not seen a Mac Mini, it is the most simple Mac you can buy and is just a box with a few ports at the back. There is no screen, mouse, keyboard or speakers etc, and this is great as it means like me you just reuse all the stuff you already have. I had all the kit but was using the MacBook at home, so I did not have an old computer to recycle.

While Apple products continue to be aesthetically pleasing, and they do appear to have a long life (nowadays I am loathe to upgrade for the sake of upgrading), I am not so sure about some of the applications. Using iTunes to transfer documents, photos, music and PDFs (PDFs! – what a mare) continues to be an absolute pain, and also with Mavericks comes an intrusive cloud which may be fine for people with continuous broadband and who do not mind sharing all their docs with those cheeky monkeys at the NSA and GCHQ etc, but for me I like to still have my stuff when I am off-line and when the net goes down (which for me is still a common occurance in this neck of the woods).

If you read my last article you will already know how I was very impressed with Mockba, my local gym here in São Paulo (see Some notes on Business Design, Customer Experience and Systems Thinking). In the video above, the technical director Bruno Tripoli introduces the gym, and the training methods which he studied while living in Moscow. It’s funny as Bruno read the article this weekend, and was at the gym on Monday evening when Maria and I went to do a later-than-normal workout. We had a great talk with Bruno, and we of course discussed our dedication to developing excellent customer experiences.

Hardcore training sessions with tyres at Mockba

Hardcore training sessions with tyres at Mockba

Before developing the gym, Bruno told us that he had read the biography of Steve Jobs, and really took notice of the way in which Jobs described the attention given to the experience of opening an Apple product box. Bruno then applied that thinking to the design of the gym, and every aspect of the customer experience, including he told us the height of the ceilings, hence finding the building in São Paulo which is next to our house which was renovated before the opening a couple of years ago.

Sometimes good design is hidden in broad daylight. Good design can seem so simple, and yet so many companies seem to fail at it. While much design thinking centres around physical products, be they sexy gadgets or the latest apps, sustainability as I have been attempting to highlight is so much more than just eco-friendly product. There can be monumental waste in service organisations, which at the same time are not resilient.

In focusing on the customer experience an organisation really has to have coherent values at the heart of their thinking, thinking which runs authentically throughout each and every aspect, and each and every member of staff, however partially. For example, even the cleaning staff are friendly at Mockba, and Bruno and the team ensure that they too are able to use the gym when not working, keeping them healthy and happy.

The Holonomic Operating System

The Holonomic Operating System

For me Marketing is not a dirty word, not in relation to sustainability. Apple achieved a huge success making their gadgets sexy and desirable, but their business model is predicated on trashing last year’s model and lust for the next hip thing. Steve Jobs was declared a design genius, and in many ways of course he was. But the world needs a new design philosophy now, and people who can shift our thinking from economic brand value to what I term holonomic brand values.

The work of Maria and I is centred around the holonomic operating system, and we work with executives and people from many different business backgrounds, helping them to shift into a higher cognitive mode of operating – holonomic thinking. Holonomic thinking is a mode of consciousness which utilises all four ways of knowing – thinking, sensing, feeling and intuition – but this operating system can apply equally to the way in which we understand brands and brand value. Brands now have to be authentic and not only communicate, but actually BE authentic in their wholeness. It is not enough to value a brand economically, since we can encounter brands not just through our rational minds, but connecting through feeling, interacting through sensing, and comprehending the authenticity in our intuition.

What I am saying sounds simple, but in fact for people who can be prone to getting really stuck in their rational-logical-information-processing minds, it can be very hard to grasp, unless of course they are guided towards an understanding through experiential learning and more mindful business practices. This is why I think Mockba offer a very real and concrete example of a holonomic brand, one where the values are encountered in each and every ‘part’.

Greenwash marketingI took part in a really fascinating webinar today hosted by Sustainable Brands, and which examined the question “How to Make Advertising Claims That Consumers Will Trust”. The presenters were Jacquelyn Ottman, author of a number of books on Green Marketing, and Becky Griffith, of the National Advertising Division which provide guidelines for advertising in the US. Much of the talk was around Greenwashing, and we heard how 78% of consumers stop buying products if they discover misleading environmental claims.

I think marketeers really can benefit from developing their own sense of what holonomic brand value is and how consumers experience it. We are shifting I feel into an era of greater transparency and more authentic modes of conscious consumption, and through holonomic thinking, we can really play a more active role in our working lives, making every aspect of our lives and life experiences more authentic and whole.

Related Links

Some notes on Business Design, Customer Experience and Systems Thinking

16 responses to “Holonomic Brand Values: What can we learn from a Brazilian gym?

  1. Simon, you make some very interesting points here.

    Having spent my career working on corporate brands – in parallel, and often in conflict with trying to get to grips with Henri’s work! – I have to say that I think there is a deep problem with the concept of the brand. More than anyone else, it was Georg Kühlewind (who Henri pointed me towards) who helped me to understand this.

    The problem is that branding works by trying to forge associations, which then act as a short-cut for thinking. And, from this perspective, it doesn’t matter whether these are association between a brand and a much repeated slogan, or a brand and an experience. It is a contrivance, and its intention is to get us to repeat behaviours.

    All authentic experience involves coming into being and it is – as Kühlewind points out – ‘unfinished’ (it is not a pre-existing ‘readymade’). Brand experiences, on the other hand, are by their very nature readymades (Steve Jobs’ obsession with determining every aspect of the Apple brand experience illustrates this very clearly). And nothing in this kind of experience can be really authentic, because it has no space for the ‘unfinished’ – no space in which anything can come to appearance. Thus, for instance, the ‘nice waiter’ who calls out – as you are leaving the restaurant – “Thank you! Good night!” is doing so not as a spontaneous gesture, but because the restaurant management know that this behaviour increases the likelihood of the customer returning.

    There are, in fact, fewer and fewer situations in which the ‘unfinished’ can come to appearance, because there are fewer and fewer situations in the modern world that are not predetermined in this way. Indeed, as Kühlewind points out, even our thinking processes have become dominated by the (conditioned) association of readymades. As Kühlewind writes: “Having thoughts, finished thought forms, is not thinking – or it is only thinking to the extent that finished thoughts are joined to one another by the activity of thinking. It proceeds without any logic or thinking at all, in which case it is called association.”

    Organizations could, of course, focus on facilitating authentic – unfinished – experiences, but this would require a completely new conception of what the organization is trying to do in its relationship with its stakeholders, for which the idea of the brand would be wholly inadequate. I believe – perhaps over-optimistically! – that such an approach is possible (but perhaps not for several hundred years). Really it would require a new understanding of the organization as something that is – itself – ‘unfinished’ and ‘coming into being’.

    • Hi James, many thanks for your comment. Maybe one example of unfinished branding which comes to mind is what Rick Falkvinge says about branding in his book “Swarmwise” which is about the viral growth and spread of the Pirate Party. He says that leaders have to release the control of their brand and its messages.

      Thanks also for mentioning Georg Kühlewind. Which of his works would be a good first one to read?

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  3. I saw this quote today from Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, which can be found in his book “Birth of the Chaordic Age”

    – In truly chaordic organisation there is no destination. There is no ultimate being. There is only becoming.

  4. Simon, the most accessible of Georg Kühlewind’s books is ‘From Normal to Healthy’ (which the passage I quoted comes from). Henri recommended ‘The Logos Structure of the World’, which is dense and meditative but which relates one of the central themes of ‘The Wholeness of Nature’. Somewhere on the web are some notes which Henri made of a lecture by Kühlewind in London which also make interesting reading.

  5. I wanted to say something more about this question of ‘branding’ but it has taken a couple of days for me to think this through.

    The key to all this is what Henri says in ‘Taking Appearance Seriously’ about Hamlet.

    One dimension of what we call a brand – a corporate brand, rather than a product brand – is about the ‘performance’ of a particular activity. Jobs, as you’ve highlighted, was obsessive about this: he wanted every aspect of the experience of Apple to be considered, and to reinforce the sense of quality and consideration for the user experience (right down to the packaging). So, for example, the iPhone box is so carefully engineered that if you lift up the top part and let it fall, it does so with an almost ‘engineered’ quality – it hardly seems like cardboard any more, but rather as if it were part of the engine in a German car (another of his obsessions).

    Apple makes the ‘performance’ of selling a computer, or a tablet or a mobile phone into something almost operatic. Of course, one is buying more ‘sizzle’ than steak (and this is reflected in the premium Apple charges over their competitors, who don’t understand that a box can be ‘so much more’ than a cardboard container!). At the same time, however, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there is something missing. Perfectly considered as every part of the ‘customer journey’ might be (from walking up Jobs’ patented glass steps in the Apple store to the ‘intuitive’ user interface on your new device), there is something sterile and slightly inhuman about the whole experience.

    Going back to what Henri says about Hamlet, it is as if we have been treated to a reproduction of the play.

    And if we look at what is happening in the theatre today, this becomes a little more comprehensible. Because we have a whole series of productions which follow a ‘branded’ approach (perhaps the best example are the kinds of productions which Cameron Mackintosh or Andrew Lloyd-Webber mount). These are technically – and in terms of production values and perfomance quality and consistency – highly proficient. But having got the ‘formula’ right, they are simply repeated according to that formula. The cast are replaceable: they fill a role, rather than bringing anything unique to it. And the direction, having been established at the beginning, amounts to the equivalent of a kind of quality or brand manual. One is not witnessing an interpretation of a work of art – as Henri describes the performance of Hamlet – so much as undergoing a ‘brand experience’. And no matter how ‘good’ it is, or how superficially satisfying, it is nonetheless in another dimension functionally dead. Such productions do not, in Henri’s terms, present ‘the dynamic unity of self-difference’.

    If we take this back to the organization, we can see that at the heart of what it does is the meaningful performance of certain activities. So, for instance, if we go to an insurance company to buy a financial product, we are initiating a performance of a ‘play’ which will involve us – and one or more of the company’s staff – in a unique series of activities which will go through investigation, comparison, negotiation, purchase and hopefully satisfaction. Only this experience is only unique on our side, because while it will seem as if the people we are engaged in this performance with are acting authentically and spontaneously, in fact they are simply ‘reproducing’ a script. The uniqueness and authenticity are excluded from the performance of the ‘brand experience’ – all that is important are its consistency and replicability.

    Of course this isn’t true in every commercial interaction – one would still expect to have a unique and authentic experience with a lawyer or an accountant (unless one went to a large law or accounting firm, where one was passed-off with a script-following para-legal or para-accountant). But as the process of industrialization rolls through the professional sector, this is increasingly disappearing (it has almost completely disappeared from banking, for instance, in the last twenty years).

    One could argue that this ‘perfomative’ approach to business is too costly to be feasible, but I don’t believe this is true. In fact John Seddon’s work illustrates that encouraging workers to interpret their roles, rather than merely to reproduce them can create significant savings and efficiencies for organizations, and vastly improve their customers’ experiences. It also allows employees to feel the autonomy, mastery and purpose that are the key factors in job satisfaction.

  6. I’ll leave the experience design/phenomenological portions of this discourse to Brian Clark, but perhaps I can provide a commentary on the notion of ‘unfinished’ experiences and modes of becoming tied to archetypal interpretations of organizational role-playing. And thank you, James, for your thought-provoking comments thus far.

    First off, I agree with the spirit of what has been said here (this thread and other posts) on what a brand actually is or might be (or commonly, what it isn’t given a cultural and/or business context). From an experiential standpoint, there are the more obvious, media-influenced notions of brands held by individuals inside and outside the organization. The less obvious and more interesting element – to me at least – is what a company actually represents when brand attributes are considered or even dismissed. In my work with companies large and small (mostly Fortune 1000s and startups), there are frameworks for understanding brand attributes, yet the idea of openly designing and embracing, emergently, a relationship to those attributes is a significant challenge. Even more troubling is of course the idea that a company might not actually reach its ideal ‘brand state’ but will rather strive to constantly outdo the self it perceives to be desirable out in the world. (Huh? 😉

    Case in point: a company I recently advised that is completely pivoting its product suite and seeking to shift its market position. I was diplomatic in the way I presented a problem-solution set, but what I wanted to tell the executives was the naked truth — you will be constantly positioning and re-positioning, and really the only sense of ‘brand’ you will have is one that represents the struggles to actually understand its own essence, vis-a-vis employee challenges, manufacturing struggles, labor issues, quality control standards, environmental concerns, etcetera, etcetera. In other words, if your operations constantly evolve (because they have to), so will your attributes, and therefore ‘positioning’ is really more about ‘aligning’ with a set of chosen contexts. To an innovation exec or an information officer, this might sound like fun (depending on the company), but to a marketing exec this feels like sheer suicide. And by all intents and purposes, it is.

    If you look at other young companies – like Shinola, for instance – you have an entire operational and cultural ethos predicated on building quality products and supporting the local ecosystem as part of that process. Shinola doesn’t even rely on a product suite — it relies on an adaptive process, frameworks, that can allow it to penetrate or create a new market on a moment’s notice. The interdependencies are duly recognized, and accounted for in any semblance or form of what the Shinola ‘brand’ becomes and means to people who ‘touch it’. Sure, Shinola uses great storytelling to convey its mission and its intentions, but more importantly, as a company it understands that economics and ecology are one and the same — hence part of the reason why I love what Simon and Maria are championing through Holonomics. As experiences go, Shinola is just getting started in a world that is now blending digital with analog and making human touch-points relational.

    The single equivalent for me is designing intention that can be adapted and executed upon at scale. I’m not talking about traditional capitalistic scale, but rather the kind of scale that considers operational and cultural attributes at every turn such that the applied learning is shared across the organization at all times, and in ways whereby individuals really feel a sense of purpose because they are acting on behalf of each other, as well as their customers. There are lots of companies now doing this (some for quite a long time), but the narrative itself has been challenged by deeply entrenched notions of what businesses and brands are supposed to be, rather than what they can become… to the points already made in this thread.

    As normative economics break down in myriad ways, and more companies see bottom-line value in taking bottom up approaches, the shift will become more and more obvious, and intermediaries like ad agencies will finally adapt, or simply die off. The bigger boon in this, however, I would think, is a move towards ideas, strategies and disciplines that embrace all that we don’t know that we don’t know, which makes their very nature one of enduring, everlasting change 😉

  7. I’ve owed you a more thoughtful reply to all of this, Simon and James. It has just taken me a moment to grab around the contours. Here’s a bit of a vamp, because Simon and I are of one mind on the practical value of phenomenology without having to get so deep into the technical philosophies of Heidegger, Husserl, etc. I came upon my rediscovery by pursuing experience design as an emerging discipline, where we were having to borrow loan words from other design disciplines to describe the dynamics of emergence with audiences. After a couple of decades of that, re-reading Heidegger was eye opening, as it was a predictive analogy for the pile of assembled loan words: practitioners create a thousand words for snow, and about 20 words for audience, which is sort of the whole problem with Cartesian approaches that lead to Kant (with Kant being the major influence on Husserl).

    Much of what James was describing feels related to the phenomenology concept of “intentionality” – the moment that an object enters into our direct experience, when our consciousness reaches out to include that object. “Branding” in the classic sense was about forcing intentionality and tended to optimize those attributes (ubiquity, consistency, intrusion) to the point that it became the object of critique by the Situationists as “The Spectacle” where the world of lived experience has been replaced by its media representation. The “coming into being” requires that audience/customer be willing to extend that intentionality in new ways, and those that serve them (storytellers, advertising agencies, what have you) representing what a special commodity it is in an age of scarcity of intentionality.

    Probably the best example of dissecting this in a straight-forward, easy to process book is Jonathan Salem Baskin’s “Branding Only Works On Cattle” that offers that a “gameplan” was a better metaphor than a “brand”. The book is a sadly neglected one, and I think ad people sometimes have a hard time with “the Emperor has no clothes” first few chapters that set up the challenge, but well worth the read if you’re interested in this space. He’s since moved on to deeper topics and now does a lot of writing about reputation and corporations, which is another great example of “coming into being” in a language more native than phenomenology.

  8. Curiously, I was going through some old documents when I came across a blog piece I had written in the middle of 2007. I had completely forgotten about this. But since it has a connection with both branding and Henri, here are the first couple of paragraphs (it was quite a long piece). To the best of my knowledge it’s not anywhere on the web any more.

    “Over Easter, I had a fascinating dream. I was at a conference organised by the Institute for Cultural Research at which there were a number of speakers including, I recall, management guru Peter Senge, (the late) maverick biologist and cybernetician Francisco Varela, and an esteemed mentor of mine (who I find it difficult to categorize) Henri Bortoft. Yes, it was one of those highly realistic and intricately detailed dreams that, in that drowsy moment of being still half asleep and half awake, can be hard to distinguish from something that actually happened.

    “In the dream, I was looking through the conference programme. And on the second page was an illustrated feature that caught my attention. It was a synopsis of one of the presentations where the speaker suggested that the phenomenon of branding could be perfectly understood using the ‘calculus of indications’ developed by British mathematician (and also maverick) George Spencer-Brown. (Well, I did warn you that it was a very detailed dream!)”

  9. I wouldn’t like to say whether this proposition that “the phenomenon of branding could be perfectly understood using Spencer-Brown’s ‘calculus of indications’” is correct or not. But as I thought about it (and I had to re-read what I had written to remind myself that I had thought about all this!) something very interesting struck me. Which is that – whilst we don’t usually see it in this way – branding can be understood as being about boundaries.

    As with Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form branding begins with a simple distinction. The world is divided into a part which is governed by an organization’s ethos, ambition, values, story etc. – its ‘brand’ – and a part which isn’t (everything else). And branding provides a way of signalling to someone that – when they encounter an organization’s communications, products or environments – that they are entering this bounded domain.

    Spencer-Brown’s calculus only has two fundamental laws. The ‘law of calling’ states that to make a distinction twice has the same effect as making it once. In branding terms this is something of a truism: “to put a logo on every page has the same effect as only putting it on the cover…” (but no doubt it has more interesting implications beyond this – at a certain point Spencer-Brown’s calculus starts my head spinning round and round!). The ‘law of crossing’, on the other hand, has fascinating implications. ‘After crossing from the unmarked to the marked state, crossing again starting from the marked state returns one to the unmarked state.’ Because while a lot of attention is given to entering a branded domain very little seems to be given to the moments and points at which we leave it. So to go back to the example of the ‘Apple Experience’, when one unwraps one’s new iPhone at home, where are the crossing points between the aspects of the experience Apple wants to control and those which are beyond their domain? (Or to give another example, at what point does a product become yours rather than theirs).

    By some wonder of mathematical thinking – which for me, anyway, is a bit like someone switching into an unfamiliar language – Spencer-Brown manages to derive the whole of computational logic from this single act of making a distinction, and these two laws which govern it. And I can’t help feeling that, from this simple notion of bounding (the greatest significance of which is that it really doesn’t matter what it is that is being bounded) a rich new understanding of branding could be developed. (But maybe I’m just dreaming 😉 )

  10. Simon, James I found this discussion a good example of Henri’s thought. The point about Spencer Brown and hence about boundaries and hence about branding, is that the making of a boundary is something active and totally fluid. The brand becomes a boundary for all the myriad people who identify with it. The brand ends up being far more than the designers could ever have envisioned. Spencer Brown axioms of the making of a boundary attempts to articulate this world, where the action of making a boundary is left open for the context to decide upon its ultimate expression. Something is stated as a potential, without being described, so that its interactions allow that potential many expressions. Especially it embraces contradictions, where two different expressions of the potential may be at odds with one another. The self-reference of possibilities is much more agile than fixed logic which always returns to what something was already. So the identity of a brand is created by the many interpretations of it.

    What lives for me is the completely different perspective such a logic gives on something so apparently bland as branding.

    • Thanks for your comments Philip. I am not too sure everything thinks of brands as ‘apparently bland’ and also, Schumacher College is a brand too!

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