Global brand designer Bob van der Lee said South Korea’s public and private sectors have made tremendous progress in design over the years, but not yet in branding.
Bob van der Lee (Total Identity)
Korean companies are still focusing too much on branding their products around their features and qualities in an effort to boost sales, but not on developing stories behind those products, he said in an interview.
They still need to work on creating their own unique identities and legacies that can appeal and be noticeable to global consumers, instead of trying to make their brands look and feel like premium European products.
The corporate identity and brand strategist said brands with stories and identities can only be created through a team effort of asking questions and finding solutions together.
With an educational background in architecture, Van der Lee, managing partner of Total Identity, has worked on creating brand identities for companies such as ING, KLM, Hyundai Card and LG. Following is an excerpt of the interview. – Ed.
KH: Could you define “brand designing?”
Van der Lee: I started my career with a landscape architecture study. I often refer to this explaining my current field of work -- I’m still an architect, but one of brands. What is a brand about; what’s its purpose? What is the DNA, and story, and promise, and how should this be reflected in the visual identity of a company or organization? What associations do we want to trigger within the heads of the target audience? We construct iconic brands with these building blocks.
KH: Your best-known achievement in Korea is the Hyundai Card project. How do you feel about Korea’s branding business nowadays? Has it made sufficient progress?
Van der Lee: Yes! Look around you. The design made big steps, whether it is product design like Hyundai and Samsung or whether it’s corporate design. Korea is learning, adopting and developing fast. Of course there is still a lot which can be improved. But I think the branding part is still lagging behind.
KH: Could you elaborate?
Van der Lee: Too (many times) I see briefings based on product features -- the what -- instead of the story -- the why. There is not much attention for identity; it is a strong “sales” focus. There is still way too much communication in quality, reliability and professionalism. It’s all general marketing, which does not add any value to the uniqueness of the brand or its authentic promise.
KH: What is the common problem with Korea’s branding?
Van der Lee: I have had numerous briefings where big Korean car brands want to have a “premium European” look and feel. Why be something that you are not? Why not be proud of the Korean legacy and tell it to the world? If I look to Seoul, it’s a super vibrant city with a beautiful heritage, top 5 in the world, and great things take place here and for me. It’s a global hot spot. The Korean brands have so much to offer, and I sometimes think why don’t they see it?!
KH: What is your top priority when working on corporate identity? Where do you find your inspiration?
Van der Lee: It’s a team effort, and that’s how it should be. Design is not an individual thing. It’s a dialogue; it’s cocreation. The top priority goal is to understand the company -- its roots, and its ambition and the question behind the question in the briefing. The inspiration after starting a job can come from anywhere -- a good interview, a sculpture in the reception, the shape of a credit card or in the historical archives.
KH: Is there a specific company that you wish to collaborate with in the future?
Van der Lee: Many! If I had to name a few, I think flying over here Korean Air needs a revitalization with that fat 1970s typography. It looks really weird on their futuristic website, but I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that. GS intrigues me just because they are so big as chaebol, how to capture a DNA in that diversity? Last but not least, I think the city of Seoul has a job to do itself -- how come I always have to explain what a great city it is, and it’s not on the Western mind-set map with a specific unique flavor? People have no clue. The brand is not loaded yet.
KH: If you were to perform a similar task for the Korean government, what characteristics or culture of the country would you like to underline the most?
Van der Lee: If I had to think of it, it would be the strong paradox between the rich cultural heritage of the past and the high-tech futuristic orientation of the country and its role in the coming decades. A paradox usually creates an interesting strong and iconic concept, also for a government. I feel a strong collective ambition, which has its roots in the national historic events and the drive of today which creates momentum and a “buzz” which you need to capture in your designs.
KH: What is the vision of your company Total Identity over the next 50 years?
Van der Lee: I always say it’s important not to stumble into the future looking backwards -- it’s a great risk being too satisfied about your achievements, there is too much happening around us where we need to be agile and responsive of our environment. We tell our client you have to reinvent yourself constantly in the new context, but we have to do this ourselves also. Always challenge the status quo.
Beauty Bank (Total Identity)