I have been a trained Chinese painter since my teenage years, and increasingly, imho, there is some resonance between Chinese painting and the fields of branding and marketing. How?
There are 2 distinct styles of Chinese painting, both of which I was schooled in.
There is a meticulous, fine-stroked approach known as “gong bi” (loosely translated as “detailed brush”). You may see some of these paintings in museums and art galleries, where every detail is painted with fine brushes and are usually colorful, and the paintings are more literal in expression.
Example: Gongbi style painting (Gu Hongzhong, 10th Century)
There is another, known as “shui mo” (loosely translated as “water and ink”), or “xie yi” (loosely translated as “freestyle”), which is a free, expressive, bold and broad strokes approach, where the paintings tend to be more figurative. Colors tend to be lighter.
Example: Xieyi style painting (Xu Beihong, 20th Century)
I have a personal bias for the “xie yi” approach, because I am expressive and bold, and do not care too much for spending more time that I like to communicate an idea. With the “xie yi” approach, I could easily paint what I hope to convey, in broad and bold strokes with bold thick brushes, with just sufficient strokes and shades to give the viewer mental space and latitude, giving him ownership of what he would perceive from the painting. Mind you, the “xie yi” approach is not abstract art. It is a bold and minimalist approach to communicating a visual idea.
So, what has “xie yi” painting got to do with branding and marketing? Imho, a lot, especially today where time is a precious commodity, and the attention span of people can be very short.
There is a Chinese proverb, “hua she tian zu”, or “drawing legs for a snake”, which can be translated to mean doing redundant things that has no value to anything.
Likewise, in branding and marketing, sometimes we must watch over ourselves, and our team members, so that none of us do more than it is necessary to communicate an idea well.
The analogy can be seen in the best minimalist designs in the modern world – the likes of Apple Macs and iOS devices, Audi automobiles, Nikon 1 cameras, Nespresso coffee machines, the new Microsoft Windows 8, and so on. All of these products have clean minimalist lines without extraneous details that are redundant to distract the visual flow of the products, with ergonomics par excellence.
So when it comes to branding, we need to define and refine our brand to the bare fundamentals, that of communicating very succinctly what we represent. This would mean our logo, our visual identity, our product designs, and so on. Distill our brand down to something iconic. For example, the first Apple logo was a rather complex illustration, and was not exactly what I would consider an iconic design. The Apple logo went through several iterations (you do remember the rainbow version right?), before it arrives at the monochromatic apple with a leaf and a bitten off corner. It is as classic and as iconic as a logo can go.
As for marketing, the same rules apply. Think about how your marketing programs and campaigns can be, and then distill them down to the bare fundamentals that would communicate your key message well. Keep refining, keep thinking, keep being harsh to your own developments until you can call it “fundamental” or even “iconic”. We Chinese have a saying, “slow and steady labor produces the finest work”.
May your brand and your marketing campaigns reach new heights, with the simplest and most elegant of ideas and expressions.