About brand coding

Mike Meiré in an Interview
with Peter Martin (June 2002)

Publication Branding Interface

Peter Martin: What did the beginnings of Meiré and Meiré look like?
What has changed over the course of time?

Mike Meiré: During our start-up phase, my focus was exclusively on creation; my brother organized the management and the processes of the enterprise. I myself have now been 20 years on board, while my brother bowed out of the business and founded a new company called “Aerome”, which specialized in digitalizing fragrances. He moved on to New York, where in the spring of 2001 the company entered a partnership with “International Fragrances and Flavors” (IFF). After I assumed sole responsibility, the company naturally developed somewhat differently, namely, more towards creativity, culture and design. Thus our cultural production NEO NOTO came about. What interests us is how to deal with value systems in a cultural context, since only by engaging in culture can a creative environment materialize. “Neo” is Latin and means “new”; “noto” is a variation on “notation”. In other words: The new is noted, recorded and produced. The new can, however, only be produced if you are prepared to risk innovation and to break down existing identities. For this you need an enterprising culture that is oriented towards a sense of elemental trust. Today there are many businesses looking for something new. Although these enterprises may have worked very well up to now, they somehow increasingly feel that the cultural context has decidedly changed and that they must take a new direction.
(Footnote: in 2001, Marc Meiré moved with his family to New York for two years in order to set up aerome Scent Communication. Back in Germany he devoted himself to his passion for architecture and established the architectural office LivingSpace GmbH. After three years, he integrated this into Meiré and Meiré and again took over consultancy and strategic leadership.)
What were your first big projects?

At the end of the 1980s we published our book Design ist Orientierung, a first documentation of our projects for Bama, Agfa, Vorwerk, etc., and developed our own art and culture magazine APART. This was followed by the book Online Universum in collaboration with Peter Glaser and by the first case study for Pixelpark. Together with the British designer Peter Saville, I designed “Wildpark”, one of the first sites before the internet boom. In the mid-90s, again with Peter Saville, we managed a joint venture in London Mayfair: The Apartment. There we developed campaigns for Jil Sander and Dior or record covers for Suede, Goldie and Pulp. Since 1983, the theme of AIDS has continued to move me. Many pioneering artists, like Keith Haring or Robert Mapplethorpe, died of AIDS. And ever since we have put together projects that inform and make us aware of AIDs. At first, as expected, we were greeted with uncomprehending head shaking and dimwitted commentary. We were ridiculed and asked whether we too were gay, etc. That didn’t stop us from continuing our engagement. Last year we produced the book “Liebe, Sex und AIDS” together with the German fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm. By the mid-80s we at one blow had sixty people. We were very successful. Many magazines covered us, e.g., Wiener, Tempo, Viva, Elle, the Manager-Magazin etc. We were showpiece yuppies, if you like. Naturally that was a great time, but in a certain way it also perverted me. You live in your own world, which consists of a sort of conditioned sounding board. By that I mean that for everything you do you get feedback only from your own clique. You somehow only function within this scheme. You have to make sure that you can break out again.

At that time, what was your mission as a designer?

I designed against the grain of life’s multiplicity; I created design in the sense of a formal war on the world. I was even a total champion of the Bauhaus idea. With the 7th issue of APART I began in 1987 to think about corporate design for magazines. I called it at the time “Sach Layout” (object layout). I was engrossed with the question of whether the role of a book can be carried over to a magazine. Then I met Gerd Gerken whose book fascinated me. Later he developed the program he called “Mind Design”, which I followed from the word go. Mind design is based on the conviction that, as a decision maker, you must have far-sighted, visionary qualities. This occurred at the same time as the advent of chaos theory. Chaos as energy with an undetermined direction of impact. For an entrepreneur, it is important to sense which energy emanates from society in the form of longings and how these can be coupled with the brand, since brands cannot on their own develop cultural dynamism.

You just before spoke about your cultural production NEO NOTO.
What role does the cultural context play in your work today?

Today one can almost speak of a desouled society. Our culture is dominated by numbers and we are going through a cultural flattening. We hardly have any room left for visions; we attend only to our head and no longer follow our heart. The quality of life has suffered. That can’t be progress. Everyone speaks of the paradigm shift that has been brought on by reforms that were advanced by politicians. We’ll have to wait till hell freezes over if we ourselves don’t take things into our own hands. No one is coming to convert society. There is this beautiful saying: “Mankind muddles its way upwards.” Every society creates its own culture. Since, for the moment, we are the ones who mold our culture in form and content, cultural consciousness cannot be incisive enough.

We speak of the idea of “spiritual branding” and mean idealism-driven brand consciousness: idealistically and ideologically you stand up for a better world. Black on white this means: Each of the 10 biggest global players in the world possesses one of the ten commandments in terms of a canon of values. Which, on a grand scale, is then promoted, lived with and via design brought into form. In the long run the world will get better as a result and businesses will additionally profit, for they become associated with authentic efforts to achieve good and with the important theme of sustainability. That generates image, which pays off. Naturally this has to be parsed from A to Z and really lived through, otherwise it becomes a communication disaster.

What’s your take on this?

If you become engaged in life’s questions, for instance, on love, sexuality, intelligence, hope or freedom and combine these with the marketing of a company, you arrive at a kind of educational marketing. Which I understand as expressing the realization that work can be qualified in a way that it produces meaningfulness. Forms should not remain only forms. Forms represent views that follow an inner conviction.

Does the courage to do spiritual branding pay off?

Several years ago, design was nowhere near so inflationary as it is now. It was actually possible to differentiate by the sole use of exterior design. Today I look for more complex strategies. The brand as the producer of new life concepts. But no matter the era you grow up in and even in our present-day rather critical times, you can maintain a quite positive perspective. The present has never been so full of possibilities for forging global networks. What is important is to define a localization for yourself. Can you, from your own longings and desires, develop objectives for a potential business? If you as an entrepreneur have properly interpreted the yearnings of society and recognized that we are living through a transformation that goes from a necessity to buy to a yearning to buy, you can be successful in business. The problem is only that, as ever, we don’t question our habits, and consumption remains merely a matter of routine. That alone is a strange form of indifference to what is happening around us. It thus very much depends on how you yourself define your role, on what you expect from life. The issue is no longer tolerance, but respect, which is once again required. We very quickly get into depth psychological dialogues on life.

To what extent can depth psychology be carried over to the brand?

I am a proponent of brand evolution, because it’s all about life strategies. And life is evolution. Spirit signifies the interior of a brand. Marketing profiles the outer form and creates the incisiveness of the way the brand is perceived. Today, however, much more is at stake: brand identification, brand comportment and brand spirit. For which reason we at Meiré and Meiré developed “brand coding”. Which is about three central values: significance, bonding and leadership capability. Significance is the innermost statement, the essence, the actual nature of the brand; bonding is the cultural comportment of the brand, and leadership capability the predisposition to personal innovation.
Many brands are well-known, but that doesn’t mean they are relevant. Therefore you need to think about how to create significance and not only name recognition. In marketing there is the lovely term “relevant set”. Thus ‘remarkable’ means being anchored in a relevant set, having relevance. And in turn, relevance has to do with individual awareness. In a group of individuals, each individual wants to distinguish him/herself from others. That’s what comprises individuality. Therefore you need raw material to help fabricate your own personality. This process is what we call “ego building”. The brand itself must become the producer. It shouldn’t just foreground use and function, but should communicate distinguishing qualities that help build personality. It is therefore crucial that the brand, with its claim of leadership capability, repeatedly pave the way for regenerative processes. Which is why in progressive marketing today, we speak of different managerial functions, such as cult management or edge management. The relationship between identity, sociality and up-to-dateness should be operationalized and managed. And it is exactly via this triad that relevance is produced. Significance can only be created when it succeeds in sparking a kind of revelation in an individual’s consciousness. Advertising generates name recognition, perhaps even sympathy, but only in the rarest cases significance. Significance is not something that can be simply proclaimed; you become remarkable through deeds. If the issue is not only making brands ‘known’ but also ‘remarkable’ in order to consolidate their sustainability, then in the last instance this means that marketing needs another set of tools, because we’re on non-marketing terrain here. For behind significance stands cult. And cult is the quality that enhances ego. When a product has cult character, it builds you up. For everything that the brand communicates conjures nonrational admiration. This form of magic cannot be achieved with classical advertising. Of course you need to take image-building measures, but in the long run what the brand needs is an auratic impact. Only in this way will the consumer want to identify with it, because he loves the brand and hopes it will co-write his life. This identity process is today perceived more consciously and with much more sensitivity by consumers. The classic set of tools just aren’t up to snuff. You need methods to build up respect, relevance and significance, methods that are rooted in man’s inner world.

Besides significance, you spoke of bonding and leadership capability. What do mean by that? And how far is identity involved here?

At the beginning of the 1990s, for example, we designed an identity for the Smart. And for Siemens we just developed a trade-fair architecture worldwide. I know enough about corporate identity processes and yet wonder if what classical CI agencies are still doing is right. Their concepts only work where brands with a very large budget exist that are in the happy financial position to permeate all and sundry. But what about all the other companies? Identity must be newly thought out. This is where the leadership capability of a company comes in. When it’s a question of finding an identity, you have to ask the question: how much identity is allowed today and how much identity must there be. For when we start with the evolution of life, it means we must integrate the open formation of our culture into our identity, an evolution that the classical and static understanding of corporate identity hinders and, it follows, hinders leadership capability. Corporate identity as a fixed scripted sign system is dead.

What does identity mean to you personally? Who is Mike Meiré?

The question is what identity means in general today. In psychology we like to speak of multiple personality structures. With identity building we can no longer disregard the fact that the cultural context, in other words the world, has changed and done so extremely rapidly. Identity to me means “liquid identity”. I question the static notion of identity because I believe that these concepts refuse any evolution. An example: The magazine MINI International for clients is an identity concept that was developed with liquid identity in mind. In this type of magazine, two different concepts of identity are fortunately found together: our concept of liquid identity which is documented in an editorial design under constant transformation, and the MINI brand identity again recognizable in the MINI insert section of products. Every issue visualizes the respective culture that is to be found in the chosen metropolis, whether it be Tokyo, Reykjavik or Montreal. A sense of life is interpreted via the form typography and imagery takes. Each issue is therefore different. First the sum of the magazine’s parts allows the reader to experience the multiplicity and the polarity of the world. Thus each issue is new and surprising and the brand enters this flow of life. By means of the diversified portrayal in MINI International, the brand is lent maturity and complexity as to surface appeal, structures and symbols, as to longings that can easily be integrated into the reader’s personality. The “keep it simple” may be a beautiful slogan, but one shouldn’t negate the fractality of the world! I believe that conscious awareness of an identity is more exciting when it claims open evolution, because it responds more to the times. Evolving as a process tolerates more breaks and also allows the breaks to be experienced. The world’s multiple styles and forms must be plucked. You shouldn’t limit yourself.

You said that identity must be broken so that something new can emerge, that is, identity through a breach in identity. What does a “breach in identity” mean?

By breach I don’t understand that things must be broken through. It is not a hard or injurious act. A breached identity means a non-judgmental observation of permanent transformation and its potential assimilation, a kind of sensitive intelligence that continually makes tangible the soul of an identity in different projects, objects or events. Only to a limited extent does identity have to do with a formal anchor. The issue here is the configuration and transmission of values. Developing convictions must be carried over to a public form—shaping the spirit—which is, manifesting the soul of the brand. In other words: You have a form. This form must be broken down again and again so that it is capable of producing innovations in the stream of evolution. What is special here is that identity has to do with elemental trust and also with elemental angst. We want to hold onto things and control them because we have the feeling that the world is slipping through our fingers. Today it’s controllers who decide, no longer creative people. Projects have to be empirically measurable. That’s a huge problem. But therein lies our challenge today, to develop concepts that make them measurable and sustainably tangible. The breakdown of identity is a concept of evolution. This splintering describes the ability to come to terms with change and so generate an identity that is capable of bringing back the potential of leadership capability. You should be capable of utilizing change in the world for your own good. If you only keep doing the same things, acting stereotypically, you are very quickly demystified and the brand’s value is endangered.

To what degree does this approach find expression in your work?

You not only have to win over people’s minds but also their hearts. A brand’s intelligence is evident in its potential to stimulate people’s longings. This form of solidarity should be ritualized. I am thinking here of performances like the ones we initiated worldwide over the years for Dornbracht with our series of statements. Which is why at Meiré and Meiré’s we don’t talk of “brand communication” but of “brand coding”, because the issue is encoding the brand’s essence, and it is coding processes alone that lead to a genuine result. Only an inner experience makes us believe. When I look back on the recent past, artists increasingly try to carry social concerns over into art, while marketing is becoming ever more abstract and has developed into a self-professed entertainment scene that doesn’t any longer have much to do with life. I find that very ominous. A joke doesn’t generate meaning. After reading books by the Indian scholar Jiddu Krishnamurti, it became clear to me that the sole issue is the endowment of meaning and the quest for meaning in life, for at the end of each day you wonder whether all your time, energy and heart’s blood were worth it and what of all this will remain.  
From the German by Jeanne Haunschild