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5 pieces of brand inspiration from the greatest music designer of all time

Brian Cannon, iconic music designer
If you cared at all about music during the 1990s, then you know the work of Brian Cannon. He created many of the most iconic record sleeves of that decade and, in the process, designed and built one of the most powerful brands in recorded music history. He did all of this from an incredible standing start. In just six years, Brian went from being cold-shouldered by every record label he approached to being handed £75,000 (an outlandish sum at the time) to create a single image for an album cover. And he did it all without any of the creative tools that today’s designers and brand managers take for granted.

Brian’s impact was built on an instinctive understanding of what a brand really means. The brands that he built for himself and others succeeded because of an instinctive understanding of who their real audiences were–and what those audiences expected from them. He was able to combine this with a creative designer’s magical ability to synthesise ideas and promptings into an original, visual concept. And he underpinned all of this with a meticulous attention to detail in bringing ambitious design visions to life.

These are the reasons why Brian Cannon is one of the most important sources of inspiration available to brand marketers today. It is also why I invited him to address an audience of marketers at Microsoft Advertising last month, to share the stories behind his work, and to offer his provocative view of what brand marketing and design mean today.

The timing was no coincidence. As a business, we’re embarking on a brand journey of our own. We’re moving from Bing Ads, a brand associated specifically with search, to Microsoft Advertising, a brand that’s about bringing people and businesses together like never before; a brand that exists to help other brands earn trust. This is a big vision, an exciting vision, and a vision that’s as much about people as it is about advertising and technology. And we wanted to hear what the creative mind behind The Verve and Oasis–who built the legendary Microdot creative business–would make of it all.

Here are some of the highlights from Brian’s story, including insights on the power of creativity and the elements that drive a real connection between successful brands and their most important audiences. They’re inspiring ideas for Microsoft Advertising as we embark on our own brand journey–and they’re inspiring ideas, too, for every marketer using our data and technology to earn the trust of those that really matter.

Brands depend on aligning internal and external perceptions

Successful brands have one thing in common: they’ve succeeded in aligning internal and external perceptions of the brand; they’ve achieved a degree of marketing self-awareness or emotional intelligence that makes them alive to any dissonance between the two.
In Brian’s case, the brand suffering from the greatest such dissonance was his own: Microdot, the design agency he created with the sole purpose of designing spectacular record sleeves. His perception of the brand was that it was edgy (named after a form of LSD), filled with visionary and original creative ideas, and uniquely passionate and dedicated to delivering value for fans while bringing bands closer to them. The perception of record labels was rather different–Microdot was a one-man operation run by a deluded design graduate who had no meaningful experience or credibility at all.
It’s an extreme example, but it’s amazing how easily other brands can slip into the same trap. We assume that internal perceptions of what a brand means translate automatically into external perceptions. Achieving alignment between internal and external audiences is extremely difficult. It requires real dedication, strategic focus and creative discipline. And it involves asking tough questions about which audiences really matter, what they think of you, whether that’s wrong–and how you can change it.
The challenge of reducing brand dissonance is as relevant for large enterprises as it is for small start-ups like Microdot. It requires a clear sense of vision and mission for the brand (as Brian puts it, “If you know where you’re going it’s a lot easier to get there”) and it requires real alignment and collaboration across your marketing team. If you fall into the tempting trap of deciding brand direction by committee, you’re likely to confuse external perceptions rather than align them.

Define your creative decision-makers and build a shared brand vision

The critical moment in Brian’s career came when he realised that he was never going to convince the record companies to take a chance on him. However, this was not a case of giving up. Rather, it was a decision to challenge the conventional route to market for a designer in the music industry.
Brian knew that if he could convince up-and-coming bands themselves of the value of his approach then they would be a powerful voice on his side when it came to the question of who designed the cover for a single or an album. They were the most important stakeholders in the process–and he grabbed every opportunity to get close to them. Meeting Richard Ashcroft at a party made Brian the first choice to design The Verve’s debut single–before the band had even been signed. The intense, collaborative way that he worked with the band reinforced the unique value he could bring to musicians. After he met Noel Gallagher in a lift over a conversation about the virtues of Adidas trainers, he extended the same, intimately collaborative way of working to Oasis. He sat in on recording sessions, hung out with the band, got to know exactly where their songs came from.
This approach mattered because of the confidence of the creative ideas that it gave rise to. Brian didn’t bombard Richard Ashcroft or Noel Gallagher with a blizzard of different concepts in the hope that they’d pick a decent one. He made bold, clear, creative recommendations that he had absolute confidence the people he knew would respond to. He made sure that the creative visions of his branding stakeholders were aligned. This enabled distinctive and decisive creative approaches, rather than decision-making by committee. It’s amazing how often Brian’s initial vision for a record sleeve ended up being exactly what audiences saw.

Find the value that matters–and focus everything on delivering it

The Verve and Oasis had subtly different priorities than the record companies that promoted their work. The labels wanted a single or an album cover that would look good on the shelf and shift copies. The bands wanted the same–but they also wanted more. They wanted an experience of the album that would bring them closer to their fans and build loyalty among those listening to their music.
As a fan himself, Brian was primed to turn music packaging into this type of experience. He knew exactly the type of value that people like himself would appreciate and he put all of his passion, creativity and attention to detail into packing as much of that value in as possible. He talks about treating every available piece of space within record packaging as a sleeve or cover in its own right. The Verve’s album, ‘A Storm in Heaven’, doubled as a photo exhibition exploring the mentality of different stages of life–and starring the band as models along with burning cars, flaming letters and cave entrances made more mysterious by photo-developing techniques.
Brian’s Oasis designs were riddled with clues for listeners to pick up on: references to lyrics, to the Beatles, even to French impressionist paintings by René Magritte. For the ‘Some Might Say’ single, the brief from Noel Gallagher was simple: a sheet of lyrics with the instruction to represent all of them in a single image. Cue a trip to a local railway station with a sink full of fishes, a sign saying ‘Education Please’ and a local barmaid photographed with pots and pans cascading around her. This attention to detail with a purpose had become Brian’s point of difference in music design. It came about because of complete alignment among those invested in a brand about the value they needed to deliver to their audiences.

Creativity that goes beyond technology

Brian’s attention to detail was all the more impressive given the techniques he used to create each image. None of his famous album covers used post-production for their visual effects. It’s all in the way photographs were set up and the way in which they were developed.
Most designers today would recreate the cover of The Verve album, ‘Northern Soul’, by photoshopping together headshots of each band member, setting them on a black background and then finding a photo library image of somebody opening a door to add into the mix. That’s not how Brian brought his vision for the sleeve to life. He projected huge images of the band members onto the dark wall of a warehouse and then had someone walk through the door in the middle of that wall to create his shot. The image on the front of The Verve’s ‘This is Music’ singles collection features an incredibly blue waterfall–that’s only blue because Brian was standing upstream pouring food dye into it.
Even in the ‘90s there were easier ways to create visual effects like these but Brian was determined not to use them. Taking a different route drove differentiation. It ensured that his images looked authentic, contained fascinating details for fans and remained distinctive. By refusing to take the easy option, he created something far more valuable.
Advances in technology will always provide marketers with faster and more efficient options for bringing creative ideas to life. Today, we’re able to automate parts of the creative process that Brian had to work out in painstaking detail. We are also able to predict and preview the end results in ways that he never could. One of the fascinating behind-the-scenes details of Brian’s shoots is that he had no way of telling what he’d captured until the photographs were developed. He created hundreds of test shots in advance to figure out where people and objects needed to be positioned for the effect to be just right. A Brian Cannon working today would have much more confidence about what he was creating–and he’d have much more scope to try different things.
However, he also demonstrates the importance of refusing to be addicted to the technology and tools that you have available. His brand-building work for bands was so different and so memorable because he went beyond the easy option. His creativity ran ahead of technology and a big part of it involved thinking of ways to visualise something that has never been visualised before. That’s the spirit that creative marketers need to maintain if they’re to build brands that stand out and connect on a different level. Take what tech can do–and then find a way to go beyond it.

A powerful brand is the key to creative freedom

Great brand marketers understand the value of balancing distinctiveness with differentiation. Distinctiveness ensures that, when you communicate, audiences know it’s you. Differentiation ensures that what you communicate is interesting, original and meaningful enough to stand out. Brian Cannon understood this balancing act instinctively and it is what drove him to create one of the most recognisable music brands of all time.
Brian developed the brand logo for Oasis after studying the style of early Rolling Stones album covers. He was impressed by the sheer confidence that the band communicated by refusing to put either their name, or the name of the LP, on the cover. In fact, the only word that appeared on those covers was the name of the record label, Decca. It was contained in a neat, black rectangle with a white border in the bottom right corner. It was impossible to miss, hugely impactful and a fantastic contrast to the creative photography around it.
Brian decided that Oasis needed something similar. He combined the Decca ‘stamp’ effect with a font reminiscent of the Adidas trainer brand that he and Noel so admired. The result was a brand for the band that was both instantly recognisable–and designed to work alongside a huge range of different images and creative styles. Oasis the band exuded confidence. The way that Brian was able to dial down their branding, while still being certain that audiences would respond to it, did the same.
It was the strength of the brand that enabled every Oasis single and album to be dressed in a bespoke way, creating interest and value for fans, while still remaining wholly distinctive. The brand didn’t restrict creative thinking–it was designed to support it. So much so, in fact, that Brian talks admiringly today about how fan sites create their own wildly different Oasis album covers–and how these look completely ‘right’ and on-brand thanks to the strength of that small, black, rectangular logo in the corner.
As brand custodians ourselves, this is a balance worth aspiring to: a brand so inherently distinctive that it can be expressed in different ways that are focused on creating value and interest for audiences. It takes discipline to get there, a commitment to understanding and repeating brand codes, and using the brand guidelines that help to establish distinctiveness in the first place. However, it’s important to balance this with a sense of what these codes and rules are there for. As marketers, we don’t build brands just to be constrained by them. We build them because of the platform for creativity, engagement, collaboration and value that they provide.

Watch the full session with Brian Cannon here