Lessons on Branding from the World’s Most Iconic Cold

Posted inStrategy + Process

Writing plays a crucial role in the creation of good design. The very act of writing compels designers to think about their work in a more structured and deliberate way, bringing clarity to their ideas and making their design intentions more explicit. This process of articulation proves invaluable not only during the initial conceptualization phase but also later when communicating those concepts to clients and collaborators. Indeed, the practice of writing enables us to approach brands with a more nuanced and multidimensional perspective, considering not just visual aesthetics but also the deeper stories, emotions, and values that define a brand’s identity. By putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), designers can surface richer insights and craft more cohesive, compelling brand narratives that resonate with their intended audiences.

Ten years ago I graduated from a MFA program, D-Crit, at the School of Visual Arts. I pursued the program specifically to hone my writing and critical thinking. One of the classes taught by Professor Adam Harrison Levy was called Art of the Profile. Full disclosure, my first profile was awful. That said, we all have to start somewhere, and honestly, I never stop using the lessons learned in this course. As a writing model, we studied what was and is, considered the best profile ever written.

Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is a masterclass in observation, storytelling, and painting a revealing portrait of an elusive subject. Despite never getting the one-on-one interview he was promised, Talese immerses himself in Sinatra’s world and leverages his skills as a journalist to capture the essence of Sinatra the man and the legend.

There are several key lessons today’s branding and design professionals can take from Talese’s approach:

The power of astute observation. Talese doesn’t just report the superficial facts about Sinatra—he keenly observes the smallest details of how the singer and those in his orbit behave and interact. From this, he can construct a nuanced psychological profile that gets at the core of Sinatra. For example, Talese notes: “Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.” We designers can benefit from sharpening our observational acumen, using it to better understand corporate dynamics, client needs, and issues that may only be hinted at subtly.

Showing rather than telling. Talese resists outright stating his conclusions about Sinatra’s character. Instead, he vividly depicts scenes and interactions that lead the reader to those insights. The writing follows the classic dictum “show, don’t tell.” Early in the profile, Talese paints a scene of Sinatra brooding at a bar: “Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo.”

Describing his expensive, carefully selected clothes in detail— “He wore an oxford-grey suit with a vest, a suit conservatively cut on the outside but trimmed with flamboyant silk within; his shoes, British, seemed to be shined even on the bottom of the soles.” —in contrast to his dark mood, Talese gives readers a sense of Sinatra’s inner turmoil and complexity without explicitly saying it.

Similarly, great designers know the power of vivid storytelling and examples to make a point and persuade, rather than just declaring something to be so.

Empathy for the subject. While Talese’s profile reveals some of Sinatra’s flaws, it maintains an empathetic lens, seeking to understand the singer’s complexity and motivations. Talese demonstrates empathy when describing Sinatra’s relationship with his mother Dolly, a strong-willed woman who was the closest person to him: “Dolly Sinatra was not the sort of Italian mother who could be appeased merely by a child’s obedience and good appetite. She made many demands on her son and was always very strict. She dreamed of his becoming an aviation engineer. When she discovered Bing Crosby’s pictures hanging on his bedroom walls one evening and learned that her son wished to become a singer too, she became infuriated and threw a shoe at him.” By portraying Sinatra’s childhood context and his mother’s formative influence, Talese humanizes the singer, making him more relatable and his drive to succeed more understandable.

The best branding work also demonstrates empathy, striving to understand a brand, its employees, and its customers as complete humans with real feelings, desires, and struggles. Empathy fuels more authentic, relatable brand storytelling.

Persistence and resourcefulness. Denied his interview, a lesser journalist may have given up. Talese persisted, tapping his resourcefulness to find other ways to get the story. “So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself wherever he could.” Persistence in the face of obstacles and creative problem-solving are hallmarks of good design. Branding professionals need to tap their resourcefulness and think unconventionally to build multidimensional brand narratives, even when the typical tools and assets are unavailable. The path to a compelling brand is rarely straightforward.

Dedication to the craft. The depth of specificity and degree of difficulty in composing this profile speak to Talese’s painstaking commitment to his craft as a writer and reporter. From his shoe-leather reporting to his carefully constructed prose, every element demonstrates a devotion to excellence. Describing Sinatra’s cold, Talese writes: “Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuelonly worse. The common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.”

Designers build trust with their clients through an unwavering dedication to their craft, consistently executing their responsibilities with skill and care. This steadfast commitment to excellence is fueled by a strong work ethic and a continuous drive to hone their talents. By pouring their heart and soul into every project, designers demonstrate their reliability as partners and their ability to deliver outstanding results. Clients come to appreciate not just designers’ technical proficiencies but also their passion, integrity, and drive – qualities that form the bedrock of lasting professional relationships.

Over fifty years since its publication, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is still widely read and admired. The talents Talese demonstrates in overcoming obstacles to intimately reveal the intricacies of a cultural icon are instructive—and are ones that designers would do well to emulate. Acute observation skills, vivid storytelling, empathy for customers, creative persistence, and devotion to craft are all qualities that forge an enduring brand.

Read “behind the scenes” excerpts from Talese’s memoir, Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, here on Air Mail.

This post was originally published on Lynda’s LinkedIn newsletter, Marketing without Jargon. Lynda leads a team at Decker Design that focuses on helping law firms build differentiated brands.

Photo by Dushawn Jovic on Unsplash.