MT Business Lifeforms: The queen of branding

Can Deborah Hoar, chair of Brand Job, meet the biggest challenge of her career?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's Tuesday morning and the good folk of Brand Job are sitting around the round glass table in their glass eyrie atop the firm's Clerkenwell warehouse for an 'ideation' meeting. The room (the younger staffers call it the mental wank tank) has been the scene of more rebrandings than the OK Corral. Presiding is founder Deborah Hoar, resplendent in designer hippie kit that dates her formative years to the late '70s as surely as a taste for Sting.

First up for discussion is a chocolate bar that was a bestseller in the '80s. Rising star Miles tells the group how he is struggling with the bar's 'point of view' and mumbles about boomers and nostalgia. Hoar listens indulgently, then tells them they are not letting the bar speak, tell its story... She is, of course, right. And woe betide anyone who says - even thinks - that a chocolate bar with a voice and a meaningful narrative is utterly ridiculous.

From candy bars to cars, from the food on your plate to the nation state... there is little that Hoar hasn't sprinkled her marketing pixie dust on.

Like many iconic creative careers, hers consisted of a lucky break followed by years of hard work. While at St Martin's in London, she did a summer placement in an ad agency and wound up designing a small campaign on her own. They offered her a job on the spot. She dropped out of art school and was soon winning awards for her precocious, eye-catching poster and magazine work. Product branding was just emerging as a lucrative discipline, but the agency didn't believe in it. So Hoar left, taking eight staffers with her and setting up Hoar & Company. Since then there have been the endless splits and spats that characterise the creative world, and her business has changed its name, location and identity half a dozen times.

People have been saying she's gone stale for years, that she's a relic of an earlier period, that she got lucky. But if she hits the odd bum note, now in her mid-forties, she is still capable of astonishing surprises.

Witness her audacious rebranding of the Forno chain of restaurants, dubbed Fornography by the tabloid press (to the agency's delight). Even her critics concede that the only way to criticise her meaningfully is to criticise the whole industry ('gilders of turds') - in which most of them work.

Some of her hardest detractors are her own flesh and blood. She was the black sheep of a proud Midlands manufacturing family, the prodigal daughter who ran away to art school. Her father ran a motorcycle factory (long since closed). Although pleased by his daughter's material success, he is more comfortable with his much less affluent son, who has a small engineering business. It's beyond Dad's understanding that in a country that once made the finest cars and motorbikes in the world, the best jobs are now in redesigning the packets things come in.

But Deborah doesn't have the time to ponder such philosophical niceties: she's about to face the greatest challenge of her career in the destination branding game (the rebranding of whole nations). Last week she was approached by two thickset gentlemen from the Belarussian embassy, concerned that their country is a blindspot on the lucrative east European tourist map.

Her usual method - start with what people know and build on the positives - won't work: what most people know about Belarus is that it copped much of the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. And whichever way you spin it, '50% less radioactive than a decade ago' is not exactly a crowd-puller.

Still, she relishes a challenge and if she could become known as the woman who made Belarus fashionable, she could retire happy.

Any resemblance to a real person is coincidental and unintended

HOAR - THE PROPOSITION 1960 Born Huddersfield. Educated locally and at St Martin's Art School (left after a year) 1980 Designer, Bell, Beat & Knowles 1984 Founds Hoar & Company 1989 Sells H&Co to investors. Starts the Identity Store; 70% of H&Co staff join her 1994 Writes And the Brand Played On 1996 Takes an extended sabbatical; does some teaching at St Martin's 1998 Founds Dot Name, online ID specialist 1999 Decides that online is just another channel and sells Dot Name for £10m 2000 Founds Brand Job; four staff from BBK are still working with her

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