When you think about building a successful brand, it’s highly unlikely that your first thought is of little trees in ceramic pots. Why would it? On the surface, bonsai and branding have virtually nothing in common: one is a centuries-old tradition passed down between generations and the other is a consumer-focused product developed on a considerably shorter timeline. But dig a little deeper and the similarities reveal themselves.
(As a professional brand creative and a student of bonsai design that has had the great fortune to study under masters in Korea and Japan, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Usually while working on a tree.)
In order to prosper, bonsai and branding both require the ability to grow and change over time and a steady hand to shape the process. These tiny living sculptures may, in fact, be an ad agency’s greatest teacher when it comes to brands that thrive, not just survive.
But first, a quick primer for those whose knowledge of bonsai is limited to the teachings of Mr. Miyagi.
Believed to have originated in China as “penjing” sometime in the 14th century before being exported and redeveloped under the influence of Japanese Zen Buddhism to the practice of bonsai that we think of today, bonsai, literally translated, means “planted in a container”.
A tree in some sort of container. It’s rather straightforward. However, the process, the art of bonsai is anything but. In fact, it may be easier to define bonsai by what it is not.
There’s a common misconception that bonsai are genetically dwarfed plants. While it would certainly make them easier to work with at your bench, the truth is that any tree species can be used to grow one, if you have the skills and knowledge to work around that genetic inconvenience.
Even among practicing bonsai artists, there’s a belief that only certain species of trees can make for good bonsai. One of my best, most dramatic bonsai designs was created from an old rosemary bush I found in a trash heap in South Africa. Anything can be good bonsai if you have a vision and are willing to put in the work.
So, how can we take this ancient, somewhat freeform practice and apply it to brand building?
One crucial component in both processes is diligent planning for the future. Bonsai trees grow slowly, and it can take a long time for bonsai artists to see the effects of their cultivation and design techniques. Every process when caring for a bonsai is done with the future in mind.
Brands must likewise be carefully created not just for the here and now but for five, ten, or even 20 years down the road. Our approach to building a brand should be just as intentional and forward-thinking. We should ask ourselves: What is this brand now, and what are its component pieces? How are they working together, or not? Once we’ve gotten a grasp of the current state of the brand, we should then look ahead: What do we want this brand to be in the near future? The far? Then, we need to make a plan with this vision in mind, asking, What can we do now to reach those milestones? How much flexibility do we need for what is to come? And finally, just like the bonsai, we must consider how we will grow amidst change. What tools can we use to guide this growth, staying flexible and adaptable to our ever-shifting landscapes?
One method bonsai artists use to guide the growth of their trees in order to shape them is the use of various gauges of rigid metal wire. Through a process of wrapping wire around the branches of a tree, designers are able to bend and reposition the branches as needed in order to achieve the design they see in their mind’s eye. After a period of time, the wires are removed and the tree is allowed to grow naturally, albeit now in the direction in which they were trained.
In the world of brands, we have brand style guides to keep things going in the right direction. The brand guide takes the essence of your brand — your vision and values — and gets it “down on paper” for future reference for stakeholders. Its essential components are your brand story, voice, logo, color palette, imagery, and typography. These are your various gauges of rigid metal wire. These can keep that brand you’re building growing in all the right directions.
Bonsai artists from the Lingnan region of China — which includes Hong Kong and Macau — shape their trees with a method called “Clip and Grow”. By pruning their trees strategically, they are able to direct their growth without having to use wires. This produces a very natural look, as the branches will have fine ramification that twists and turns to create beautiful, organic patterns. Interestingly, when these trees are exhibited, they are often totally defoliated. Why would they show off a tree that doesn’t even leaves? Because the artists want you to enjoy the structure that is at the core of their design. Similarly, some brands are successful because they share openly and honestly with their fans. Take Oatly, for example. Their brand is built around the fact that they make milk from oats, and that’s not very interesting. They know that, and they know consumers know that, so their approach to building their brand has been to make ads that point out how ridiculous it would be if they put effort into trying to make that interesting. This is the marketing equivalent of defoliation, and, when it works for your brand, it works very well.
How bonsai artists cultivate their bonsai trees also bears a striking resemblance to the development of brand concepts. Rather than starting from a seed, bonsai trees start from source material, often saplings or trees found in the wild (or shrubs from Home Depot). Similarly, brand concepts are born of ideas cultivated from a variety of sources. Sometimes a client has a nascent concept that they just need a little help maturing over a coffee. Sometimes it takes a room full of stakeholders, a giant whiteboard, and a case of Red Bull to produce a good concept.
The Tenets of Bonsai (and, by extension of the metaphor, branding care)
Watering: Bonsai must receive regular watering, the amount and regularity dependent upon their particular species’ needs.
Brands must also be actively tended to, in a way that is very specific to the needs of their industry and company.
Repotting: To avoid becoming pot-bound and encourage root growth, bonsai trees are repotted on a regular basis, most frequently towards the beginning of their development, and less often as they mature.
To cultivate a successful brand, iterate, iterate, iterate! Brands must stay agile to avoid getting stuck in the past and left behind. Just because something is the first thing you come up with doesn’t mean it’s the best — it’s okay to outgrow your “pot” and move on to bigger and better things.
Tools: Bonsai are shaped and maintained by many specialized tools.
It’s crucial to invest in high-quality people and skills when building a brand that you want to last and have an impact.
Soil: Though bonsai soil varies from tree to tree, it almost always is loose, drains quickly, and has a time-tested composition.
So too must a brand be fast-paced, agile, and rich in its variety of influences.
Location: A bonsai’s environment dictates its ideal lighting conditions and care. However, traditional bonsai trees won’t grow well indoors.
Brand care is highly dependent on the industry, and proper market research is key to long-lasting success. Don’t forget that your brand doesn’t exist in a vacuum– it’s an external tool to represent your company to the outside world, so set it up for success!
Though they may seem delicate and sheltered, bonsai are not immune to the harshness of the world around them and tend to be extremely strong and hardy as a result. Bonsai know that the key to growth is hardship: master bonsai artists often blend sharp pumice rocks into the soil of their trees with the intent to wound them to facilitate growth. Hunting for the nutrients it needs to grow, a tree will send out secondary roots past the taproot, or main root, that anchors it. These tiny new roots come up against the sharp stones and are brutally sliced and diced. This action divides the secondary roots into many smaller rootlets, adding to the total area of roots available to take up nutrients. The healthiest trees are those that toughed out the assault that is life.
Any solid brand that wants to survive past its infancy must also be willing to confront, not avoid, obstacles. When faced with new challenges, tough competition, or shifting markets, a good brand sees opportunities to become even stronger, embracing the growing pains and trusting that letting go of the old to make room for the new will pay off in the long run.
And, finally, we must come to terms with the fact that, no matter what we do, sometimes things die. A master bonsai artist always keeps this in mind, even as they plan decades of development for a tree. They know that the only thing that is permanent is impermanence. Fact: this brand you are building will someday die. It may not be for a very long time, but it will. If you can accept that fact, you can build your brand free of fear — and that’s when you’re having fun.
Building brands should be fun. If you’re not enjoying the process of conceiving a brand concept and confidently planning its long-term growth through skilled guidance, a bonsai artist might tell you that you’re in the wrong line of work.
This piece wouldn’t have been possible without our amazing intern, Shanna Gerlach, who did the heavy lifting. Thank you!
Thanks also to Bonsai Empire for the deep dive into bonsai’s origins.