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If You Love Your Brand, Set It Free

The practice of branding is undergoing a deep transformation — a change brought about by our kaleidoscopic postmodern culture, the development of communication technology and rapid globalization.

In prior decades, brand managers aimed to establish their products and services primarily by way of consistency and repetition. A brand’s voice and message were to be the same, independent of marketing channel. The goal of the designer was to define identity systems that would ensure compliance and coherence in all of the brand’s manifestations, as codified in brand identity style guides.

mohawk_process_posters_web (1)1

The Reasons For Brand Consistency Link

This approach to branding was solidified in the mid-20th century, when relatively simple printing methods and communication technologies were available, marketing and advertising practices were not yet sophisticated enough to surround the consumer in a holistic experience, communication technologies enabled only one-to-many broadcasting, and companies didn’t face the customer-service challenges and scrutiny they do now.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

It was a post-war time of optimism about the capability of standardization to drive progress — a notion whose origins stem from scientism, the industrial revolution and the workings of capital.

From that standpoint, it made sense for corporate identity designers to apply standardization and aim for simplicity to make the most of what reproduction and communication methods were available to them, and to ensure that their designs were defined in a comprehensive and consistent way.

From this school of thought hail historic graphic identities such as UPS, American Airlines, Mobil and Chase Bank, brought to us by Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli and Chermayeff & Geismar.

Embrace Brand Fluidity Link

But we now live in a different context. As Grant McCracken recently wrote6 in the Harvard Business Review:

“The consumer now appears to believe that the brand should earn its public attention the way all of us must. Say boring, repetitive stuff and you suffer the punishment that every bad conversationalist faces. First, we ignore you. Then, we exclude you.”

Our postmodern society is more fluid and diverse — a world bursting with myriad electronic media and display capabilities. A contemporary brand identity must reach beyond its visual manifestation in print or TV, to encompass how the brand speaks across a multitude of technology platforms, how it interacts with its audience and how people experience it at an emotional level.

Therefore, consistency — while still desirable — should not necessarily be the main driver of a brand identity system. In fact, we ought to consider total consistency an unachievable ideal: it’s impossible, and even counterproductive, to try to predict and codify all potential instances of a brand’s current identity. The vast number of stakeholders, marketers and agencies handling brand assets for the types of projects undertaken in our dynamic business and technology environments makes it very difficult to exercise constant control over how a brand is expressed. Better to embrace executional variance in a smart way, by establishing loose parameters that nonetheless can create a familial feel for an otherwise very rich group of brand applications across media and across continents.

This is not an entirely new concept. Precursors of this kinetic approach to identity design include Duffy & Partners’ work for The Islands of the Bahamas7 — in its own words, “a robust brand language that is endlessly adaptable, flexible and immediately recognizable.”

The Playful, Adaptive Brand Link

Brands should nowadays give themselves permission to be more surprising, to flirt with their customers, to listen to what they have to say and to cater to their desires. A modern brand should take leaps of faith, abandon self-obsessions and embrace risk. Conversely, by not doing this, the brand could become irrelevant in a hurry.

Because of the dominance of social media, brand identities can now be defined more by their customers than by the companies themselves. The ideal balance, however, stems from the ability to be flexible while keeping intact the core principles and attributes that formed the brand in the first place. Without such grounding, a brand becomes a changeling — morphing its shape to any external whim and impulse.

This fresh approach to defining a brand can be liberating for designers, brand managers and the public. It tends to result in more immersive, delightful and rewarding customer experiences, and it is at the heart of a recent spate of “loose” brand identity executions whose core elements nevertheless remain. Designers have yet to exhaust the full potential of this new method, but many instances already point the way.

Examples Of Fluid Brand Identities Link

Consider Irma Boom’s proudly “imperfect” book designs, Hella Jongerious’ organic products, Saks Fifth Avenue8’s Pentagram-designed puzzle identity, Microsoft9’s recent dynamic rebranding, the City of Melbourne10, OpenIDEO11, Sugarpova12 gummy candy, Barcelona pel Medi Ambient13 and EDP14. All point to exciting new ways to approach branding and product development.

Logo for Saks Fifth Avenue and its graphic permutations based on slicing the grid. (Image: Brand New).15
Logo for Saks Fifth Avenue and its graphic permutations based on slicing the grid. (Image: Brand New16)

City of Melbourne logo variations. (Image: Behance).17
City of Melbourne logo variations. (Image: Behance18)

Oreo, a particularly playful example, has been able to maintain its long-established brand idea of a happy snack time for both children and adults while successfully adapting to the fleeting social trends that surround brands in the current marketplace. With its Daily Twist campaign to commemorate its 100th anniversary, Oreo is posting 100 daily images on its social media channels of an Oreo cookie skillfully transformed to evoke a current event.

Oreo Daily Twist campaign. (Images: Huffington Post).19
Oreo “Daily Twist” campaign. (Images: Huffington Post20)

Likewise, to further distance itself from the failed Time Warner merger, America Online21 changed its wordmark from “AOL” to “Aol.”. It kept its brand equity as one of the Internet’s pioneers, while featuring an ever-changing, colorful mixed-media background that evokes the dynamic nature of the Web: photography, illustration, colorful splashes of paint — all work to surprising effect, while maintaining the familiarity of the Aol brand across the company’s websites and other communication channels.

New and playful America Online brand identity. (Image: Brand New).22
America Online’s new and playful brand identity. (Image: Brand New23)

DC Comics accompanied its recent character revamp with a brand identity redesign24 that embraces the principles of variance and fluidity. The brand consultancy Landor explains its rationale for the change: “To represent DC Entertainment’s world, a place of opposing forces, we created a new visual expression that is a living identity easily adaptable to evolving characters and stories.”

The only constant is the name and typographic treatment of “DC Comics,” while the symbol’s fixed element is a peeling “D.” Everything else changes to evoke a particular character’s costume or the setting of a comic book series.

DC Comics' new versatile logo. (Image: Landor).25
DC Comics’ new versatile logo. (Image: Landor26)

In turn, Pentagram’s rethinking27 of venerable Mohawk Paper relies on a solid idea — the rotating cylinders of traditional printing presses — to then launch into an explosion of colors, shapes and patterns that ably reflects the versatility of paper as support and vehicle for communication.

Different colorful patterns for Mohawk's new brand identity. (Image: Pentagram).28
Different colorful patterns for Mohawk’s new brand identity. (Image: Pentagram29)

The Brand As An Ecosystem Of Interactions Link

Beyond formal considerations, a brand is also defined by experiential parameters (and now more than ever): how and where do customers interact with a given brand, online and offline.

The explosion of digital and social media in recent years, as well as the increased adoption of Internet-enabled mobile devices, has evolved the way brands are seen, tasted, touched and felt: Google’s “New Multiscreen World” study indicates that 90% of all media consumption happens on a screen — a full 38% of which is on smartphones alone. 90% of people use multiple screens sequentially to interact with brands (shopping online, managing finances, planning a trip and more). comScore’s own data establish that 61% of Internet users are online while watching TV, and do it on a range of devices — laptops, smartphones and tablets.

Consequently, smart advertisers use their TV commercials as launching pads for deeper online experiences, knowing full well that interested audiences will be able to access those sites immediately, right from their couch, and to share them with people in their social graph. Also, companies use mobile technology to take their campaigns right to the streets in a personal and highly dynamic way.

Consider popular marketing initiatives such as the Mini Getaway Tokyo and Stockholm, in which fans of the brand used their augmented reality-equipped smartphones to search for a virtual Mini in a massive treasure hunt, literally running around the city and competing against each other in order to be the person with the virtual Mini on their screen at the end of the contest — thus becoming the proud owner of a real vehicle.

Location-based treasure hunt app for the Mini promotional campaign. (Image: Popsop).
Location-based treasure hunt app for the Mini promotional campaign. (Image: Popsop)

Or consider this year’s launch of the Ford Fusion vehicle30 (Disclosure: as part of the WPP Communications team, my employer, Ogilvy, had a leading role in this project), which was gradually unveiled using an iOS and Android app featuring a Fusion test-driving game that was unlocked by taking a picture of any Ford logo anywhere with your mobile device’s camera.

Ford Fusion tablet- and mobile-optimized game promotes the unveiling of the vehicle. (Image: AutoGuide).31
Ford Fusion tablet- and mobile-optimized game promotes the unveiling of the vehicle. (Image: AutoGuide32)

Other companies adopt the practices of co-creation, asking their audiences via social media what their preferences are for product customization, brand visualizations and more. Or they crowdsource the creation of content. For instance, the country of Sweden recently handed control of its Twitter account33 to regular citizens to provide an authentic, unadulterated feel for what Sweden is about to audiences all over the world. Chevy, Pepsi and Doritos asked their fans to create their Super Bowl ads34.

A New Process To Define Brands Link

How does one go about loosely, yet effectively, defining a brand identity? This new approach is not an excuse to dilute the importance of brand strategy. Establishing a brand’s positioning, personality and attributes remains critical to the success of the brand’s identity.

Writing a good brand manifesto is also still important. It sets the vision for that brand’s emotional and sensorial expressions, and serves as a reference against which to evaluate future variations from the theme. However, the design process is now more akin to generating algorithms or creating vector-defining equations than to painting pixels.

Not that generative art35 is now an indispensable tool for the identity designer, but certain aspects of this practice resonate with fluid branding: the designer will need to find what makes a brand pliable, what set of its attributes lend themselves to flexibility and variance, and then organically build on those.

Furthermore, brand identity definition is no longer a one-way street, and it can’t solely rest on visual aspects either. As we have seen with the Mini and Ford, the way a brand interacts with its audiences online or offline is as integral to its personality, if not more so, as the logo. For example, if a company has 10 locations worldwide — and assuming that this fact is integral to what the company is as a brand — then its logo might be graphically constructed by joining these 10 geographic points in different random configurations.

Such a brand might also promote engaging experiences that are deployed at a local level but that connect globally to a meaningful larger story.

Designers need to pick a few graphic elements or parameters that can nevertheless effectively represent a brand, and then let additional considerations vary accordingly: Are the company’s name and a single color enough to build an identity around — while elements like mark, typeface, illustration, texture and editorial voice adapt incessantly to the context they inhabit at any given time?

Allowing such a succinct and flexible identity to further evolve according to the brand’s interaction with customers is an approach that applies the notion of “minimum viable product36” to the process of designing brands.

A simplified set of parameters such as those described above will greatly enhance the ease of use of brand guidelines (or style guides). These documents can thus be relatively brief and inspirational, while still ensuring an appropriate level of consistency. Style guides can set designers free to experiment, adding to the richness of the brand while reinforcing its inner coherence and staying power.

After all, the best way for a company to differentiate itself is to be subtle within the visually heavy landscape that currently surrounds us, to provide a cone of silence amidst ubiquitous noise, to bend when every other brand is trying too hard not to break, and to adopt an organic feel and a human scale.


Footnotes Link

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Jose Martinez Salmeron is Executive Creative Director for Social@Ogilvy at Ogilvy Washington where his work spans brand identity, content marketing and Web design. He writes periodically about the intersection of creativity, business and technology.

  1. 1

    I love the idea. Build a flexible (responsive-web-design-like) brand to adapt, be playful, but coherent in an unbelievable amount of situations. Of course, just like responsive design there is the issue of charging for the extra work to be flexible. While not a bad thing, it is something to consider. Also, with this way of branding it will take time to switch from the old way of thinking, but still remaining true to what makes a great brand and not just using a technique to exploit a new way of execution.

    The other thing to think about is how this works for small business, too. This, again, can be very expressive process, so how do you make something like this affordable for the start-ups? All things to consider.

    • 2

      Excellent article, with amazing insight that really touches on a relevant trend and actually system that is being used throughout the industry.

  2. 3

    Awesome article Jose! I believe there are more and more companies that are paying attention to this problem (not turning their brands simpler, adaptive, etc).. but it is still not yet that widespread. Some factors that I notice is that they don’t really care that much.

    I believe that after appearence the internet, as users/consumers/customers have more saying, companies understood that they can lose more and some of them are starting to pay attention to this and change.

    We can see that clearly for the list of companies you mentioned in the article, almost all of them are IT related companies, in other words, their clients/customers are online and they know how damanging a bad rep can be online (and also how good).

    So the point as far as I understood for your article is that designers need to understand better the brands they are creating or redesigning, they need acquire a better knowledge of brand strategy and how it can affect the clients. Not only focus on the visual aspect of the brand identity. That’s one the things I see very little, not only in designers thelselves but also in big companies around where I live.

    To wrap this up, thanks and congrats for you article. Very compelling and useful. It really gave me some thoughts about how I can set my projects free. =)

  3. 4

    Nice, nice, nice, wishful thinking. Whatever customers tell, that they like, final … they buy the very, very conservative brands. That brands do not change. That brands do not move. That brands are the same … same … same – since ages – maybe refreshed in an very unremarkable way. A few businesses are excluded – like maybe webdesigners, trendscouts, whatever… but never the businesses where the money waits for developers and designers.

  4. 5

    David Gutting

    February 8, 2013 4:21 pm

    This is a wonderful, well-thought-out piece, and says the things that brands need to think about.

    I don’t know how long it will take, but we’ve got to bury the notion of “positioning” as primary. It’s a product of industrial age thinking. The positioning statement needs to be replaced with a “trajectory strategy.” It’s more complicated that the over-simplified positioning statement, but that’s life.

    Think back to when MTV appeared in the early ’80s. This was the very beginning of the decline of the Old Media Hierarchy. And think about how the brand approached the graphic standards of their logo. Essentially, there weren’t any. The logo could morph into all kinds of different shapes and sizes depending on the context.

    But it worked. You never lost its essential core.

    Now, we’re at a level way past MTV.

    Brand strategy has undergone a Copernican Revolution since Trout and Ries in 1969–and that revolution is very much in progress.

  5. 6

    Funny, I was really excited to read this because I’ve been thinking about “morphing” brands for some time. But it’s not really what this article is about, which is really just clever adaptations of mark forms/shapes. The Melbourne “M” is still the “M”; “AOL” is still “AOL”, etc.

    The Oreos example comes close, but only manages this because of its utter ubiquity as a foodstuff.

    Your opening paragraphs were on the right track, though: “…consistency and repetition…”. There’s something in there.

  6. 7

    This is so insightful as we think about our own brand as well as new client projects. Having an identity that has the potential to stay consistently fresh is a concept that can be easily overlooked due to certain brand requirements. Thank you for the info and visual examples!

  7. 8

    Terrific piece, Jose. Making it all the same isn’t making it great.

  8. 9

    Brands are fluid, dynamic creatures now. A great example is the now defunct Cingular symbol, affectionately know as “Jack”. It was an instantly recognizable, friendly mark that was playful and amorphous–whether in print or motion video, you always knew it was Cingular.

    Where this new emphasis on brand extension runs a risk is the core tenet of identity design, that a mark should function first in a static black and white space. If an identity cannot do that first, it doesn’t have a strong foundation on which to expand, and may become weakened to the point of being forgettable.

    The Pentagram examples for Saks and Mohawk Paper show a clear understanding of that linchpin, and are good examples of how to extend a brand. This was a great article that raised legitimate points in the digital world.

  9. 10

    Great article. I do feel that a company’s “brand” should be distinguished from it’s visual identity (logo, UX, design language). Consistency is still a key component of successful branding and shouldn’t be dismissed as an old paradigm. You can be playful and adaptive with a brand visually, but a company has to be consistently “something” in order to be understood.

  10. 11

    Trish Saunders

    February 9, 2013 7:39 pm

    Excellent article…but a company needs to go much further in rebranding itself, if it wants to remain vertical in today’s ferociously competitive economy. The most fluid and evolving visual I.D. will only take you so far. I have never seen such wearied cynicism among consumers of all demographics. Successful companies need to position themselves by offering outstanding value to their customers, behaving with integrity, and making a strong mark in their community with scholarships, sponsorships, and other thoughtful outreach. Increasingly, consumers don’t want a company to just tickle their senses. They want to know that their company isn’t using third-world children to build their products, that they aren’t polluting, and that the company will stand behind the value of the product. I realize this is an article about design, but let’s not kid ourselves. A company cannot woo clients through visual excitement alone…and the companies that are behaving ethically need to let their clients know it.

  11. 12

    Would this apply to a small business that is trying to establish itself? It looks like the businesses mentioned in this article are all large companies that started with repetition and have moved to this fluid branding “phase” in order to keep themselves fresh and relevant.

  12. 13

    Is this actually “new”? Absolute Vodka’s campaign used this approach. The main downside of this approach is it requires a great deal of skill to do well. One of the main reasons for old-school design manuals was that skill was not always available nor evenly distributed over time. It is simply easier to make some rules and make people do the same thing over and over again.

    • 14

      Personally I don’t think this is anything new.
      Chateau Mouton Rothschild has been using this approach since 1945, by putting the artwork of an artist on the wine label.
      Google doodles is an other good example.
      IBM’s smarter planet is another good example.

      To me this is about getting the best out of your existing visual brand assets. I would categorise such approach as a campaign approach, which contribute to part of the character of the brand, rather than an overarching brand strategy.

  13. 15

    What about the “i am a nikon” kampaign, where the people tell the company how to do ads? There are only a few guidelines to generate the brand

  14. 16

    Indeed, the brand does need to be fluid across different media, embracing any context and requirements. However, above all principles to be kept consistent, lies Quality (that is with big Q) and attention to every UX detail. I think wild creativity is great, but it does need to be supported by expert execution. That’s what truly makes a brand stand out!

  15. 17

    Cynthia Forstmann

    February 14, 2013 9:43 pm

    You’ve highlighted the challenge to modern marketers — how to dig deeper, finding new levels of creative execution within a defined space. Flexibility has become the unbending rule of brand engagement.

  16. 18

    Jackson Stanley

    February 17, 2013 10:37 pm

    First, great post! Although I appreciate the idea of a company rebranding itself through compelling visual aids, I believe that pretty images alone won’t do the job. A brand’s image can be so fragile during this time of cyclical communication thanks to the Internet and social media. A brand’s positive image is not guaranteed day-to-day. I agree that from a design perspective, a consistent and fresh approach can help brand a company; however, a company needs to be aware of their product/service, and that the consumer is ultimately satisfied – that is the best way to brand.

    • 19

      Great conceptual branding ideas look great in this kind of medium. The free feeling could work for a lot of brands out there. Free flowing branding I like that. Company”s should experiment but not to the point of getting lost in the market. They need to stay within there brand guidelines or risk loosing there place in the market.

  17. 20

    The Oreo’s stuff is just a blatant rip-off of Google’s ever-changing logo!

    (Horrible product too, don’t know how anyone can eat them, give me a “Bourbon” or a custard cream any day.)

    And I simply don’t get what Aol is about, (as a logo or as a company, but that’s another story!)

  18. 21

    Reading this article made me want to jump right out of my chair! I’ve always believed that brand affinity is not dictated by draconian adherence to strict brand guidelines. A brand should have the room to be playful while still maintaining a level of consistency so as not to create confusion in an attempt to be creative. A brand is so much more than just the visual representation of itself anyway, that if you’re not paying attention to the more experiential elements of your brand, then the visual piece won’t much matter.

  19. 22

    This is all very well, but one must consider the study objects provided to realise the fallacy behind some of the very well written arguments presented here.

    Firstly, clientele – who ultimately pay for branding exercises – are conservative by nature. They are not risk takers, and they usually report to a higher authority which makes their behaviour even more conservative. ‘Playing with the brand’ is something we’ve found a very, very difficult proposition for any new client, and many older ones. They are leery of messing around with something that currently serves as one of the clearer cultural touchpoints of their business environment. Businesses are conservative; this is sound financial behaviour. Ultimately they are in it for a profit, and what has worked before will likely work again.

    Secondly, for most organisations who have invested a significant amount of money and organisational resources into promoting the brand, the idea of not presenting a consistent brand ideal is an anathema. I have personally spoken to many brand managers who could not even conceive of doing such a thing where the actual VALUE of the brand has been developed through the company’s service, product, advertising and marketing budgets. To sweep this aside, or diminish it though a modulation of the brand, or risking it through an unusual display of the brand, just doesn’t seem like something that can easily be explained to shareholders.

    Finally, let us review the case studies presented above. In each case, these are established brands, with history and existing brand values, and established visual identities. Let us take Oreo for instance, and imagine they had no history and are launching their first product TODAY, and using these logo transformations. No one would recognise the brand, the the playfulness would be simply a poor spend of marketing budgets. Interpretations in these cases take the chance that the consumer may have to be visually sophisticated to ‘get’ some of these brand interpretations. The fact is that not being consistent with brand representation is a luxury you can only have if the brand has existed for a long period of time, with an established visual language for the consumer. You can’t have that without a consistent set of visual brand standards. In effect, the appearance of the necessity of fluidity around a brand’s visual standard shown above can ONLY exist if the brand already has strong visual standard; the circle of Ourobouros manifests itself.

    At our studio, one of the first things we see young designer do once they are given a brand standards guide to study and integrate into a current project: they attempt to break it. These are written for a reason, and although the mediums have changed the message has not – a consistent approach to visual standards for a brands is valued by the customer, and their consumers.

  20. 23

    I wouldn’t cite Aol.’s horrific rebrand as a good example of ‘setting a brand free’ – their new identity tries to pass itself off as reinvented but it bears more resemblance to high school design project.

    Melbourne, DC Comics, those work. Aol. falls flat.

  21. 24

    It sounds like the goal is to turn a company or product into a relatable cool person. What about branding when it’s a person who is trying to sell themselves? I guess it’s essentially the same game; building a solid foundation and then having a dynamic, engaging presentation that can adapt and grow with followers and new developments. I think you have to be more careful branding people, as other people are more likely to dislike or take mistakes or stances personally.

  22. 25

    Johnny Hyde

    May 14, 2013 4:11 pm

    This article seems to espouse brand = logo. Your brand is so much more than just the visual style du jour or contextual logo treatment. Volvo passenger vehicles will always embody safety regardless of how clever the creative executions. Customer experiences, messaging, values, and service all matter. Creative executions and campaigns come and go. New brand touch points and tactics emerge every day. In my opinion, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Don’t let the messengers dictate your message.


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