A brand identity is far more complex than the signifiers the public sees.
It has been my experience since joining Making Waves, that when approached by a customer to update, or develop a brand visual identity, we are usually only required to pay attention to the logo, typography, photo style, colour and pattern.
As we are aware, designing a brand identity is a far richer and complex, than the signifiers the public finally sees.
If we take the analogy of a cake, if the logo is the cherry on the top, then the identity is the ingredients with the cake, the brand the memory of the taste. The flavour of that cake depends on the right mix and balance of ingredients. A logo can tempt the customer to try the cake, but the taste depends on the skill of the baker (designer).
Since the explosion of digital media in the early 1990’s, visual identities have acquired the ability to update and communicate in real time. The landscape has grown and the touch points varied. Traditional touch-points of print based advertising and TV advertising, seem almost redundant and costly, when matched against social media and new digital services. Marketing and communications, where one-off bought-media campaigns are now being replaced by the “always-on”, built on content and services. Companies are moving away from traditional TV and print advertising, and now investing in on-line and targeting marketing instead.
In addition to that, brands are now promoted not only by the companies themselves, but more increasingly by the users. No longer a top down relationship. Digital channels do not just have ‘viewers’ but also ‘users’, the channel that the identity is seen within, must be interactive as well as visually engaging. These relationships are no longer controlled by the brand outwards, but are more of a conversation between users and the brand.
There are countless examples of brands, that take on a life of their own once delivered into the world of social media. The designer and client are no longer the only hands in the development of that visual identity. With this in mind, visual identities need to have a far richer and broader set of tools to draw upon than the limited palette of logo, typography, photo style, colour and pattern.
The development of a ‘Brand Experience’ is now a much more organic than before. The borders are fluid, and the way in which these are affected are multi faceted. Outside influences play a more important role than before. Real time communication affects the message and the message has the ability to alter accordingly. Before brand messages were set to the lifespan of a particular campaign, now these messages have the ability to react in real time to outside changes, be it social or political.
This was predicted in the ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’ in 1995, where it stated ‘human to human’ conversations, will have the potential to transform traditional business practices radically.
A brand identity is no longer defined by what it says, but by what it does.
As Marc Schillum principal at Method states;
‘As the digital world evolves, the customer’s ability to inform the brand will outstrip the company’s ability to control it. As a result, the brand is no longer the proprietary tool for the company that founded it, but an ongoing negotiation among the founding company, its own workforce, and the customers who have invested in the end product.’
As Wally Olins writes in his book ‘Brand New’ –
‘Does the rise of digital technology mean that corporations will increasingly be on the defensive because customers will not only answer back, but will ask a few questions and make a few demands on their own initiative? Does digital mean that everyone who feels like it will be able to make their own brand and market it – like self-publishing? And, if it does, where does that leave the multinational corporation’?
Seth Godin states:
‘A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor), doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer’.
The shift from customers to connections is an interesting one. The notion of ‘making friends’ more than ‘enticing buyers’, has arisen. Users shift between digital and analog channels, be it web, app, blogs, printed matter. Having a strong identity that can accommodate these channel shifts, has never been more important. Target groups are being replaced by ‘user groups’, communities of people with similar interests. These communities have the ability to self generate content, that adds to and enriches the brand they are engaged with. A clever brand acknowledges this and can adapt to meet these challenges.
Future – From viewers to users
So where does that leave the cherry on the cake? How can we create brand identities that adapt and react to this new paradigm? What is identity design in 2014?
What constitutes a visual profile, has to be re-examined and tailored to fit with new technologies. In addition, holistic approaches to identity design and user centered co-design, need to form the basis of future practice. The identity is no longer a static surface, but part of the DNA of the brand, and this DNA is constantly evolving. It must react to shifts in user trends and input, if it seeks to have relevance in todays marketplace. In addition ‘Brands’ are now increasingly becoming ‘Services’.
Identities will be made from multiple parts, that are linked by user interaction as much as the visual elements. The users will create coherency and recognition, through their usage, behaviors, and social connections. In this way the brand identity is built upon the correct information, as it is informed by the end user. Identities or services are constantly ‘on’, and are affected by the live feedback they receive from users.
So a visual identity is no longer just a set of visual signifiers, but a connected set of user interactions,
that can be influenced as well as learnt from. The future of identity design is now a two way conversation. Being a skilled conversationalist, will be just as important as a skilled designer.
An interesting development concerning social media channels, is where the identity of the service and user sit together. Users particularly on social media, market their own identities within the channel they choose to inhabit. The identity becomes a transparent.
A good example of this is GAP’s ’Style Buy’ campaign. Rachel Tipograph (yes Tipograph) who is Director of Global Marketing explained that their concept was that the users become an integral part of the marketing identity. ‘’ GAP uses ‘Community Management Teams’ who live sleep and eat the Brand and are experts in content creation for the social web. These positions are filled by young people who are fashion bloggers, or fresh out of journalism school. These new Community Management Teams are filled with what is termed ‘Low-Fi Content Creators’.The application process for these positions included looking at their Instagram portfolios’’.
The move away from Hi-Fi content creation, large scale expensive photo shoots, to Lo-Fi, Instagram and Vine content creation, means that content is in real time. The brand becomes the user, instead of the consumer feeling that messages are being shoved down their throats. There is then more ‘truth’ in the communication, and loyalty to a service or brand, nurtured more effectively.
So in the future branding and visual identity creation will become more of a two way street, a live conversation between brand/service/company and their users.
This is an exciting time to be a communicator.