Brands v branding: brand design needs to get with the times

Admind’s Radek Kocjan on how branding needs to catch up to the reality of brands / Image courtesy of Admind

Have brands outgrown our understanding of them? Admind’s Radek Kocjan locates the current moment for brands in its historical context, arguing that they’re too often held back by old-fashioned playbooks and ideas of brand coherence. Brand builders need to look beyond the old rules and at the wider society into which their brands spread out further every day.

Branding as technology

Like a lot of great inventions, modern branding started with booze. Let me backtrack a bit: the advent of railways and steamships (transportation, after all, is communication) in the 19th century allowed us to move vast quantities of non-perishable goods across unprecedented distances – alcohol was the first to catch on.

In 1806, French confectioner Nicolas Appert introduced his method of preserving food in airtight containers – tightly-sealed bottles at first; tin-coated cans appeared four years later. These technological breakthroughs enabled (even demanded) a new industry, one that would allow people to discover new sources of food and enjoyment.

Hence, branding as we know it today was born. First, as a practice to identify products; next as a device connecting them to specific lifestyles; then values; and, finally, worldviews, consumer stances and postures.

Fast forward to today, with the intricate art of aligning brands with ideologies we subscribe to while choosing X over Y. It’s a part of our everyday identities, a camouflage of sorts, allowing us to express ourselves as conscious, responsible and thoughtful consumers and well-meaning human beings.

Welcome to the times of rampant cultural waste

And yet, yesterday’s tenets of branding lead to utterly forgettable results and paper-thin brands people are getting better and better at ignoring. The shift from commodity-centered thinking (a Veblenesque flaunting of wealth and status) to an awareness-centered economy (some people would call this wokeness) hasn’t been fully acknowledged by the branding industry.

Our cultural landscape, just like the physical one, is littered with the constant hum generated by the marketing machinery. It is a truth universally acknowledged that yesterday’s symbols of affluence (furs, SUVs, 24-Karat desserts at Burj Khalifa) are today’s regalia of ignorance, social apathy and retrogression. Why is it, then, that brand designers, once so forward-thinking and enthusiastic about the future, seem to be reluctant to update their practices and get with the times?

Stop fetishizing the past; it’s never coming back

The finale of the fifth season of Seinfeld tells the story of Kramer promoting his Coffee Table Book of Coffee Tables, an auto-referential volume that transforms into a coffee table to display the most prominent celebrity coffee tables. It’s a perfect analogy of where we are as an industry – the popularity of publications such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphics Standards Manual or 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual demonstrates the depths of our obsession with branding trivia and nostalgia for simpler times. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good historical document, but learning anything except for history from these books is questionable: the advancements we’ve made couldn’t have been dreamed of (even by Nasa’s finest minds) in 1974.

Characters are only a part of a story

In the last two decades, brands have transitioned from identifiers to stories. The mechanics of our shared interactions have changed from straightforward consumption to something more like mutual spiritual reverberation. How can we as designers accept this sea change in our work?

What has to change?

We need to rethink the idea of brand coherence, which now, in its most prohibitive form, does more harm than good by limiting our communication to an audience we already have.

Some rules for maintaining a signature look and feel are necessary, but they need to be reconstructed according to the updated brand paradigm: recognizability is less about the look and more about the feel. As brand designers, we’ll have to create robust and flexible visual dictionaries that allow for deeper and more varied communication.

The way we design the products themselves must evolve too. Branding has to move on to creating distinguishing aesthetics (as opposed to simply identifying objects, places and experiences). And brand systems need to open up to and facilitate crossovers, collaborations and creative partnerships, allowing them to break new ground and address previously-unengaged audiences seamlessly.

How will the industry react?

As brands become more intricate and their application becomes its own craft, the business of branding and advertising will face dramatic changes. More work will be done by in-house teams consisting of graphic designers and communication/content specialists.

Like it or not, brands are getting bigger and harder to tame. The increasingly more complicated technological and media landscape is only half of the process – the more we understand of the social, economic and cultural changes behind the other half, the better the result will be for the brands we create and manage.