What’s driving so many car brands to redesign their identity?

As Vauxhall becomes the latest car brand to reveal a flat logo, designers discuss why so many marques are opting for pared-back identities.

Vauxhall unveiled its new logo last week, a “confidently British” look, which reworks the griffin icon and introduces a blue-and-red colour scheme. Most prominent is its new flat styling — a simplified version of the logo’s previous 3D look. Vauxhall calls the redesign the “progressive face of the brand”.

It’s a familiar story within car branding of late. Audi first unveiled a minimalist-inspired rebrand in 2018, but it’s been followed by a host of other marques in the past year. Volkswagen, BMW, Toyota, Nissan have all revealed new branding and each with a flat logo.

The most common reasoning behind these flat logos is to create an identity fit for the digital world — something non-automotive brands have been doing for some time — but it is also demonstratively to signal a strategic shift toward manufacturing electric cars. VW said it intends to welcome an “electric future” (and hopefully shake off its emissions scandal) while Nissan unveiled its new look at the same time it debuted a virtual car.

The evolution of VW’s logo

“Flattening logos cases can feel like a trend, but actually I think of it more as a reaction to consumer experience changing so rapidly,” The&Partnership head of design Dan Beckett says. Beckett was responsible for creating Toyota’s new identity, which aimed to be “premium”, “forward-facing” and better adapted to mobile platforms.

He thinks of it as less of a design trend and more as a “common solution to a universal problem”. People see logos a lot more these days as they scroll through social media channels and on digital platforms and flat designs offer a less cluttered visual experience.

It is also helpful to view the current crop of designs as being part of a larger narrative, he says. “If you look at the stories of logos, from 3M to Windows to Audi, often what you see is that in the past the logo was very simple and then it got complicated in the middle and then it was simplified again,” he says. “You realise you had the answer the whole time.”

A “digital dictatorship”

bmw logo
BMW’s redesigned logo

Saffron chief creative officer Gabor Schreier builds on this point. At the turn of the last century, logos were all flat. But with the arrival of Apple Macs and Photoshop bevelling software, these emblems shifted to 3D, he says. This current digital wave brings its own set of “digital conditions” and things need to be “flat, functional, approached, more reduced and more responsive and flexible”.

He calls it a “digital dictatorship” where branding needs to work according to a variety of guidelines, from accessibility to typeface legibility. This might be the bigger influence in flat design over any stylistic choices. “There’s little room to be super different and original,” he says. “That’s why things are tending to look the same.”

As adaptable as possible

Toyota’s latest logo

While the logos may recall the past, why are so many car companies updating their branding today? “The car industry is undergoing a dramatic change right now,” Schreier says. “Nobody knows what the future is — there’s electrification, a shift in mobility services, and people in urban spaces are buying fewer cars.”

At a time when car manufacturers are experiencing disruption in their traditional markets, they need to be seen as “adaptable” as possible. “They want to be seen as digital companies and as companies who provide services beyond mobility.”

It’s also important to note the differences in these brand applications. While VW’s logo has changed for communications and also on physical touchpoints (the physical badge now lights up), BMW’s logo update was only for communications-purposes only — a point the company stressed in a conversation to Design Week about the logo’s “misinterpretation”.

Schreier says these nuances are crucial because at the moment customers still interact with a car company’s  physical product on a regular basis. While both logos may both be flat, the difference between a VW and BMW in real life is probably obvious. He differentiates this from a bank where the digital identity — from the app’s UX to its social media and website — is so crucial because fewer people regularly visit physical banks anymore.

Applications for Nissan’s new logo

At the luxury end, Rolls-Royce was recently given a Pentagram-designed identity update and Italian marque Maserati revealed a new logo this month at a virtual launch. Schreier sees a difference between more wide-reaching brands and these luxury examples. While VW, Nissan and Toyota are the companies that will be thinking about future mobility solutions and need indentities to adapt that vision, a brand like Rolls-Royce has a different set of motivations, he says. These identities are therefore more about consolidating target audience.

The luxury world has a “specific clientele that looks out for specific codes”, he continues. “There are visual codes that need to be there otherwise you will be out of the game.” That might include the physical touchpoints in the car but it also extends to the branding. Schreier points out that the Mercedes’ star logo was made flat in 2009 but was later changed back to a 3D look a couple of years later as it didn’t work. “Some companies are completely ignoring this flat thing altogether,” he adds.

A “massive opportunity”

Toyota’s Woven City

There might come a time when people do have less physical contact with cars, of course. People who live in cities with good transport links have less use for them, especially as concerns over the climate crisis grows. Brandpie designer Katy Scott says: “At the moment, a car is something that I can live without. How long will it be before this changes?”

“This is a bigger question than simply rethinking branding,” she adds. “It challenges  what a car actually is.” And as traditional car buying models shift, how will brands connect to customers? At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Toyota unveiled plans for the Woven City, a 175-acre “fully connected ecosystem” at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji. While the Bjarke Ingels-designed prototype city has not been built, it would have a communication system based on data, sensor and “connected” AI technology. This offers a suggestion of where car companies are expanding beyond the confines of a traditional automobile.

Both Scott and Schreier point to the influence and competition of electric car company Tesla and its headline-grabbing CEO Elon Musk. Schreier calls it a “sustainability company that sells cars” while Scott says that “Elon Musk and his Twitter feed have become an advert for Tesla”. And while Tesla may be a more familiar brand to many, there’s a host of electric vehicle companies that are creating competition for traditional manufacturers such as China’s Nio.

That doesn’t mean that traditional brands should be put off by the challenges of the new world. “This could be a massive opportunity for brands creating electric vehicles of the future,” she says, recalling iconic car designs of the past. “Who is going to create the next VW Beetle?”

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