A brand new game

A ‘correction’ process is likely to affect branding this year, but that’s good news for those who can come up with simple, memorable and flexible ideas – especially if they are good value for money too, argues Michael Johnson

Doing big branding projects is stressful, time-consuming and expensive. Even world-beating routes need to be carefully steered past the occasional boardroom bully, and then controversial changes have to be shared with staff, the public and the media. And even with the most thorough checks, an identical idea can turn up at any time, or the simplest aside from one director to another can kill it in its tracks.

So it’s unpredictable and difficult. And, of course, everyone from cabbies to dinner party sages love to have a go – it’s easy meat for any journalist or blogger when they get hold of an Olympic logo, or suchlike. But the fact that everyone has an opinion is a positive – people are engaged, even if it’s critical engagement. You don’t see many Internet discussions on the quality of a brochure or tweaked pack design, do you? Better to be debated than ignored, as Oscar Wilde might have said, were he to be re-incarnated as a brand consultant (now there’s an odd thought).

If everyone’s started to cotton on to what branding and identity can really do, what happens now there’s a huge juggernaut with ‘recession’ written on it, parked across the highway? Well, everything stops while we try to find a way around it.

The suspicion is that, just as there’s a ‘correction’ going on elsewhere in 2009, there’ll be one in branding too. That may mean a correction in terms of the number of people and consultancies actually doing it, but also a correction in the sense of language, cut-through and value for money.

It won’t be tenable for brand consultants to continue to unveil hundreds of slides on core drivers-visions-dreams-stories-missions-purpose-big-small-unique- proposition-thingies. Life’s too short – the next brands will need to communicate fast, not slow. They’ll need less of that trademarked consultancy ‘black box’ hubble-bubble, and more simple, memorable ideas that can be described on one page, not ten. Ideas that come through collaborating, sharing and development with clients, not guarding, ring-fencing and wars of attrition. They’ll need ideas that stand or fall within years, not decades.

The future looks bleak for all those me-too, same-as-my-neighbour solutions. Why ‘look and feel’ like someone else when you could be like no one else? Why be fourth, fifth or sixth in a sector? There may not be room for more than a couple of strong brands. Stand out now, there may be no later.

More people will ask, ‘Will it work?’ This is always tough to prove, but as more and more brands are being tracked before change, it’s possible to at least estimate the value of a significant rebrand. There’ll be more schemes where ‘everything but the logo’ changes as clients see realignment as better value for money than wholesale change – and avoid a vast implementation bill.

Some of this will be hard to deal with. But the upside is that the game has changed. A client wants its brand created or clarified long before it considers any other channels, such as advertising, digital or direct mail. So it’s not unusual for clients to turn to us 18 months into a project and ask if we can help them find an ad agency – a galling turnaround for the traditional 30-second-TV-spot-driven ad agencies, but the smart ones have reinvented as multichannel ‘ideas agents’ anyway. This is good time to be a brander, even if it may not feel that way.

Another upside: while the blue chips may be holed up in their bunkers (for a bit), that’s not stopping what we call the four Cs (counties, cities, culture and charity). They’ve seen their chance to embrace branding, and it’s here that most of the best and most challenging schemes will be seen. Eventually, the blue chips will get their confidence back, and when they do they’ll look sideways at the four Cs for inspiration.

The best ideas will be cross-platform and collaborative – the days of dinosaur consultancies handing down advice from on high are numbered. The next generation of clients needs flexible identities and flexible advice – as more and more design comes in-house, external consultants will have to prove their worth as navigators and mentors for successful roll-out, and still need impeccable credentials as concept creators.

And the common thread that they’re all intrigued by? The desire for more human brands and identity systems, which can adapt to circumstances. Identities that come out of the corner and into the heart of communications, and that might have several different forms, or keep modulating for different audiences. Identities held together by a linking idea, rather than by the specific placement of a logo or the precise point size of one typeface. Ideas that could become ads, installations, ambient – whatever suits. Identities that breathe, adapt, change and grow. Identities much like people, when you think about it.

Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks and editor of the Thought for the Week design blog

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  • Rob Mitchell November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I think the first half of Michael Johnson’s article is bang on.

    I too hope the recession forces a ‘correction’ in branding, values and vision mumbo jumbo.

    So what happened to the last paragraph? “The desire for more human brands and identity systems, which can adapt to circumstances. Identities that come out of the corner and into the heart of communications, and that might have several different forms, or keep modulating for different audiences.”

    What on earth does that mean?

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