Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It Is All Too Similar, And Yet It Is All Too Dissimilar...

Is your brand undergoing a period of consolidation or diversification? I have observed this organisational pattern where the approach to brand identity management follows a cycle over five to ten years: consolidation, followed by gradual drift towards diversification, then re-consolidation. It can be useful to examine where your organisation is positioned on that continuum.

The benefit of the O2 visual branding system is that it has become instantly recognisable to consumers. All you really need are some shades of dark blue and some bubbles and people will know that it is a communication from O2.* However, to achieve such a high level of recognition involves some interesting trade-offs on the marketing and design side of the equation.

As this class of strongly homogeneous and distinctive visual style is excellent at presenting the master corporate brand, it must, of consequence, be weaker at separating out individual products, services and offers. Think about it: the suite of posters for pre-pay mobile offers that you see in O2 store fronts this week are never going to be all that visually different from the preceding week’s posters for a different service offering. This implies that O2’s marketing teams are going to have to work harder coming up with the core ideas associated with promoting each of their individual products and services.

In my experience, one of the key reasons why visual brand identity systems devolve into inconsistency is that product managers (or whomever owns the organisational briefs informing the marketing department's creative briefs) are often measured by their results at the level of their products and, crucially, not at the level of overall brand performance. This implies that they have some incentive to make the creative work associated with their personal fiefdom as different from the master system as they can get away with. This is why so many design briefs begin with some variation of “...this new product/service/widget is very special and unique and really needs a design that stands part from, and above, whatever we happen to be doing over here, over there, and also over there...”

This push-and-pull between (for lack of two clearer terms) the top-down design centralisation imperative and the bottom-up design autonomy impulse from the tactical managers is a key generator of many design and branding briefs.

Hypothetically, this is how that organisational dynamic typically plays out.

Firstly, the head of Corporate Marketing looks at the collective output of the company and throws her arms up in despair. To her everything has become inconsistent, it looks more like the output of a group of companies rather than the one coherent corporate entity that she needs to communicate.

Consumer research can often reinforce her opinion. Although when brands have a strong and distinctive, yet relatively inflexible, visual system, consumer research often reveals a desire for some more diversity between the individual marketing elements. Conversely, a more varied, looser visual system usually researches as needing more consistency to help it all hang together. (Go figure.)

To resolve this inconsistent brand identity drift, a detailed brief for a new Unified Visual Style becomes the basis for a tender process. A branding or design consultancy is commissioned and produces the new visual system which then unites the design of all of the communications material to the required degree. This new identity system rationalises and coordinates the current state of the organisation’s master brand and sub-brands. It reflects the current structures of the organisation. If the brand consultants do their job, it will be forward-looking, with as much future-proofing built in as is feasible. Obviously no-one has a crystal ball. For example, how many brand guidance systems can have factored in the arrival of the new social media applications at this stage?

* Disclosure
I tend to use O2 as my example when discussing this topic, as I find that their established visual style has such high recognition that everyone knows what I am referring to. BFK has done some work for O2 in the past. However, as of this writing in 2007, I have not dealt with anyone in that organisation in more than three years.