In all professions new ideas come along that stir things up amongst practitioners. Currently there is a lively discussion within the branding profession about the merits of a new category of what we can call ‘Flexible Branding’ corporate identity systems in contrast to those of traditional ‘Static Branding’ corporate identity systems.
What is Flexible Branding?In essence Flexible Branding is a way of implementing large-scale brand identity programmes which leverages the affordances of the complete range of brand channels and delivery technologies now available today. Rather than having a set of monolithic static design standards as its primary focus it is about having one consistent core idea at the heart of the brand, delivered with a more diverse range of variable visual expressions of that core idea.
Where can you see Flexible Branding in practice today?The international branding consultancy Wolff Olins is a key proponent of this new methodology and is implementing Flexible Branding systems for high-profile organisations worldwide. Their, mostly misunderstood, brand identity system for the 2012 Olympics works primarily as a visual theme that is adopted and co-opted by its myriad partners and is then customised to their each of their needs. The (Product) Red brand is probably the highest-profile example of a Flexible Branding system that is engineered specifically to accommodate and co-exist with multiple brand partners. Some of the world’s premier brands, like Apple, American Express and Gap, have already released products within the (Product) Red branding framework.
In many regards the practice of Flexible Branding is not new. Television stations have already been using some variant of this approach in different forms over many years. Their unique brand identities have always had to co-exist with those of their programmes and also have had to accommodate diverse ranges of subject material. Think of the ways that the classic BBC2 and MTV brand marks of the eighties and nineties morphed to suit their programming.
Just to be clear: Flexible Brand identities are the opposite of uncoordinated, unmanaged and ad-hoc brand identities. Flexible Branding is not analogous to the scenario whereby the new Marketing Manager (or worse, the new agency Art Director) makes changes to an organisation’s brand identity for internal political reasons to make their impression or to override their predecessor’s work. Nor is Flexible Branding analogous to those brands that use multiple unintentional variations of their brand identity through simple mismanagement, disorganisation or inertia.
Taking an optimistic stance, there can seem to be a strong aspect of what could be called ‘selfless branding’ underlining the core philosophy informing the development of this approach to branding. While technological developments and cultural trends are facilitating its adoption, the key internal driver has to be an understanding of, and acceptance of, the more nuanced and sophisticated relationships between different organisation’s brands. Some of the new realities of the way businesses operate imply a greater degree of mutually beneficial inclusivity. This inclusivity runs counter-intuitive to the mindset where brands are used to build a power-base or to establish a zone of exclusion.
The majority of brand identities are still managed using a command-and-control mindset, with the brand as a monolith and where consistency is the ideal. Aspects of this approach will remain necessary, since so many organisations have fragmented and uncoordinated brand identities. Clarity, coherence and systematic thinking are always going to be required, but they are now a hygiene factor rather than a unique differentiator. The defining branding challenges today are the requirements for flexibility that are now part of the marketing mix.
In addition to their primary marketing message, many branded communications now also have to carry the weight of a secondary function expressing all of the various relationships between the different partner organisations; each of varying stature and degrees of importance. You would be surprised at how much time effort and expense goes into coordinating and negotiating all of the compromises required.
It would be risky to dismiss Flexible Branding as merely designer’s folly, rather it is one valid response to the multi-faceted marketing environments that brands now have to operate in. That said, letting it all hang out creatively and being opportunistic and whimsical with your brand is not what this is approach is about either. I foresee many marketers falling into the trap of adopting the surface trappings of Flexible Branding without grappling with the underlying organisational, structural and cultural foundations that must be in place to deliver on this.
Whither conformity?Thinking in terms of templates and standardised structures will get you to a certain point, but when you need to move up to the next level, they can hold you back by stifling innovation. It is that old truism that you need to know the rules before you break them.
Great brands always make whatever they do look effortless. Deceptively effortless. Such great brands are not template or consistency-driven. Rather, their appearance can be enjoyably diverse in application, but their core brand idea always, always, shines through.
Confident world-class brands simplify consistently and constantly. Whenever their internal organisational structures may have become visible in their marketing, they reel it back in and present one unified face to the world. This often requires substantial effort behind the scenes to make it work and sophisticated marketing skills to manage. It also needs clarity, direction, vision and focus across the whole organisation: in short Brand Governance.
Three levels of brand managementIt can be useful to use a three-level hierarchy to structure your organisation to best steward your brand.
Firstly there is the Operational level. This is where your brand assets are distributed and brand management tools, such as your brand manuals, are used to inform and to monitor applications. Historically, this tactical level has been given the greatest attention and resources.
Above that, at the Strategic level, are your brand processes and policies that direct your operational decisions. Discussions at this level could include architectural questions such as: when do you create a new sub-brand; which parts of your organisation have their own distinct brand variants; and do those relate to your master brand? This is the territory that has expanded most over the last twenty years, fueled by brand consultancies and strategic branding advisers.
The third Brand Governance level is where ownership and stewardship of your fundamental brand idea ultimately resides. Just as corporate governance resides with your board to minimise risk and ensure effective oversight of your organisation, so should the governance of your brand lie with the most senior personnel who have the ability to effect change across the whole organisation and the authority to ensure that it actually happens. Do you have a Director Of Brand on your Board?
It is evident that the practices of branding are going to become more complex to manage within large organisations as branding becomes more flexible. It will need wisdom and vision to steward brands and create optimal value in the long-term. Thus it becomes essential that brand responsibility evolves upwards within your organisation. Brand Governance can help overcome problems at the operational level, such as where branding could be co-opted as a tool for internal power-play and castle-building.
A better compassWhile some rule-based systems will always be required at the Operational level. Existing rule-based methods of brand management can reach their limitations when confronted with the complexities and the flexibility required today. Increasingly brands may have to do a lot of their development in public as the overall pace of business accelerates. Drafting comprehensive brand management documents which aim to foresee all possible eventualities has always had an element of crystal-ball-gazing about it. Even more so today when you do not have the time or the luxury to construct the perfect theoretical branding system before putting it into operation. Apple CEO Steve Jobs has an axiom that “real artists ship”, and so it is with branding. Get it working, then get it out the door, get feedback and iterate to improve. Repeat, repeat and repeat.
When your organisation operates in the Strategic and Governance levels of branding everything becomes far more subjective. Branding guidelines, not rules, are what you require here. You need a good compass because there is no map. To succeed you need to build-in the ability to change and evolve your brand at the Operational level and to react tactically. In this ever-shifting landscape you will depend on strong, coherent Brand Governance so that you never lose sight of your ultimate goal.
Have a look at this recent brand identity for The Southbank Centre in London, also by Wolff Olins. Its visual appearance is constructed uniquely for each individual application from a defined suite of visual elements.
The Google brand revels in the flexibility of adding date-specific themes to their search page logotype: from the seasonal Christmas and Saint Patrick's Day themes, to the more unexpected and idiosyncratic – such as the fiftieth anniversary of the Lego brick.
As a starting point, step back and think about your own brand in a different way. While the Flexible Branding approach resolves some challenging branding issues, it is not suitable for all use-cases. But, if your brand has a particularly broad variety of visual applications across multiple channels and if your brand consistently needs to operate in varying degrees of association with many other brands, then a Flexible Branding methodology may prove beneficial.
Where so many organisations seem under-resourced to manage their existing static brands, how many shall be willing to commit to the overheads of actively managing Flexible Brands? The primary overhead being the higher calibre of marketer that will be required. Principally, to succeed at the top level you can only hire marketers who empathise with, and have the faculty to realise, the true potential of your brand. Furthermore, in the long-term, this can not ever apply just to your brand managers and marketers, but to every single individual who delivers your brand experience.
The key takeaway here is that the best marketers need to think more like entrepreneurs than bureaucrats: experimenting, revising and iterating, rather than laying-down blueprints intended to remain inviolate for years. While it may be seen as somewhat self-defeating for someone in my position as a Brand Consultant to state this in print: it is axiomatic that great brands are built by great companies and not by great brand consultancies.
Postscript – Relevance of Flexible Branding to State agenciesState-related brand identities operate within a constellation of co-dependent, inter-related brands. They rarely ever even appear on their own any more, but are always supported by partner brands, funding bodies, inter-departmental initiatives and the like. In my experience the interplay between all of these brand identities is awkward at best and confrontational at worst. Too often, there is an unconstructive 'battle of the brand manuals' where competing suites of co-branding statutes have to be reconciled. Obviously this is far from the optimal use of everyone’s time and energy. In this context it can be informative to learn from innovative brand thinking that has met and overcome similar challenges in realms outside of the State sector. The principles of Flexible Branding may prove to have beneficial application to many State agency corporate identities. Whether the multiple organisational and political agendas in play could ever make such a brand outcome achievable is another matter altogether.
I revisited this topic in 2011 with a post about the time and resources needed to implement a Flexible Brand Identity: Implications Of Multi-Variant Brand Mark Systems.