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Creating brands, not design

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By Dan Gladden, associate creative director at Pearlfisher New York

Great design – it will set your brand on the path to success, right?

Challenger brands look to the icons they want to be and often come to our table with the understanding that great design will set them on the path to success. But they tend to overlook the fact that, more specifically, it is meaningful brand equity that really sets these icons apart and makes them emotionally resonant for years to come. If challenger brands want to take a lesson from iconic brands’ approach to design, then they need to understand the process of creating purposeful symbolism and use design to help build and infuse powerful brand equity from the start.

That doesn’t mean that equity happens – and works – overnight, though. Take a look, for example, at one of the most iconic and symbolic brands, Budweiser. The brand's typography, graphic shape language and colour palette, even without further context, cue home-grown All-American pride, and did so long before they put “America”, quite literally, on their label. The brand has come to represent this over the years through constant reinforcement and activation. Across their communications, advertisements, and design touch points, the brand is harmonized, prideful and bold. This constant reinforcement allowed them to successfully remove their logo across their bottles and advertisements, adding instead, “America” and US states where their beer is brewed in their signature script – but just because their name wasn’t there, didn’t mean they were any-less recognized.

Brands can only successfully follow suit by understanding the purpose of brand equity. It begins by truly crystalizing the heart of a brand-defining it at its core. And from that, symbolizing the core idea in the most relevant, meaningful, and emotive way – bringing it to life with a visual equity, which could be anything from a specific colour or symbol, shape or typography, structure or tone of voice. With that visual equity clearly defined, it’s time for the brand to own that equity in a consistent and timeless way. With the idea always at the core, the brand can adapt, flex and grow.

There are a few notable and savvy challengers that understand this and are leading the way against fierce competition by creatively and purposefully investing in brand equity.

Glossier, the skincare and make-up brand radicalizing the entire industry, has its own colour: “Glossier Pink”. It has defined a unique expression and it is used across everything the brand does. This colour has become a symbol of community and expertise, and if another skincare brand touched their pink they would immediately be identified as a phoney.

Panatea, a small matcha brand, has created a logo reminiscent of the whisking process when making matcha tea. The process is ritualistic, and for anyone that has made matcha, a labour of love. Simple, bold, and activated in thoughtful ways, the brand is owning a key symbol for not only their brand but their entire category.

And displaying a real breakthrough in the primarily, functional and oversaturated dairy sector, yoghurt brand Liberté has unveiled a unique, dynamic and distinctly ownable equity. The innovative new mark – an elevated accent – is inspired by the route the brand’s exploring founders took from Russia to Canada. The elevated accent represents the brand’s heritage story, and natural sense of discovery, but also allows Liberté to connect with a new generation of purveyors: a community of like-minded and curious people. The accent is thoughtfully and purposefully activated not only to showcase the product in a delightful and ownable way, but also across all touchpoints, and stands alone as a symbol of quality.

Liberté, Glossier and Panatea are building a following, building desire and building a future for their brand by owning and activating their equities. I hope more challenger brands push themselves to discover understand their own story and create their own equity as they set themselves on the path to iconic status. Icons are icons for a reason: they know that great design grabs initial attention, but a great idea, channelled through equity, makes it last.

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