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Same Old, Same New... where's the differentiation gone in branding?

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Shaun: “I really love that new tv series.”
Laura: “Same”

Mark: “I’ve always wanted to go to Borneo”
Karl: “Same”

Richard: “I can’t understand why competing brands want to look alike”
Libby: “Same”

It’s a phrase that is increasingly used in conversation in London, and in conversation, the phrase is useful. It makes people feel more connected, in agreement, sharing a position. But if those people were in competition, debating an option from different angles. It wouldn’t help. It would confuse any onlooker and quite possibly confuse the debate itself.

This is what’s happening in many fields at the moment. From TV channels. To App Banks. To Sports. To Fashion labels. The rise of the ‘Same’ is causing damage to the endeavours of many brilliant, useful and inspirational brands.

Why?

There used to be a joke in the very early days of branding. After all the pitches, research and meetings had occurred it was finally time for the design department to kick in. ‘Easy,’ laughed the Design Director, ‘Choose a colour. A typeface. And possibly a symbol. And off you go. Brand ready.’

But it’s all moved on. Become harder. More channels, demands, restraints and certainly more voices than ever, contributing to the success or difficulties surrounding launch.

So while it’s been widely accepted brands need more than the holy trinity of Typeface, Symbol & Colour, there’s a fairly new and extremely loud player in the mix. And that’s the representatives of all things digital.

Digital demands

It’s a brave CMO who marches onwards not heeding the warnings and concerns of his digital lieutenants. They hold many keys to many facets of success for brands operating in the modern world. Data Analytics. Clickstreams. Data Lakes. User Experience. User interface. Service design. Last Mile. (Always two words. Noticed that?)

The power wielded by digital thinking is immense and not to be underestimated. It needs to be integrated into any team attempting to transform the fortunes of modern products, organisations and services. Yet with that (new) power comes a tendency to overstate and over reach, and not just on the behalf of the designer. And it’s a very tricky balance for the inexperienced.

The power wielded by digital thinking is immense and not to be underestimated.

While a mobile screen benefits from low-data simplicity for high speed download and clarity at small sizes, posters enjoy success through striking imagery and compelling headlines. Packaging works harder when tactile elements are crafted. Interiors need to consider the flow of people and light levels as much as they do clear way-finding. Each looks to different skills to make the most of the medium. Right? Right.

What’s stirring

The brands causing a stir are very often of the digital persuasion. Many tech firms are deploying their digital designers to develop designs for print(I wrote a note asking about it on LinkedIn & Twitter. I have received thousands of views and responses galore confirming this.)

Now this makes total sense from the company point of view. They will undoubtably have a strong developer and digital design department. And for many C-Suite executives, there is no distinction between a designer attuned to the nuances and demands of the digital landscape, and one who can rock out a brilliant ad campaign.

Digital is defined through proof, not panaché.

Thing is — the significant and established thinking in digital design doesn’t always play out well elsewhere. More and more online, it’s less to do with radical invention and visual play, and more about working from proven UX / UI approaches. Which is why, when you pop from Fintech to Fintech online… you’ll see very similar design approaches.

The image-led header carousel, the line of icons highlighting key benefits, the customer quote and the string of famous logos of past clients, all with a call to action button looming large throughout… why? Because it works.

When people reach these kind of sites, they want clarity, reassurance, calm… not entertainment. Witness the number of comments surrounding the early and visually design-led entertainmemt of Atom Bank and you’ll understand what it is now far more understated and in line with the rest of the pack.

Thing is, those commissioning the work are inadvertently commissioning the wrong approach. This is not a criticism of the designers, they are a deeply talented sector adding significant value to the brands they touch, however they are racehorses primed to bolt on command to race to a digital finish line (a line that never really arrives). Whereas communication designers and creatives are greyhounds chasing the brief to a hard deadline. Both spectacles are a thrill, but they have fundamental differences.

The results of this error in judgement abounds in the App Bank world. Look at the most recent posters. Clearly from minds more attuned to developing world-class digital experiences than ad campaigns.

Stem the flow

We’ve seen a raft of ‘flat’ brands appearing over the last year or so, and you can bet your bottom fintech dollar that they have not stopped yet. But it would seem sensible to start to stem the flow of any new ones. They are clearly not helping serve up even the basics expected from a great commercial visual and verbal identity. Namely differentiate from the competition and help create a monopoly in the hearts and minds of the purchasing public.

How?

Determine what needs to be used where. While superb in a reception area, there is rarely a need for a sofa in a UX chart. Context is king! Proximity to the brand can change the way it is seen and the way it behaves. There’s no need for all brand assets to be turned up to 11 on a mobile optimised site. But there could be a case for deploying the lot at an exhibition…

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