Branding. Where next?


Doing big branding projects is stressful, time-consuming and expensive. Even world-beating routes need to be carefully steered past the occasional boardroom bully, 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, there’ll be one in branding. That may mean a ‘˜correction’ in terms of amount of people and firms 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-thingys. Life’s too short: the next brands will need to communicate fast, not slow.Β  They’ll need less of that TM’d agency ‘˜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 months and 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 4th, 5thΒ  or 6th 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?’ Always tough to prove, definitively, but as more and more brands are being tracked before change, it’s possible to at least estimate the value of a significant re-brand, after. There’ll be more schemes where ‘˜everything but the logo’ changes as clients see re-alignment 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, the game has changed. A client wants their 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 re-invented as multi-channel ‘˜ideas agents’ anyway. This is good time to be a brander (even if it may not feel that way).


Another upside: whilst the blue-chips may be holed up in their bunkers (for a bit), that’s not stopping what we call the 4c’s (countries, 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 4c’s for inspiration.

The best ideas will be cross-platform, and collaborative – the days of dinosaur agencies handing down advice from on high are numbered. The next generation of clients need flexible identities and flexible advice: as more and more design comes in house, their consultants will have to prove their worth as navigators and mentors for successful roll-out, just as much as 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, that can adapt to circumstances. Identities that come out of the corner and into the heart of communications, that might have several different forms, or keep modulating for different audiences. Identities held together by a linking idea rather than 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.

This is an adaptation of a recent article for Design Week magazine by Michael Johnson. Illustrations by Julia Woollams.