As a little girl, I was fiercely opposed to bedtime. But by Sunday evening, having chipped away at my parents' patience all week, the arrival of the 8 o’clock news and its authoritative “jingle” sent me skidding off to bed. To this day, that mnemonic conjures a feeling of defeat: the power of sonic branding at its best, and an example of the way brands punctuate our lives with the "assets" that make them distinct.
Today, nearly 12 months into a seemingly endless lockdown, I’m struck by how indistinct everything has become. The days blur into one and so, it seems, do brands, with our interactions reduced to the rip of an Amazon box or an insipid Instagram ad. With less opportunity for spontaneity and surprise, it seems brands are suspended in the same kind of “half-life” as we humans are.
The new ‘blandscape’
Look back at the past decade of brand design, however, and this may not seem new; we’ve witnessed brands shy away from distinctiveness for a while in favour of democratised, digital-first design. Premiumisation has seen high-end icons sacrifice eccentricity to broaden their appeal. The age of “blanding” has spawned tech start-ups that look like fashion brands that look like DTC subscriptions boxes – all claiming to be “disruptors” yet blending into a sea of samey names and millennial pink.
The reason for this lies in function: existing with consistency across multiple devices and screen sizes warrants a degree of simplification, but the propensity of informed consumers to “cancel” brands for one false move has contributed to copycat culture too. Better opt for minimalism because it makes us seem transparent; easier to step into the slipstream of the successful ones before.
We all know, though, that the world’s greatest brands weren’t built by blending in; rather by bringing their unique purpose to life with confident, charismatic appeal – the exuberant orange of Veuve Clicquot, the confident stride of Johnnie Walker’s man, the neoclassical drama of the torch-bearing goddess that opens every Columbia Pictures film. These symbols not only established an emotional currency that endures today, they served to reinforce a truth at the heart of these brands’ foundations.
Dare to be distinctive
Distinctiveness is a word we hear and use a lot as brand designers: it’s a measuring stick for equity and purchase trigger at shelf. But as brands evolve from static, authoritative entities to organic, adaptive beings, so, too, should our definition and measurement of what makes them distinct.
Beyond the jargon, distinctive assets exist to reinforce a brand’s core reason for being, which can manifest in ways we least expect. It’s not the golden “M” of Magnum but rather the crack of thick chocolate as you bite into the corner, that people truly associate with indulgence; it’s the ritual of pushing a lime wedge into the neck of a Corona that delivers on the promise of refreshment, more so than the brand’s blue and white palette. For years, successful brands have woven themselves into the sensorial fabric of our lives and, in doing so, traversed the gap between simply existing and truly coming alive.
What a time to be alive
Today more than ever, brands define our self-perception and form an integral part of culture. We expect them to be perceptive, responsive and self-aware; to adapt swiftly to our changing desires, to take action when a pandemic hits. In the simplest terms, we want our relationships with brands to feel real.
And what better time for brands to embrace their vitality than our collective return to the real world. As we emerge from the screen-bound fog of lockdown and into the hopeful light of day, let bland give way to bravery; let's bring back bold statements in place of generic expressions. In a sea of deteriorating equity, now is the time to think differently – multidimensionally, experientially – about distinctiveness: to know your brand’s core truth and to bring it to life with vigour and imagination.
Only then can a brand truly be alive.
Ashleigh Steinhobel is the senior strategist at brand design agency JDO