The modern and ancient brand paradox
A view from Charles Vallance

The modern and ancient brand paradox

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose – VCCP's chairman reflects on how little things change.

Much is written about the disruptive forces reshaping the world of media. The resultant sense of flux and upheaval is vividly portrayed by Stef Calcraft as "the seismic detonation of social media" and "the explosion of online video".

It all sounds tremendously modern and new. And so it is. But it also comes with a caveat.

The caveat being that, while our media habits are becoming ever more modern, the fundamentals for brand building are becoming ever more ancient.

How can this paradox be explained? Well, the answer lies in what we can now see as a historical aberration. An aberration caused by the one-off dominance of mass, linear, unfragmented TV between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s. A never to be repeated era when the whole country watched the same commercial channel (ITV alone until 1982 when Channel 4 launched) at the same time, all the time, altogether.

This provided an unprecedented opportunity for advertisers to achieve the triple nirvana of high-quality and high reach in the world's most powerful medium – which was, and will remain, AV.

This era proved a field day for big companies with big budgets. If you could get it on TV, it would sell. Wonderful campaigns and wonderful brands thrived, including Walkers, Guinness, Heinz, Cadbury and Levi's. But it is fair to say that there was another group of brands that flourished due more to media clout than their innate longevity. Brands such as Trill, Hemeling, Amstrad, Texan, Le Piat d'Or, Denim, Skol, Imperial Leather, Mirage, Taboo, Spangles and Sunny D.

I have no doubt that, somewhere, these brands are soldiering on. But they are no longer centre break in Coronation Street. The twin forces of time and competition have forced them to the edges of the stage because they relied unduly on a media moment when high-reach combined with high-quality was available more or less on tap.

It is no longer so. From the mid-1990s onwards, with the arrival of multichannel, multi-platform, multi-device asynchronous viewing, this media moment has gradually unravelled itself. There are very, very few silver AV bullets out there. And those that remain are, inevitably, reassuringly expensive (witness Super Bowl or Euro 2020 ad breaks).

Sterner media questions, therefore, are now asked of brands than they were in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, just as sterner questions were asked of brands before the arrival of commercial TV. We can sometimes forget that soap operas are so named because Persil, Surf, Colgate, Palmolive et al were among the very first brands to advertise on TV. They were funding the content before advertiser-funded content was a thing.

And this is really where the modern and ancient paradox resolves itself. The media challenges that brands have faced since the 1990s are more comparable to the media challenges of the 1950s (or earlier) than any of the intervening decades. The disciplines imposed on Persil, Palmolive and Colgate before the luxury of television, the need to win attention, to stand out on a shelf, and to gain mental availability are disciplines that have a renewed relevance today.

This is why the "ancient" brands are still going strong, brought up as they were on the pre-TV imperatives of a strong identity and intrinsic branding. Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Cadbury, Persil, Heinz, Guinness, Walkers have all doubled down on their core equities as world-class brands and category leaders.

Just as revealingly, a similar pattern is discernible among the "modern" generation, those that gained scale during or after the mid-1990s. Amazon, Google, Monzo, O2, easyJet, Spotify, Sonos, Netflix, Pret A Manger, Uber, WhatsApp, Oatly and TikTok. This is a generation more likely to have been designed around the compression required for an app icon than a supermarket shelf. But the visual discipline involved is identical. In fact, the crowded space of your phone's app screen is, in many ways, the new point of sale.

Of course, many great brands grew and flourished during the era when TV dominated. Apple, Nike and Virgin are obvious examples. But even these display the same visual discipline as their modern and ancient counterparts; they each have a simple, singular graphic identity that cuts through in any format and is recognisable even without the brand name.

In a fragmented, dispersed, cluttered media landscape, we are seeing the primacy of what at VCCP we call indelible branding. Visual compression, cohesion and brevity are becoming more essential. Way back in 1999, Naomi Klein wrote the book No Logo. The title did not prove prescient. With the benefit of hindsight, a more prophetic title might have been All Logo.

Charles Vallance is chairman and founding partner of VCCP.