The evolution of Brand Identity: A perspective from Echo’s Alastair Jones

A changing landscape

There has been a seismic shift in the relationship between companies, their brands and their consumers, and the impact that this has had on brand communications is irrefutable. Driven by media and audience fragmentation, the world of brand communication is considerably more complex now, and the sheer volume of messaging is making the role of marketeers more challenging than ever.

Consumers are increasingly in control of the agenda. To quote Jeff Bezos: ‘your brand is what other people say about you when you're not in the room’. This has resulted in a shift from brand push to brand pull strategies and a focus on collaboration, co-creation and community.

At the same time there is evidence to suggest a decline in traditional brand loyalty especially to larger, established brands. However it would appear that this is not necessarily as a result of these brands failing to perform, but more to do with relevance and an erosion of engagement and interest. The amount of information now available to consumers, the unprecedented levels of category disruption, the degree of choice and new purchasing behaviours are all challenging traditional notions of loyalty. Research has indicated that the number of brands considered by consumers when making purchase decisions has risen significantly.

However perhaps it is just that loyalty as we used to understand it appears to have a different currency these days. Traditionally it has been thought of as a quality to be admired, to aspire to, to be given and received and had strong associations with trust. But it also suggests a permanence, being happy with the status quo, a lack of interest in what else is out there.

Managing tensions

There is no doubt that trust in the large institutions of life has been eroded and in all our structures from work, relationships, politics to religion. Life has become more fluid and unpredictable, although not necessarily in a bad way, and change is no longer something to be feared. Change is now seen as a good thing.

Tension exists at the heart of all this. We are social animals and whilst we are more willing to embrace change, indeed actively seek it out, we still desire connection and community – the anchor point to our lives – and brands have a crucial role to play in delivering this. More than ever brands need to represent a lifestyle and a community that audiences want to buy into.

In this new normal much has been written about the implications for brand communications but less so for brand identity. How does it manage this tension between consumers needing something they can clearly connect, and the offer of something new, fresh and exciting?

The new normal and the role of brand identity

But let’s just pause for a moment. How much have things really changed? After all, 94% of all grocery shopping in the UK is still done in in store. Perhaps it’s not that things have changed so much it’s just that the landscape has expanded, driven largely by the influence of digital.

Brand identity never has been and never should be seen as a static medium – a piece of visual communication simply designed to create stand-out. A brand identity is at once the single most powerful expression of what a brand stands for, a visual distillation of what makes it unique, as well as being a rich evocation of a broader brand world that can be activated to drive continual brand engagement over time – and this brand world is not just visual but comprises language, touch, feel and sound where relevant. It encompasses a complete brand experience.

However, brand identity does need to adapt to meet the challenges posed by the new normal and our multi-channel world. So, whilst key elements of a brand identity need to remain fixed and constant – the anchor points – the broader visual expression needs to evolve to remain fresh, alive and constantly engaging.

The evolving experience

We now need to think beyond the more traditional aspects of the brand experience, beyond the immediate to meet new consumer expectations, those which are linked to the new currency of loyalty such as richer experiences, greater degrees of transparency, authenticity and craft, sustainability, personalisation, co-creation, community – to provide deeper connections and levels of meaning to the brand choices consumers are making.

Whilst we have an apparent decline in brand loyalty, research also suggests that brands are increasingly important to people’s own identity particularly amongst younger consumers. So it is essential that brands and their identities are attuned to and reflective of the values that consumers deem to be increasingly important.

The new normal also makes demands on the role of brand identity through design tensions. Systemised design was developed to deliver stand out and the old paradigm required that brand identities be controlled, consistent in their application and simple to apply.

Whilst these principles of control, consistency and simplicity are still important in this expanded new world, given the expectations of consumers brand identities also need to be more fluid and dynamic, more customisable and deliver richness, as the role for brand identity evolves.

Sharper thinking

Such evolution means the brand and design strategy thinking has to be even tighter and sharper. This provides the control framework. We can think of this as the ‘empowering simplicity of purpose’ – why am I (the brand) here, how do I fit with your needs/lifestyle, what’s my role in your life? – which delivers the immediacy, cut through and clarity.

At the same time the broader execution can deliver what we might call a ‘living richness of expression’ – how do I Iook, feel and behave at various touchpoints; what do I say about you? We need to be thinking about bigger, broader conceptual ideas and executions that can be tailored for different channels. This creates a focus on the long term, provides relevant ways of prolonging the brand experience, keeping it fresh to ensure constant engagement over time.

Brand identity needs to make media and audience fragmentation its friend, embrace change, see it as an opportunity and become an essential driver for brand engagement, advocacy and loyalty.

Alastair Jones