From issue 1 of the Brand Report Business-critical assets and publications are the canaries in … Read moreHow to know it’s time for a brand refresh
From issue 1 of the Brand Report
Business-critical assets and publications are the canaries in the coalmine of brand. When these assets drift off-brand, it’s a sign that your organisation is losing confidence in its brand – and it could be time for an update.
Take the university prospectus as an example. Part marketing brochure, part tourist guide, part course catalogue, the prospectus is the keystone of a university’s annual student recruitment campaign.
And the weight of responsibility placed on prospectuses shows through in their design. It’s clear that most universities take extra special care to make sure these vital publications have a big impact.
But treating important publications (or microsites, or campaigns, or apps) as special cases can damage the overall cohesion of your brand.
We’ve seen behind the scenes of enough branded design projects to imagine the process. Designers lay out the content, following the brand guidelines. Then people start wondering whether the on-brand designs will have the necessary impact. They ask for extra colours, typefaces and graphics to make the content stand out more.
The instinct to make sure a business-critical communication really grabs its target audience is a good one. And more often than not, the result is a high quality communication that’s sure to have an impact.
But when that impact isn’t matched by the brand’s other channels, its effect is severely dampened. This lack of cohesion can even be damaging, giving the impression of an organisation that cares about getting people in through the door, but not about giving them a quality experience once they’re inside.
Move with the times
If you’re looking at a draft design that follows your brand guidelines and worrying that it won’t land with your audience, that means it’s time to revisit your brand.
Maybe your audience has changed, maybe design trends have moved on, or maybe the brand has been the same for so long that it’s simply time for a refresh.
Whatever the underlying reason, it’s important to stop tinkering with that one design, get that back on brand, then pull back and consider what changes might be right for the brand as a whole. How would new or updated colours work on your website and in campaigns? How might new styles for impact stats interact with existing visual hierarchies – or enhance your social media posts?
Only once the refresh project is complete, and all changes formally documented with an update to your brand guidelines, should you start incorporating the new brand into your business-critical communications (as part of a full roll-out across all your channels).
Unless everyone’s on the same page, a cohesive brand is impossible. But with efficient communication, your brand can adapt and evolve while remaining cohesive – ensuring you’re always achieving the right impact with the right people.
This time last year I was in a very different place. Somewhere along the way, I had lost some of the things that make me, me. My passion, my consistency, my uniqueness and above all my sense of purpose – basically, all the things that make a great brand.
Some might say I was suffering from a minor existential crisis, millennial burnout, Bridget Jones syndrome (yes, this is a thing!) and possibly a range of other 30-year-old related afflictions.
In typical millennial style, I decided it was the perfect time to take a step back, break free from the shackles of the daily grind and go and see some of the world. So for three months, I travelled through India and South East Asia, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Without trying to sound like I’ve stepped off the set of Eat. Pray. Love, removing myself from my routine, friends, family and comfort zone was liberating and over the course of my travels I realised I’d inadvertently gone through my own sort of personal brand workshop.
I went completely back to basics — literally (at one point I waded through a swamp in Vietnam to find my accommodation for the night was a mosquito net and the floor) and figuratively.
At the core of me I knew there were some fundamental values: to always be honest, to be kind to people no matter the circumstance and to remain fiercely independent. But time away developed some new ones: to pursue a growth mindset, to follow my creative passions and to seek adventure in all things.
Fellow travellers, who are now good friends of mine, brought to the surface all the things that I knew to be true about my personality but that I’d almost forgotten — branded “fun Ros” (yes, not the most original of names but the sentiment was appreciated), I remembered I had a similar label at university, but completely lost it en route to my 30s.
Sure, everyone changes — life would be boring otherwise. But if you don’t regularly re-evaluate or at least check in on your basic brand DNA — your values, your vision for the future and how you’re going to get there — the things that make you, you — you’re in danger of losing sight of everything.
Unlike the world of corporate branding, it’s not so easy to discover what your purpose as a human being is (unless you’re Mozart!), but what is true is that brands are constantly evolving, and as long as you’re striving for growth, pursuing your curiosities and checking in on your brand DNA every once in a while, you can’t go far wrong.
A lot of people ask me if I dreaded coming back to reality after such an experience, and I can honestly say… no. Like any re-brand, I was re-invigorated and excited for the future and what I could offer… and on a personal note I was thrilled to be back in my own bed!
Generational labelling has reached the end of the alphabet and is now starting again – from Generation Z to Generation Alpha. But that doesn’t mean brands have to start from scratch as well.
Sociologist Mark McCrindle coined the Generation Alpha label, applying it to people born between 2011 and 2025 – so the oldest Alphas today are nine years old, and the majority haven’t even been born yet.
As a rule, I take predictions and business advice based on generational trends with a healthy pinch of salt. But as the proud dad of two Alphas, I’ve got a vested interest in how brands are going to relate to this age group, both today and as they grow up.
Generation Z were the first to grow up with smartphones as a normal fact of life. For Generation Alpha, replace smartphones with AI voice assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. Millennials bought into ‘connected home’ devices for their convenience, and for their Generation Alpha children, these devices are just part of the family.
This technology is already influencing the way this generation learns and plays. The growing ‘internet of toys’ uses image and voice recognition to encourage interactive play. Mattel’s Hello Barbie, dubbed the world’s most interactive toy, can interpret and respond to a child’s voice. My favourite, Cozmo, is a robot that communicates huge personality and emotion through simple expressions and movements.
All this could make Generation Alpha the first generation brands and marketers don’t have to speculate about.
Whenever a new generation is minted, there’s a rush to define what their supposed values and behaviour might mean for business, and how brands should change to attract them (or to avoid attracting their wrath). But with so much of their home life and education mediated through connected devices and AI, Generation Alpha’s whole lives could well be mapped in data. And why speculate when you can measure?
The temptation will be huge. But I’ve pointed out before that brands need to be careful how they use marketing data and automation. That’s especially true when we’re talking about children. I’d be put off by any brand trying to insert itself into my kids’ lives just to sell them things, or to sell me things through them.
But I’ve seen some brands taking a smarter approach that I really appreciate. Google Home ran a TV ad showing how its smart speaker fit naturally into a conversation between a dad and his inquisitive child during reading time. And Crest Kids recently unveiled an Alexa skill that helps children brush their teeth – entertaining them with jokes, stories and silly songs that keep them giggling and brushing for the full recommended two minutes.
Fitbit are also getting into the game with the Ace 2, a device targeted at the six-and-ups. This is the first generation with the potential to have their health monitored from birth, so their healthcare can be preventative rather than reactive.
Know your destination
Why are these brands more welcome than the ones advertising products to my kids on YouTube?
They’re delivering something useful and, more importantly, something wholeheartedly connected to their purpose. Google wants to help you find information. Crest wants kids to have healthy teeth. Fitbit wants to help people live healthy lives. They’re all taking advantage of changing attitudes and new technology, but they’re not diverting from their core purpose. It makes the activity feel like a natural part of their journey, and not like a cynical intrusion into our family life.
So learn from these examples: make sure your brand has a strong sense of purpose. With that, there’s no need to chase the shiny new thing, whether that’s a new technology or a newly named generation of consumers. Purpose gives your brand the natural forward momentum it needs to stay ahead of any trend.
From issue 1 of the Brand Report
No two universities are the same. But you wouldn’t guess that from their photo libraries. The issue is so pronounced that the higher education sector has a name for it: “three and a tree”. And it’s something other sectors suffer from, too.
Universities want to show that their campus is pleasant and relaxed, and that the student body is diverse and welcoming. How do you do that? With a photo showing a diverse trio of students relaxing around a tree. Three and a tree.
It ticks all the boxes, and no one’s going to object to it, so that’s what ends up on the website, in printed brochures, and attached to tweets. But choosing the unobjectionable option – whether in photography, typography, colour, or any other aspect of the visual identity – is what leads to bland, generic looking brands.
We see this in every sector, in any organisation where the chain of approval for branded visuals is more than a couple of links long. It only takes one cautious link – one that hasn’t grasped the importance of differentiation in branding – to push a brand’s visual style away from something distinctive, towards the same middle ground already occupied by the majority of the sector.
But what’s unobjectionable to the organisation isn’t necessarily unobjectionable to the audience. In fact, when you take the middle road with your visual identity, “unobjectionable” is probably the best you can hope for. The more likely outcome is an identity that’s boring, unmemorable, or worse, not credible.
Brands stretch credibility when elements seem at odds with each other. For instance, if the messaging is all about brave new ideas, independent thinking and experimental approaches, but the photography, imagery, typography and colour palette are nothing but safe choices, audiences will question which impression is really true.
An organisation with the confidence to express a distinctive attitude through its visual identity is more likely to stand out from the crowd. And more than that, it can inspire your audience and gain their trust. Stepping off the middle road means taking a position. The risk is that not everyone will identify with that position; the reward is that some will, much more strongly than they ever could with a generic, unobjectionable stance.
The reward hugely outweighs the risk. Customers attracted by a clear position make far better advocates for the brand. Plus, a visual identity informed by brave ideas will naturally be more exciting, more eye-catching, and more distinctive.
And when your visual identity, messaging and – most importantly – actions all reinforce the same brave position? That tells everyone, customers, staff and stakeholders, what the organisation stands for and where it’s heading. So everyone can pull in the same direction – bringing the brand closer to achieving its ambitions.
This article is from issue 1 of the Brand Report. For more insights and action points to strengthen your brand, download the complete report now.