In an increasingly visually lead society - where does the responsibilty lie for brands to live up to their expression?

29 Nov 2010|Added Value

Are we becoming more visually lead in this country?
Access to a vast array of visually stimulating media has never been so abundant or accessible in Britain. We’ve all heard the statistics about just how many messages we are being bombarded with on a daily basis, mass media has been on our radars for some time. But the nature of the communication does seem to have become more driven by a strong aesthetic language, driving a more superficial attitude to our brands and indeed our lifestyles.

The rapid growth in the last ten years of digital media, has all but torn up the established ‘rule book’ of mass communication; thanks to Smart Phones, Wi-Fi, iPods and iPads – todays latest innovation is tomorrows top trending tweet and despite a wider range of media touchpoints than ever before brands are competing in an ever increasingly crowded space; demanding high impact in a small amount of time – putting visual impact at a premium.

And it is perhaps these very devices that best embody the culture of building brands upon the foundation of super slick brand expression, beautiful packaging and an unrivalled in-store experience. What we can learn from this is that when a brand expresses itself visually in a way that is hard to resist, it can afford to push the boundaries and take greater risks, particularly in the field of innovation. Indeed, such can be the level of goodwill built up through the consistent communication that consumers are even prepared to sacrifice a few expectations for the sake of brand loyalty.

The iPhone 4 is a prime example of this; that beautifully sharp screen, that iconic black packaging sitting on minimalist white shelves – but it is by Apple’s own admission a flawed device. Serious problems with the signal (holding the phone can impair the antenna) would in certain cases have been a fatal and irreversible error – and poor repentant Steve jobs exclaiming; “we’re only human after all.” Can you imagine a Windows based phone surviving similar difficulties? With Bill Gates telling us to “get over it?” It’s doubtful.

Indeed, such is the brand equity that Apple has managed to build; they were able to follow the iPhone 4 with their iPad, a similarly functioning product on a larger scale. Sure enough, initial exasperation soon evaporated with an aggressive yet emotive advertising campaign and according to a report released by strategy analytics, the Apple iPad had gained a 95 percent share of Tablet PC sales at the end of second quarter 2010 and had sold 4.19 million iPads around the world.

If we continue to be so readily seduced by slick brand expression, it poses a question to the consumer that some might admit to finding hard to confront; do we risk accepting lower standards from our brands in exchange for an image and perception for our hard earned cash? A certain level of quality must be reached to strike the balance between our emotional attachment to a brand and it’s actual delivery on it’s promise to us.

So where does the responsibility lie to ensure that beautiful, effective brand expression is backed up by a brand or product worthy of the name? Part of it lies with consumer themselves.

In our world of fast food, reality TV and disposable online twitterings it has perhaps never been harder to separate the useful from the useless. With such an abundance of varied information, is there in fact a danger that we actually become LESS savvy and discerning when it comes to consuming media?

The cynical side of me says that it would certainly suite certain institutions and business if it were the case, a society that questions everything is undoubtedly harder to influence and control than one
that readily consumes and accepts all that is put before it -Such is the pace and frequency of today’s communication it is easy to see how we are losing the will to ask “why?”

Television remains perhaps our greatest touch point with mass media on a daily basis. The entertainment that millions of us consume each week does appear to have shifted to a more visual based format that encourages snap decisions and opinions based on single performances rather than long term skill sets. This has potentially far reaching consequences for brands, business and the country as a whole.

The 2010 general election was fought in a more visual and interactive format than any that had gone before it. Round the clock news channels picked up every muttered curse, our hi-definition TV’s picked up every bead of sweat and tell tale twitches. The live debates were billed as a ground breaking national event where we were invited to watch the ‘contestants’ battle it out for our hearts and minds as we sat in judgement at every change in pitch, tone and rhythm – sound like a format millions already tune into every Saturday night?

And let’s face it, who could blame the public for their reaction. Would you buy a brand with an expression as bland, mumbly and out of touch as Gordon Brown? No matter how good the product itself might have been, or would you rather buy into the fresh, upbeat go-getter brand?

The thing is, once we brought the brand, much like the iPhone we realised that it doesn’t seem to work quite as well as we had hoped. Where we forgave Apple for dodgy signal problems; the government’s backtracking on issues like student tuition fees finally pushed the ‘consumer’ over edge. Brands should take heed: consumers will put up with only so much before they rebel. Steve Jobs will probably get another chance, I’d imagine Nick Clegg will probably not be afforded the same understanding.

Of course, you can’t blame brands for tapping into people’s thirst for communication via visual communication, if a picture paints a thousands words, a glossy 30 second TV ad can probably write a book but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will have any substance.

The design industry clearly also has a major part to play. As a designer myself I am often surprised by just how passionate people who don’t possess a ‘design eye’ can get about the expression of their beloved brands. Sometimes brands listen, sometimes they don’t, but what is interesting is that a brand like Gap could probably change a good percentage of it’s clothing range and retain it’s customer base, but when they attempted to revamp their identity this year and replace their classic logo with a postmodern design, the company were flooded with outraged complaints on various social network sites prompting a swift re-think. It shows that people care about what their favourite brand looks like.


But that does not mean that the design industry and brands should yield at every raised eyebrow or initial discomfort with their expression. It is the design industries responsibilty to continue to push boundaries and raise expectations of what brand expression should be about. The London 2012 Olympic Games logo was prime example of initial outcry turning to acceptance – I actually quite like it. The easy option would have been to incorporate a graphic of Big Ben, the river Thames or some other stayed iconic London symbol, no one would have taken offence, but then – no one would have really cared either and that surely is a more dangerous proposition?

I guess my thoughts as a Graphic designer come down to this: I am comfortable that all brands, be it a product, a person, a business or a politician will have a certain amount of brand expression attached to them to reflect them in a favourable light. Where I become distinctly uncomfortable is when I see that the brand expression outweighing the equity of the brand itself.

As a brand model, Innocent are a great example of producing a product that delivers on all it’s promises AND has a brand expression that is true to the brand and a massive hit with their consumers. The elements that have allowed them to execute their brand personality so well is stunningly simple yet seemingly hard to replicate. They started by getting the product right; before the name, the logo or the quirky writing style was in place they produced a product already strong enough to hold it’s own in the crowded juice market. They then built a brand expression based on honesty, transparency and community that engaged strongly with their consumer.

This three way relationship between consumer, designer and brand is clearly fundamental to a harmonious balance and one that will continue to define the ultimate success of brands in the future. It will require brands to be more transparent and honest whilst retaining a strong, distinctive brand expression. Using this model it is possible to identify brands that have a strong balance, if innocent has a perfect triangle where do brands that struggle fall short?


Consumers continue to search for a truth that they can trust and believe in and will begin to demand more. Not just from their brands, but from everything that falls in the public domain.
Ultimately, a brand can survive on fantastic brand expression up to a point, but the competition is fierce and consumers are ever easily swayed.

By Alistair Downs, Added Value UK

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