SBHD: Global brands are not built overnight. They require years of careful marketing and universal imagery to transcend cultural barriers. For the designer, the main obstacle is blandness.
Novelist Louis de Bernieres begins one of his books with a scene in which “the most powerful soft drinks company in the world”, not content with brand domination of this planet, launches two satellites into space to project its red and white signature across the North and South Poles.
The aim is to extend the brand communication to new planets, other life-forms, more potential consumers. As the second phase of this audacious universal branding exercise, the fictional company negotiates the dyeing of hundreds of kilometres of the surface of the moon, again with its name and livery. Soon, our author suggests, alien life- forms would change the names they assigned these two planets.
De Bernieres’ fantasy is a perfect example of the concept of global branding taken to the limit, elevated almost to the status of religion and communicated purely by a simple visual signature. Such awareness saturation is the fantasy of many a brand manager – first Europe, the world, then who knows? The potential economic benefits of developing a mighty monolithic brand on the scale, for instance, of Coca-Cola, are immense – one pack design, centralised distribution, a single advertising strategy beamed out to millions of viewers on satellite TV, a simpler and more cost-effective exercise all round.
But getting your brand to the point where such single-minded communication is possible is a long process. Companies across Europe are increasingly getting to grips with the difficulties involved. It works for some products: cars; perfumes; some toiletries; luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Mont Blanc; and clothes from retailers like Bally, Levi’s and Benetton. A notable common denominator of such brands is their ability to transcend differences in culture.
Branding difficulties arise where there are differences in usage or emotional associations, as with some food products and even certain toiletries. Packaging communication for soup products, for instance, would have to consider the basic differences in attitudes towards soup between the French and the English. The former regarding it as an inextricable part of family life, one step on from mother’s milk, and the latter simply as something warming to drink after a football match. Such differences should give rise to corresponding differences in on-pack graphic imagery. This is a common problem with food products which require some visual description on-pack to stimulate purchase.
A pan-European or global brand, by the very variety of its audience, requires a simple pack design. Impact and clarity have to be the key criteria. Names must be simple and easy to pronounce, as in Gini or Natrel, avoiding the double-entendre pitfalls from language to language. The pack design focus is on building recognition, unclouded by emotional imagery which might associate the brand too closely with one culture. This is necessarily a return to non-emotive graphic design. Emotion, hu-mour and idiosyncrasy become the province of advertising and promotional material, which can be adjusted market to market if necessary.
So pan-European or global packs become less descriptive of the products they contain. We distinguish between a can of Pepsi and a can of motor oil because we recognise their individual graphic flags and because of each product’s positioning in the retail environment. A brand can therefore stand or fall on the strength and recognisability of its flag.
Global visual familiarity on the scale of Coca-Cola is built up over many decades of careful product association, advertising, promotional activity and product availability. We know about Coca-Cola because we have been indoctrinated with its lifestyle advertising all our lives, just as we know about Levi’s and Marlboro. Like many truly global brands these companies do not try to communicate complex product and usage messages on-pack. Additional brand promises and imagery are conveyed through advertising and supporting promotions.
The only real problem with this preoccupation with sameness is that we are in danger of losing out on communicating the personality, or even the very nature of the products themselves through packaging design. The imagery associated with many European soft drink brands, for example, would not look out of place on a brand of motor oil. Blandness is one of the perils of searching for a non-contentious graphic image. It is difficult to build a distinctive brand personality when you are trying to please all of the people all of the time.
This is a challenge which designers will have to meet if we are to produce memorable, seductive brand identities with global appeal. The onus will be on our industry to create those visual points of difference which will both inspire purchase and build recognition across a wide variety of markets. We will have to look harder at elements such as physical shape, packaging material and ownable colour.
Even the seemingly invincible Coca-Cola adjusted its packaging in a bid to assert its authority last year, co-incidentally, when lookalike own-brand colas began their assault in the UK market. Reaching back to the days when it was the only “real thing”, Coke chose to put the image of that old, still instantly recognisable bottle onto its cans, as well as launching a plastic replica. The idiosyncratic bottle shape had become the brand’s only truly distinguishing visual cue.
Building fad-free distinctiveness into today’s Euro-brands, given their broad target market, demands intelligent design and client nerve. It requires us to think beyond creating something that will be merely universally acceptable, aiming instead for the more elusive, but ultimately far more powerful, acceptably unusual.
If we fail, De Berniere’s soft drinks brand scenario may not be so far-fetched. We may not be far away from the day when shouting the brand name louder and louder will be the only way of gaining recognition. A bit like the English tourist abroad.
Rod Springett is chairman of brands and packaging design consultancy Springett Associates.