Look longer when creating your brand’s visual identity

If companies have mastered the art of corporate branding, why are packaged goods so poor at using visual identity to communicate with consumers? asks Don Williams

Visual brand identity is paramount in enabling consumers to recognise brands. Not just at the point of purchase, but throughout all media. Corporations have long understood that a brand’s visual identity is essential for triggering recognition and recall of their corporate brand. They invest in them accordingly to ensure they are properly, consistently applied and rigorously policed at every consumer interface.

Why is it then that many packaged goods brand owners, who quite happily plough millions of pounds into short-lived above-the-line campaigns (that frequently contain little visual reference to the thing they are supposed to be selling), seem reluctant – or even fail – to recognise the importance of visual identity for the long-term health of their brands?

About-face

Changing the face of a brand on an almost annual basis, linked with a massive television ad spend, may well result in a short-lived upturn in sales. The long-term reality, however, is that more investment will be required for the next creative pack excursion to re-educate the poor old consumer that his or her brand looks different⦠again. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to see that the most successful and salient packaged goods brands are those that remain recognisable from pack change to pack change. They are simple and very memorable (consumers can usually draw them from memory alarmingly accurately). Many strong brands look much the same as they did 50 or even 100 years ago.

All too often, packaged goods pack design is seen as the brand identity (witness the token and often throwaway pack shot at the end of television ads). But unless a brand is only ever going to consist of one product, this is a very costly mistake.

Brand identities for consumer goods need to work cohesively and consistently throughout all media: in the store, in the street and in the home. In store, on pack, the brand identifier should provide a visual anchor that triggers recall of investment in communication. But, crucially, a pack also needs to tell the consumer about the product range, the individual product, its benefits and attributes. A pack has to have a visual architecture that is easy to decode in a way that is relevant to the category in which it lives. Real holistic branding in packaged goods is a rarity.

Conversely, corporate brands are increasingly successful at communicating the desired vision and personality of their organisation. Apple, much admired by the marketing industry, cleverly grasped the fact that we live in a visual age right from the beginning. Apple understood that to closely link its brand to a product (a function) would be to handcuff the brand and make future stretch impossible. Apple is an emotion, “think different” it says – a proposition that is infinitely stretchable. It is a brand that has no obvious boundaries. Dell on the other hand, does.

Apple’s core character

Apple communicates its brand essence effortlessly, and the halo effect is perfectly demonstrated with the iPod. The truth is people buy Apple products because they want them, not because they need them. It’s a bond far stronger than mere superior product attributes, which in a technologically advanced world will become increasingly difficult to achieve and retain.

Apple’s simple brand icon is capable of triggering its brand “soul” at every consumer interface, in a split second, without words, just like Nike. Why? Because it has used true holistic visual brand communication in the form of an unchanging (other than gently evolving) brand mnemonic. It is clearly present in every cent the company spends on communication. When you see an Apple ad, you definitely know which brand is being sold.

In a world where communication channels are becoming more diverse, and traditional advertising is inevitably (and increasingly) not the force it once was, brand owners need to start treating packaged goods brand identities with the same respect as corporate brand identities if they want to stand a chance of attaining and retaining a healthy share of consumer mind space.

Creatives are trained to “change the world”; the real challenge, though, is not to change or “play” with a packaged goods brand identity (unless the patient really is moribund), it is to know what it needs to achieve in the long term. It is to ensure that it is robust enough to do the job required of it, and put visual foundations in place if it isn’t, or simply protect and nurture it if it is.

Don Williams is CEO of PI Global

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