Appearances shouldn’t be deceptive – today’s challenges to visual branding

Greg Vallance, director of Embrace Brand, looks at the challenges brands face in standing out among the crowd.

Did it ever used to be easy? This branding stuff, I mean? OK, back in the day when cowboys put their irons in the fire and then burned their marks into their animals’ hides, it probably was. You could tell which steer belonged to which ranch, and that was it.

Even when I set out on this long and winding road of a career, things were relatively straightforward. A pack was a pack, there was advertising (even for cigarettes, shock) and there were shops where people went to pick up the pack. All we really needed to do was to make sure our pack stood out more than others. And that’s not as dull as it sounds: the fabulous gold pack and advertising campaigns behind B&H Special created something truly extraordinary (sorry, Silk Cut, you always looked a bit lame in comparison). The two media just seemed to work together in a way we hadn’t seen before. So did the JPS black pack and F1 car – true integration and synergy, only it probably wasn’t called that then.

What strikes me even more, now I come to think of what these two examples mean, is how the visual element of any brand seems to sustain through the years while other creative executions around it change. Perhaps we can talk about ’psychology’ in different terms: what does the branding provide for people, that the more talked-about bits don’t? I think we should understand this, and not under-estimate it, while we get all excited about Apps, social media, and the rest of it.

Because what the pack design does, even more so today than it ever has, is to provide the consistency and constancy that human beings like in amongst a world of change. But here’s the clever part: it can also help those human beings through change, reassuring them that it’s all going to be ok. It can take Mars from chocolate bars to ice creams (and therefore help to create a whole new, multi-million pound category). It can make Lucozade rise from its sickbed to the Olympic podium.

It can also introduce a new brand and make it seem that it should have been around forever. Yes it’s a cliché now to talk about Innocent, but perhaps it’s become a cliché because it’s a truth that people have spoken more than most others. The visual identity of Innocent is a core part of the brand – it’s impossible to think of it being anything else.

Great visual identity is really all about giving the true brand its true voice.

And I find it impossible to believe that a brand has one single tone of voice. In fact, that has to be one of the most misleading tracks to follow: as people, we speak in different tones to different people, in different situations. As brands, why should that be any different? Especially now, when there are so many options and occasions available. What’s critical is to understand the times at which the visual identity – and particularly the pack design – is speaking to people, and how it should be addressing them.

It’s the most direct conversation a brand has with the consumer, because it takes place at that most critical point in any relationship: when someone has to put their hand in their pocket. If other siren brand voices have drawn the consumer to the brand, the pack can provide the final consummation or the ultimate rejection.

Enough has been said before about the effect of colour on consumer decisions, but it is a fundamentally important quality within the visual identity. Again, looking at the global marketing context within which brands have to work, it could be very easy to get this wrong: one culture’s association with purity is another’s tone of death, and so on. The visual language therefore has to be very sensitive to individual and social psychology, but rather than err on the side of caution and create the pack of least resistance, I believe there’s a marvellous opportunity for brands to make more of a statement.

Little details, individual splashes of colour – visual and linguistic – can lift the brand towards the Highest Common Factor and elevate consumers’ affections and regard. The Tyrell’s crisps ’election special’ packs were great fun and not in over-plentiful supply (are they working on a new coalition flavour, I wonder?) and furthered the brand’s growing reputation.

So, what about those brands who can’t dip into that reservoir of funds or memories? Sometimes, it’s the visual identity that has to be the entrepreneur and lead the brand’s way into the world. That was our experience with the teapigs brand. With no advertising support, everything we wanted to say about the brand was in the pack design: quality, pride, enjoyment and a touch of irreverence. It’s been a great success.

I would venture to suggest that this is the future: the best way to strengthen a relationship is to be true, consistent and to let the other person have their say. And because the pack design is the most constant, immediate and direct conversation a brand has with its consumer – still – it should be understood more for its potential to shape that relationship over the long term.

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