If the old logo ain’t broke, fix it anyway: Ritson’s rules for playing with brand codes

Those questioning the updates to Heinz’s slogan and the British Rail logo miss the salience the brands will gain – but there are rules for playing with brand codes effectively.

The Detroit Lions, Heinz and the railway industry’s Rail Delivery Group recently unveiled adaptations of key brand assets

Fuck, I hate talking about design stuff. Just about the first thing they teach you in brand management infant school is that brands are more than logos. So every discussion of identity, pantones and fonts renders any self-respecting branding person feeling juvenile, dirty and slightly stupid. But here we go again. I even have a shit diagram with the logos that I am about to write about slap bang at the top of the column. What a bozo.

I am writing this dumb column partly because of Emily Zugay. The 24-year-old Wisconsin native is what our American cousins refer to as a ‘triple threat’. Zugay is a millennial, TikTok star and content creator. Christ in a bucket. To be fair, she also has a sense of humour so dry it is often completely missed by her fellow Americans. She has started to make a name for herself by “improving” various brand logos and one of her latest creations has just gone bananas.


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In a Sunday TikTok post that has already garnered more than 150,000 views, Zugay applied her skills to the American football team the Detroit Lions. Mispronouncing the name as the “Lines”, the designer was confused why a large blue cat was being used as the team logo. She felt it needed to be “simplified quite a bit” and proceeded to do just that. The old logo was transformed into five simple brown lines that Zugay felt captured the team’s name much better and would translate well on jerseys, helmets and other merchandise.

Many fans incorrectly assumed Zugay was a moron. The joke was very much on them. At least the Lions have a sense of humour and decent tactical agility to go with it. Within a day the team had adopted the redesigned Lines logo as its profile picture on TikTok and filmed a fun segment in which several of the first team players tried on T-shirts featuring the new logo. The Lions marketing team was probably also aware that Zugay’s post has already garnered more than 10 times the number of likes that their usual, correctly logoed posts usually generate. There is a lesson there for other brands.

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And it’s very clearly one that Heinz has already learned. A day after Emily Zugay had “improved” the Detroit Lions, Heinz was doing something similar all by itself. On Monday the company launched its new ad campaign, in which a shopper discovers, to her horror, that her usual can of Heinz beans has been substituted in her weekly grocery delivery. The realisation sparks a 30-second adventure in which our hero heads to the corner shop to get her fix of Heinz beans. The closing shot reveals a new play on the traditional Heinz slogan and the usual visual hammer of ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’. The new variation suggests ‘Beanz Meanz…More’.

It was billed in Marketing Week as being part of a broader “purpose drive” and an attempt to start having the dreaded “conversations” with customers about the brand. That led to many marketers accusing Heinz of jumping on the purpose shitwagon.

At first glance, it did appear that the distinctive Heinz brand name was being excised for a blander, more generic attempt to talk over-reaching bollocks. We’ve seen this all before as the selling of chocolate/coffee/beer is no longer about the benefits of chocolate/coffee/beer but rather an esoteric culture wank resulting in an explosion of generosity/community/diversity/pomposity. It was bad and bland enough to even wake the Dark Lord of Penetration from his slumber deep beneath the Ehrenberg-Bass Tower of Darkness:

Not so fast. I suspect Heinz is just playing the purpose card because every godforsaken marketer must tick that box if they want to get anything funded these days. In truth, this was a smart and savvy way to update an ancient brand and play, for a while, with one of the greatest codes in FMCG.

Certainly, Matthew Mill – who runs marketing for meals at Heinz in Northern Europe – sounded curiously on-the-money explaining the move this week. “When you think of famous advertising slogans you would think of Heinz,” he explained on Monday. “From a brand perspective, this is us looking back and paying homage but it’s also looking forward as well. We took it and evolved it, all great strategies over time evolve.”

He is spot-the-fuck-on. Heinz has a ton of brand heritage. That stacks up into wonderful things like nascent salience, big pre-existing brand image, distribution domination and wonderful price insensitivity. But heritage cuts as much as it kisses. Heinz is your builder’s breakfast, your nan’s supper. It’s as 20th-century as Des Lynam or a Friday-night bath in front of the fire with Crackerjack on. Heinz must maintain and respect that heritage but also keep moving it forward.

And the best way to do that is to take the ancient symbols of its existence and fuck around with them. By doing so Heinz can tip its hat to history and then open the door to 2022. And the great thing about heritage brands is that when they play with their codes they also get an added shot of distinctiveness alongside their fresh new pint of modernity. It’s a strange but wonderful paradox of older brands that, when you remove their name from packaging or advertising, the first thing that consumers do is fill in the cognitive blank in such a way that salience occurs to a much greater effect.

Ending an ad by saying Beanz means something other than Heinz made that ad far more distinctive than if the word Heinz had been written 20ft high with fairy lights all over it and lightning striking it repeatedly from afar. Similarly, watching those Detroit linebackers trying on the new Lines logo suddenly made the blue livery and roaring lion all the more attractive, not despite its absence, but because of it.

It’s a strange but wonderful paradox of older brands that, when you remove their name from packaging or advertising, the first thing that consumers do is fill in the cognitive blank.

If only someone could explain this to the bozos at The Guardian. I know they hate the Tories but on the rare occasions when Her Majesty’s Government gets it right I think the paper should acknowledge it. The Williams-Shapps plan to reunite the British railway system as Great British Railways is actually not a bad idea. Who knows if this Government can pull it off but, at the very least, the idea of bringing the fragmented rail network back together is a great move.

As is the idea of returning to a single brand identity to symbolise this unification. And using the famed ‘double-arrow’ logo from the ‘Age of the Train’ across all services again is a masterstroke. Currently in use by National Rail, the brand owned by the industry’s Rail Delivery Group, it was designed for British Rail by Gerry Barney at the legendary Design Research Unit back in 1965. Despite a quarter-century on the sidelines, Barney’s logo remains the most salient image for British railways. That’s partly because it has been used for so long, partly because what followed British Rail was a diaspora of disappointing train operator brands, and also because it has remained the standard train symbol on all road signs ever since.

Barney, who is now 82, is not so enthused. “I don’t know if it can be updated, it’s so simple,” the miserable old bastard told The Guardian. “They should just leave it well alone – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

In a separate attempt to reinforce the environmental advantages of travelling by rail, the Rail Delivery Group has had a similarly good idea. After creating a recent ad for National Rail prominently featuring the red version of the logo, it has given it an eco-twist by changing it to five different shades of green. It’s a brilliant move because, once again, the logo will convey a modern new message while simultaneously drawing on the heritage and salience of its past.

But when the RDG team approached him, Barney was again steadfastly opposed to the update.

Barney deserves enormous credit for creating one of the most indelible logos of the 20th century. But the credit should stop there. We live in a different age of brand and design. Branding is more fluid, more playful and more confident than it was 50 years ago. And unlike the original double-arrow design back in the 60s, the logo is now so well known and accepted there is room and remit to play with it.

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If I could offer three rules for code-playing, they would be as follows.

Rule 1: Reinforce before you get reflexive

Don’t play with anything for the first 40 years. In fact, do the opposite. Resist the urge to play, and reinforce your codes over and over again. Make sure that your identity is known by one and all, and so embedded in culture that its existence is almost taken for granted. Only then will playfulness become an option.

Detroit started using its blue lion in 1960. Five years later, Gerry Barney drew his double-arrow design on the back of an envelope. Heinz started to mean Beanz in its slogan and logo form in 1967. All three of these iconic identities are more than half a century old. You need that amount of time. That degree of consistency. That level of enforcement. Before the play begins. Before the play can prove effective. Before you need the play to be an effective tool for revitalisation.

Rule 2: Aim for distinctiveness and differentiation

Be greedy. Don’t listen to those who believe all a brand really confers is brute salience. And ignore the poets on the other side of the ring arguing for archetypes and 800 kilos of brand image. In truth, brands need to draw from both the pot of distinctiveness and the pot of relative differentiation if they are to succeed. And the good news is that, assuming rule 1 is followed, both outcomes can be achieved from the same playful inversions.

When we twist and tweak logos and straplines we boost their salience and, assuming we have tweaked with the positioning top of mind, we can also push our differentiation too. When Carlsberg brewed a red beer with a red label to celebrate Liverpool FC’s triumphant Champions League campaign, everyone who saw that deep red creation took one long startled glance at it and thought three things: green, Carlsberg and then Liverpool. Be bold and distinctive in your play. But stay focused on the message that playfulness is meant to convey. Carlberg’s green logo? Ninety years old, by the way.

Rule 3: Don’t do it forever

Code play is very much the Cinderella of tactical pursuits. It has a finite amount of time before it will turn into a pumpkin. The purpose of code play is to deviate from the standard palette. But the magic that comes from seeing a red logo turned green, or a green logo turned red, will diminish quickly with exposure. The magic derives from an iconic, established identity that has been decades in the making. And the trick only works when we do not expect it.

These two requirements ensure that, most of the time, the code should be the code. Cinderella needs to go back to scrubbing floors. If Britain’s rail industry is as good at branding as it seems to be (when did you think you’d ever read that sentence?) it will use the green alternative for a few months and then restore the red. The Detroit Lions will sell a brown-line T-shirt in their gift store but continue to play with blue lions on their chests. And Beanz will go back to meaning Heinz a few weeks from now.

Mark Ritson is PPA Columnist of the Year and teaches all about brand codes, along with everything else about brand management, in the Mini MBA in Brand Management – next course April 2021. Find out more on the Mini MBA website