You’re a multimillion-dollar business with a loyal following and you’ve just paid a top-tier agency to rebrand your business. The ‘journey’ has lasted four months and incurred costs upwards of $250,000. You’ve been through three rounds of stakeholder engagement, two moodboard sessions and a four-page questionnaire in the name of a ‘perception audit’.
The day rolls around for the reveal; the boardroom is filled with key faces. After a weak cup of tea, some small-talk and an incredibly earnest rationale, the agency unveils a logo which appears to have been typed out from a keyboard in a rather unspectacular sans-serif font. It mimics the logos of at least six major corporations you can name off the top of your head; as a matter of fact, it looks just like the agency’s logo as well.
And you’re thrilled.
Welcome to the new face of branding
Blanding, simplification, minimalism or dumbing down for your audience? Call it what you will, it’s been gaining momentum over the past three to five years, seeing brands including Google and Uber, Airbnb and eBay, Saint Laurent and Balmain walking away from distinctive logos with established currency, some of them decades in the making. They’ve been replaced with near-identical basic wordmark logos.
Last December, New York-based designer Mirko Ilic posted a group of newly revised logos by storied fashion houses in a before/after format on LinkedIn. Each of the half-dozen wordmarks were in uppercase, black on white and all using a typeface that was very much in the Helvetica New Bold range. Obviously, this sparked a large debate within the design sector. Shade was thrown and snarky comments flowed freely, with the wider community blaming ‘laziness’ and ‘conformity’. Even 90s designer, David Carson jumped in with “Wow. State of the industry…”.
Earlier in 2018, the release of Burberry’s rebrand by the acclaimed Peter Saville had caused design industry news hub Brand New to sniff: “It is no more different, nor more or less interesting than any other fashion sans-serif logo.” The review ended with, “Overall, the logo is as expected as it gets nowadays.” Ouch!
The ingredients of blandness
Plain sans-serif logos — what’s the problem, you ask? Jeep, Panasonic, Microsoft — they’ve been around for ages.
Well, a super simple mark or logo like that of Nike, Levi or IBM has a better chance of becoming iconic and living for longer. Especially when they’re paired with supporting graphics that make them instantly recognisable — that swoosh, the batwing, those stripes. They’re not as stripped down or conceptually barren as what we’ve seen from some of the emerging brands and rebrands.
Take the recent unveiling of the new logo for ASIC, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. The original ASIC serif wordmark, while staid and governmental, evoked heritage and trustworthiness beside its uninspired parallelogram logo. Now, the wordmark sits with the same logo in a botoxed, sans-serif font. This alone doesn’t speak of their objective to be seen as having ‘a finger on the pulse’, nor does it appear to have a rationale or greater strategy that accompanies it — nor any new supporting graphics or messaging. Taxpayers are no doubt wondering why they’ve shelled out $100,000 for the privilege.
So is all of this standard-issue blandness just currently trending, or is it actually a radical departure for an Insta-everything, millennial-tagged future?
Bland brands happen
We’re living in a tech-driven world, where brand experiences increasingly happen online. Perhaps ultra-simple design just conveys an authoritative, uncluttered user experience that’s more important than having individuality? Or does the need for scalability across different channels and user platforms make it less important to be likable or distinctive?
Samification and neutrality increase in our modern world, and perhaps is the inevitable outcome for brands. On The Observatory, Pentagram’s Michael Bierut noted: “There is this real unease sometimes, where people are being challenged to do something that everyone kind of intellectually thinks is a desirable thing called ‘differentiation’. All brands should look different, they should all stand out. But people actually only partly want differentiation, they want it up to a point.”
That sentiment is what happens in a room of stakeholders: everyone wants to be different, yet everyone needs to belong. With the increasing reach that is now available for communication, perhaps more brands will be aiming to be everything to everyone.
Bierut went on to mention that, as with fashion labels, everyday brands crave to appear as if they’re never trying too hard. Simple, effortless. Which certainly describes the latest spate of branding.
Does this feel similar to the demise of the music album? Many of us will remember buying albums partly for the mesmerising visuals and messaging.
Emotional bonds were formed and memories were etched. Eventually, the album went to CD format. Smaller, but still manageable as far as creating lasting impressions. Move to today, where users get a visual tile when they click on a song in a streaming app. Does anyone remember what the latest Post Malone cover looks like?
Is this where brands are headed?
Who will protect me from being bland?
One of the first (and most exciting) tasks for a new or evolving business is creating its visual identity. This identity helps consumers understand what your company is about, and what you hope to achieve with it. Are you light-hearted, tech-driven, motivational? Do you have a vision that’s greater than the product itself?
All this emotion is built through, colours, typography, graphic imagery and the jewel in the crown: the logo itself. With the aim being to stand out in a crowded market space and connect with customers.
And as we’re seeing on some occasions the traditional logo is becoming less important, less of a showpiece for brands.
What you need to remember regardless of how you play your direction is: does this go back to your brand strategy? Your brand strategy is going to [wait for the metaphor] act as your roadmap when it comes to deep decisions regarding all your assets, actions and certainly the blanding of logos. You may even find that a kinetic technology-based, interactive brandmark was just what you needed all along.
You can help us (and help yourself)
Small and medium businesses and startups have never needed credible, independent journalism and information more than now.
That’s our job at SmartCompany: to keep you informed with the news, interviews and analysis you need to manage your way through this unprecedented crisis.
Now, there’s a way you can help us keep doing this: by becoming a SmartCompany supporter.
Even a small contribution will help us to keep doing the journalism that keeps Australia’s entrepreneurs informed.