Why is it that the marketing world seems to have suddenly sat up to declare the dawn of a new age of brand identity? The flurry of expert commentary on the release of Slack's new logo last week, and Mastercard's a week before (both what I would consider to be fairly unremarkable pieces of work) is not necessarily surprising to me. But the fact that these experts seem to be discovering the value of branding for the first time really is. Branding is a well-established and highly effective business tool that can help codify, unify, and connect audiences to a brand's strategy or story. If that feels like new news to you, then where have you been for the last 25 years?
Let's take a trip back to 1995. The consensus at that simpler time was that imaginative brand identities were both a compelling communication tool and a kind of visual glue to hold together execution across the marketing mix. Corporate identity design businesses rechristened themselves as brand consultancies and resourced themselves to serve that need.
Fast-forward to the early 2000s and it's true to say that the advent of digital disrupted this way of thinking for many, as brand owners' attention was deflected toward investments in these new technologies. Then the media landscape started reinventing itself and everyone started scrapping over how and where to invest their time and money in that. Meanwhile, content creators continued to battle for their own share of attention and found new ways to make and present their work. Ever since, that situation has persisted: a marketing maelstrom of competing ideas, executions, demands on time and money. It's no wonder consumers are confused.
It's not that branding became less important during this period, it's just that other things overwhelmed it as a priority. Despite this, many strong companies were wise enough to maintain their focus on branding, but all too many did not. But here we are now in 2019 and that seems to be changing for the better. Branding is resurgent and everyone seems to be waking up to that. I'm not sure that's a consequence of some moment of enlightenment so much as a further rationalization or shift in how marketing plays out. And it has something to do with the role of brands in social culture.
It used to be that brand communication shaped culture. In the '80s and '90s, that, for the most part, meant TV advertising. In the noughties and into the teens, cultural evolution became more driven by the utility of brands, hence through their online then mobile UX/UI. Now, the way that brands influence consumers' worldview is through a broader notion of customer experience--a holistic yet diverse set of things that have to effectively combine. It's not just about communication or even products and services, but extends to an understanding of corporate strategy and behavior, social and economic purpose, and ROI. People don't judge brands in bits any more, they judge them as a whole.
Where branding wins out in this equation is that it is the only part of the marketing mix that can stretch across all of this. It does this because--done properly--it is grounded in business strategy. And it is execution neutral. Yet it is also highly creative, with deeper layers of codified emotional meaning, richer yet purer ideas, and more wonderful craft than many other executional disciplines ever achieve. It creates evocative emblems that have real and enduring significance in people's lives in ways that TV commercials, websites, or apps never can. And it goes deeper too: Branding drives a company's innovation strategy and informs its culture, creating a positive feedback loop on the customer experience as a result.
In truth, I'm not sure that either Slack or Mastercard are particularly masterful examples of this--Slack in particular appears a bit flimsy to me--but they are certainly signs of the resurgent role that branding can play.
Whether it's something that you've realized forever or not, building brands in 2019 needs strong branding at its core. Re-branding isn't something organizations should fear but something they must embrace.