Why some brand identities make you cringe

Why some brand identities make you cringe

When you stop for a brief moment, and let’s face it – a very brief moment, to look at a brand identity, there are some that make you nod approval and others that make you cringe. You know, that look on your face when nose and lips almost meet and your eyes squint.

What makes a brand identity cringe-worthy? Why can’t they all be simple and powerful like Apple, Nike, and FedEx; each telling a story well beyond the icon or tagline. After studying and creating various identities over the years, here’s a quick list of some reasons brand identities might make you cringe:

  • What is that? – These are the brand identities that you can’t even identify. They contain strange symbols, layers of “brand” elements, and iconic images that only a client would love. Typically, these are client-led ideas that nobody had the guts to say, “this looks like guts.” The remedy – listen to what the client meant, not what they said. And translate into an identity accordingly.
  • Size matters – Agency folks, especially art directors, for years have told tales about the client “wanting to make the logo bigger.” I’ve secretly sided with clients on this request because, after all, it’s important to know the brand anchor behind the ad, brochure, or other piece of communications you’re reading. Interesting that today, where digital media receives the majority of brand spend, identities are getting smaller and more difficult to read on social media posts, banners, and other applications. The remedy – brand identities need to be responsive (like websites) to adapt to the space that’s allotted. This means there needs to be flexibility built into graphic standards so different applications can be used for different spaces. You know the old saying, “you can’t stuff ten pounds of you-know-what in a five pound bag!
  • The lost symbol – If you stand on one leg, look in the mirror, and close one eye, you’ll see it! Just like the FedEx arrow! We all know these identity types. With the over 6,000 forms of messages, symbols, icons, and other forms of communications we’re exposed to on a daily basis, good luck getting someone to spend more than an eye blink trying to get the hidden meaning within your brand identity. The remedy – design a brand identity that identifies and supports the position/promise first, and if there’s an element of it that tells a brand story over time, or is lore at internal meetings, that’s great.
  • The blank slate – creating a brand identity is part of a brand strategy and should be developed within that context. Not on a design island all on its own. When your organization has determined the need to reevaluate its brand identity, it means you should be reevaluating your overarching brand position. What a great opportunity to use the brand identity as one element of bringing the brand position and promise to life! The remedy– don’t start with a blank piece of paper. It should be filled with research findings, goals, messaging considerations, and other brand insights that need to be taken into account when developing the identity.
  • The sea of sameness – those same turbulent waters that capsize ad campaigns also swell around identity development. When creating a new brand, use the opportunity to be fresh and different. To stand out in a crowded market. To differentiate. The remedy – pin up the identities of other brands competing in your market. Evaluate what makes them the same (colors, shapes, type, etc.) and include those in your creative brief. Encourage your designer to go outside the norm and consider new ideas that will make new waves in the industry.
  • The “two is better than one” – with all the consolidation taking place in most industries today, identities tend to have split personalities. Borrow a little from pile A and a little from pile B and, wallah, we have a pile! The remedy – instead of trying to create a Reese’s cup, capture key elements of the merging entities and/or the value of the new enterprise to develop something new. Of course, if it can be as tasty as chocolate and peanut better, bring it on.

I know there are other reasons some brand identities make you cringe. Feel free to add them here. My hope is that as a result of reading this, there will be one less snarled face out there trying to decipher the story, hidden meaning, or undifferentiated blob used as a brand identity.

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