From Global Blanding to Greenwashing – Trends in Brand Visual Language

brand visual languageHow Trends in Visual Language Impact the Interpretation of Meaning for Brands
As the world spins faster, technology and information accelerates towards the speed of light and the ocean of marketing and brand messages roars ever-louder, we continue to sharpen our ability to filter. We filter ads, we filter web sites, we filter emails and Facebook invitations, we are becoming highly attuned at high-speed information filtration. One of the tools we utilize for filtering is pattern recognition. As we form our views and preferences, we use cues that identify ‘good messages’ from ‘bad messages’ to help us make educated guesses as to what we should explore and what we should ignore. These cues relate to our senses of sight, taste, touch, smell or hearing. By committing the cue to memory we create ‘somatic markers’ – points of meaning by which we can assess related cues quickly and efficiently.

When it comes to the visual language of brands, our somatic markers work in the same way. All brands have a visual language which is centred around the brand mark and includes brand colours, typefaces, photographic style, packaging, retail interior styling – in fact every visual element that represents the brand combines to form it’s visual language. A well designed brand is one where every single element of it’s visual language communicates culturally consistent cues such as a sense of tradition being communicated by as serif type face, or a certain colour of green indicating environmental credentials.

Often visual cues are anchored in authenticity. We understand that Pasta traditionally comes from Italy, and so associate a pattern of Italian visual cues with superior, authentic pasta brands. When Apple’s iPod exploded into a global revolution of cool technology, it created a new somatic marker in the minds of millions of people around the world. A swarm of me-too technology and music brands sprung into action, mimicking the lowercase iPod phonetics in both name and visual language.

In this way trends in the visual language of brands form over time. Sometimes trends are driven by a powerful market leader like Apple and other brands that dominate their market, other times they’re driven by significant social factors across markets such as the global financial crisis, an increase in standard of living and personal wealth or maybe an environmental issues like global warming. Whatever the driver of the trends, they tend to spread in a similar fashion; as market leaders adopt a certain visual language, other brands sit-up and take notice. Initially this can be localized, but eventually it reaches a tipping-point, accelerated by the global spread of visual language via the web. Usually, at their origin, trends have both relevance and freshness, a new look for an organisation that is communicating a unique brand proposition through a combination of culturally understood cues. However, as the trend becomes more wide-spread, organisations and their designers begin to adopt the visual language of a trend without understanding the inherent meaning. This is the point where effective brand communication becomes ineffective trend following.

For this reason, trends in brand visual language can either provide an organisation with great opportunity to leverage relevant cues of meaning that have wide-spread currency and momentum, or a brand image that lacks relevance, meaning and unique visual properties the brand can own. Our trend report tracks the major trends impacting brand visual language and provides organizations with the context to make an informed decision on which trends offer opportunities for their brands and which do not.

An example of a trend that offers great opportunity for positive leverage for relevant brands is the trend we’ve titled ‘The Signature’.
Part of the wider trend of Authenticity, the trend towards the use of a signature in brand visual language has regained popularity. Growing from a base of established signature brand marks, over recent times we’ve seen an acceleration in this trend, possibly as a response to the GFC, which has seen consumers turn back to brands with trustworthy and traditional values. This visual language trend is well suited to brands with claim to an artisan or craftsman proposition, brands wishing to take a boutique positioning relative to their competition, or brands wishing to link their current values to a historical or founding figurehead.

An example of a trend that has become so wide-spread that we now see many more poor examples of its application that good is the trend we’ve named ‘Global Blanding’.
Global ‘Blanding’ is the homogenization of brand visual language that we have seen occurring in brand identity design. Like many trends, it was started by re-branding of some of the largest global brands including; Xerox, British Telecom, AT&T, HP & Mastercard, before being picked-up by a multitude of second and third tier, medium and small enterprises. This visual language trend now winds its way across almost every conceivable category from telecommunications to airlines to petroleum, to sporting teams and fast food.

Global ‘Blanding’ describes the trading-in of unique and usually meaningful symbolism for a shared and meaningless visual language of spheres, colour blends and transparencies, and three dimensional shapes. Whilst the visual style achieved by combining these elements provides a sense of ‘international or globalization’ often combined with a suggestion of ‘cutting-edge technology’, this is typically achieved at the expense of individuality, brand differentiation and brand messaging. This is not only the strongest trend identified, but also the one we believe to contain the greatest risk of compromise to brand differentiation and uniqueness. Due to over-use and mass misuse this trend has the potential for inappropriate or confusing visual messaging.

What does this mean for Brand Owners, Custodians and Managers?
Whilst the first step is ensuring the visual language of your brand identity is communicating the right cues to market, trends in brand visual language also impact powerfully – both positively and negatively – on the associations your market connects with your brand. Once the code of your brand visual language and the relevant trends are understood, negative associations can be avoided and positive ones leveraged your advantage.

By not investing time and energy into understanding your brand’s visual cues and the impact of trends on brand meaning, you can be confusing and eroding the value of your brand messaging. Of all brand management and brand building activities, gaining clarity around these critical drivers of brand communication must be given primary importance.

Click here to download a complete version of our 2010 Brand Visual Language Trend Report (6.8mb pdf file)

This article was written for and published on the Superbrands blog.

Dave Ansett, Brandamentalist
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