Man has always been a visual hunter. We get 90% of the information about our world through our eyes. At least that’s the way it’s always been. When hunting for food, primitive man would scan the savannah for signs of movement, for spoor or for tracks. For centuries we’ve relied on our eyes to navigate the world. Until now. Now we hunt online using search engines. Now we use voice command to find what we need. Back when we were visual hunters, branding best practices would dictate that consistency across all consumer touch points was essential. The logo has to look exactly the same on the business card, on the brochure and on the trade show booth. Likewise, the colors had to match exactly. Consumers were hunting for the products and services they needed and that visual consistency allowed them to recognize and identify their prey. Today, that consistency has to be extended to SEO and voice recognition. And it’s being done to excellent effect by Ford Trucks and Dennis Leary.
At some point in your brand’s history you’ll have to determine what sort of visual identity to employ. Should it be all sweetness and light, with pastel colors, heart shapes and curlicues? Or should it display large, aggressive color blocks of red, black and white, with big, bold typography that demands attention? Should your brand be a peacock or an eagle, or some other bird altogether? It’s a serious discussion because decision makers will use these visual cues to determine whether or not to let your brand into their lives. You have to remember what purpose your customers or clients have for you. Your product or service is a tool that they use to achieve something. What is it? Whatever their purpose is for you, you have to look like you can fulfill that purpose.
The City of Santa Clarita was first incorporated back in 1987 when I was a freelance graphic designer. Almost immediately the new City Council announced they would commission the design of a new logo to represent the city. As a resident, I was excited. I knew my portfolio was good, plus I had done volunteer work for the campaign to incorporate. I thought I had a good chance of landing the job so I eagerly attended the City Council meeting where the new logo would be discussed. That evening I looked around the room, wondering who was there to compete for the logo and who was there for other city business. Finally, the agenda item came up. A councilwoman, much respected for her tireless efforts to achieve incorporation, began speaking about what the new logo would have to express. There would have to be a house to represent our residential community. There would have to be a factory to represent business. There would have to be an orange tree to represent agriculture. There would have to be an oak tree to represent strength and heritage. On and on she droned, listing item after item that were must-haves, all to appear in a space that, most often, would appear no bigger than your thumb. My heart sank as I realized they didn’t really want a logo. They wanted a city seal.
Logo. Logotype. Mark. Wordmark. Corporate identity. Visual identity. Brand identity. Trade dress. What exactly are we talking about here? The jargon can be confusing to the uninitiated. Even graphic designers will disagree about what some of these terms mean. So let’s start at the beginning. The activity of branding is the creation of a love affair between a market and something that needs to be marketed. Whatever the marketable asset is – business, product, service, event, campaign, project – it needs a sound brand strategy from which to launch its marketing campaigns. Otherwise, those campaigns will not succeed. When the marketing message goes out, the market needs to recognize who is sending that message. They need to know, like and trust that messenger. They need to feel they share values with that entity and that it belongs in their life. They need to have genuine feelings for it. And, since human beings get 90% of their information visually – before reading a single word – the marketable asset needs to communicate who it is and what it’s about graphically. It needs to harness colors and images and shapes to establish an enduring “place” in the market’s mind. At least, that’s the way it used to work.
Comic-Con 2018 ended last week. It’s an annual, orgiastic celebration of a certain sliver of pop culture, the kind that originates from comic books or other forms of serial storytelling. Fans reveal their truly scary fanaticism by engaging in cosplay, crafting elaborate costumes for themselves so as to “become” their favorite fictitious character. Then they scurry about, eagerly searching for collectibles or attending panel discussions or getting selfies with movie stars. It’s easy to dismiss these people as nerds with too much time on their hands. But one thing you have to give them – they’re creative. When fans of a popular franchise – say Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings – get tired of waiting for the next installment, they sometimes take matters into their own hands. They write stories of their own and publish them online. They draw their own comic books. They even film their own adventures of characters they’d like to see more of, like Boba Fett or Tom Bombadil. Of course, these franchises have their corporate overlords who employ squadrons of attorneys to squash anyone who dares violate copyright laws. But it’s a weird dynamic when you’re sending your brand police after your own best customers. And here’s the thing: As more and more non-entertainment brands attain cult-like status, they’ll start running into the same issues. How to prepare?
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