Chris Moody: Why brands should get a bit more Rive Gauche with their identities

Recent identikit rebrands for fashion houses have left many design commentators asking if brand identity is becoming boring and predictable.

The short answer is no. Identity is as rich, vibrant and provocative as it’s always been, if not more so. Look at the stone cold boldness of Collins or the balls-out weirdness of Sagmeister & Walsh. There’s plenty to applaud and revere.

I would argue, however, that creative briefs have got a bit dull. Far too often they are contrived, rational, and super pragmatic. They’re a wish list dreamed up by committee. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, they espouse limitless possibility but can end up turning out to be a rigorous set of rules with unbendable parameters and a predictable ending.

A good designer always rewrites the brief and guides clients to new and unexplored territory. But an overload of insight, testing and consumer feedback can be the unwitting enemy of differentiation.

Just look at Brexit. What do people want? At best, kinda what they already had. Or, even worse, a smoothed out facsimile of what they thought they once had. Design and, in particular, fashion should surely be showing people the things they could never imagine.

The meme doing the rounds at the moment of the recent rebrands of Burberry, Balmain et al shows how these brands are visually aligning around a sans serif, monolithic and monotone look and feel. It's the uniform of the modern corporate behemoth. It’s grown up. It’s the equivalent of an LBD or a sharply cut suit.

But it’s also a canny marketing move. Buffing the edges and sanitizing using uppercase letters helps ensure a broad audience. By having a more generic master brand, the product range and audience demographics can - in theory - be more diverse.

When it comes to fashion, the truth is that as long as each season’s range is bold, fresh and eye-catching, it matters very little what your label looks like. In terms of identity, give me a Kenzo or a Loewe over Tom Ford or Saint Laurent every time, but if we’re talking about the actual threads, Tom and Yves have the edge.

The real problem’s in the brief. The rationale for these ‘updates’ and ‘refreshes’ is, to a degree, coming from a place of fear. Fear of restricting growth and diversification, fear of putting people off. Fear of standing out and looking a bit daft.

Naturally, it’s fitting that some brands will adopt minimalist identity thinking, but once all our fashionistas start doing the same, we all have reason to be concerned. We need to move away from the assumption that modern always has to equal crisp, clean and clear. That decoration, ornament or oddments are wasteful in the land of retina screens and 4K TV. If everyone starts wearing the same clothes, life will get very flat very quickly.

‘Modernising’ a brand should be about reappraising heritage and backstory so it works better for today. Reinvigorating DNA for a new generation. Channel 4 is a textbook example (though even they have perhaps gone a bit too Marie Kondo with their latest refresh, with a 'logic-over-logo' architecture).

Modernisation may very well take the form of simplification, rationalization or just plain old tightening up, if it’s truly relevant to what the brand now needs to do. But it’s important that updating might also be about adding vibrancy, tension or the just the unexpected.

Brands should stand for something and stand out – like Patagonia whose brand is built on saving the planet, or the weird and wonderful Thierry Mugler. Doing this through a friction-free experience, unique interface or one-of-a-kind product is important, but if you want a share of hearts as well as a share of mind, a brand must stand apart from the everyday.

Chris Moody is the global chief design officer of Wolff Olins

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