When Snap updated its iconic ‘Ghostface Chillah’ logo last week with little more than a thicker keyline edge, no doubt the photo messaging app execs went to bed with other worries on their mind. Yet, much to their surprise the next morning, this seemingly harmless tweak to its core visual asset left the Twitteratti incensed; some even threatened to leave the app.
At first look the change was nominal and aimed at making the logo more visible and eye-catching. So why the furore? To understand why we need to delve into our subconscious.
Updating visual assets is a routine but important process many brands periodically go through to keep up with the Joneses, avoid looking outdated or simply express how the company is evolving – and more. These visual assets capture the brand story; a visual asset ends up telling more than a thousand words, instantly. It’s why brands invest in them.
Crucially, these are almost always the first interaction a customer has with the brand. It’s what your customers first attach to and over the long-term, may become loyal towards. Think of the simple play logo of YouTube or Spotify’s music wave. These interactions can be a fleeting subconscious pass or – especially when altered – a more interrogating inspection. Any update to a brand identity – whether a new logo, a piece of packaging or even a branded experience – must therefore consider both the conscious and subconscious ways in which people decode the changes.
There are some definitive neuroscience principles that are at play here which can help us understand how even modest design tweaks like Snap’s can rattle customers.
People decode the world around them through two distinct but related ways in how they process information in their brains: system one and system two. Most of people’s decisions on brands take place in the rapid-processing, ‘unconscious thinking’ part of the brain: ‘system one’ - even if we rationalise them sometimes in the conscious thinking system two brain.
System two is where most of our heavy-lifting learning takes place. Once we’ve processed in system two, it becomes encoded in system one – something instantaneous, automatic and subconscious. Much like learning to drive. At first it takes effort and considerable concentration; but after time we encode that learning to the point where driving becomes something effortless we no longer need to think about.
In the world of branding this means that we learn the meaning of the visual codes associated with a brand in system two which is then encoded in system one. This is what the neuroscientists would call learning by association.
This is why understanding what design assets a brand should use is so important – what may seem harmless to the conscious mind may be impactful subconsciously. The challenge for brands and designers is to ensure consumers are able to decode a brand instantly and automatically in system one, seeing it and understanding it effortlessly.
To that end, it’s understandable why Snap retained much of its previous logo, colourways and shape. Snap clearly wasn’t seeking a bold move that radically changes its core visual asset. The issue that caused the backlash is not that people no longer recognise their brand – it’s still discernibly ‘Snap’ - rather people seem to be having a visceral and immediate reaction to the change.
When it comes to brand design, ultimately God is in the detail. And that is because of what the neuroscientists call ‘Thin Slicing’, the process of finding patterns in events and interactions with things based only on "thin slices", or narrow windows, of experience. Our brains are capable of decoding huge amounts of information from very small slivers of detail. The thicker keyline may seem like a small change and onlookers may wonder what the big deal is. But the seemingly innocuous thicker keyline in itself has meaning, and in this case the shift in meaning from the thin keyline to the thick keyline is enough for people to reject the change. The logo certainly loses some of its modernity and elegance with the thicker keyline.
A key lesson here for brands is that what may seem one small step for design to the conscious eye can turn out to be one giant leap for the unconscious mind of your loyal customers or users who are used to digesting the brand in a certain way. It’s perhaps a harsh lesson, but it’s not one that can be overlooked, now that we have decoded it.
Vicky Bullen is chief executive officer of Coley Porter Bell.