The world of branding demands a counterculture movement
Spurred by digital transformation and the's industry obsession with seamlessness, branding and brand experiences have grown entirely boring, argues Wolff Olins' global principal of creative Wayne Deakin. It's high time to shake things up and ditch the minimalism for something more real.
The Sex Pistols are back in the public eye with the launch of ‘Pistol’ — Danny Boyle’s streaming series and the debate about the future of the monarchy reignited by the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. All this got me thinking: why is so much modern branding so boring — especially online?
Just look around and see what’s happened over the course of the decade since digital took off. Today, we live in an era of not just digital ubiquity but digital saturation.
As individuals, we no longer ‘go online’ — we live our lives online, and no brand owner can afford to ignore this fact. Many brand owners have spent so much of the past few years adapting to this reality, evidenced by the widespread digital optimization of brands.
For proof, look no further than the path now being followed by so many — if not pretty much all — brands: the cult of three clicks. This approach to digital- and experience-design, predicated on the notion that users are frustrated by the expectation to click or swipe too often, is about designing out friction by designing in seamless, efficient experiences.
But there’s a problem: as a result of this shift, most brand interactions in the digital space — which are typically powered by the same technology — have become repetitive and boring. And as such, most brands have become uniform and bland.
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Some of the worst examples can be seen in the fashion and fast-moving consumer goods sectors, where too many brand owners build digital presences using the same technology platforms, and too many customer-brand interactions end up constrained within monotonous, formalistic three-click constraints.
Stick two fingers up to the sea of sameness
Advised by ‘experts’ on what is and isn’t ‘best practice,’ too many brand owners have drunk the UX Kool-Aid, and, as a result, have lost sight of what makes their brand different, individual and special in their misguided race for a service utopia.
This leaves brands catering for the logical at the cost of the emotional; they are swimming in a sea of sameness, their senses dulled to their purpose, their soul, their driving force. Instead, they shore themselves up with brand content, advertising and promotions to offset customer indifference and disloyalty.
This brings me back to The Sex Pistols. Today, as we move away from the worst of the pandemic, but see so much of our daily lives still conducted online, what branding most needs now is a counterculture revolution.
In short, what’s required is a culture with values and norms of behavior that differ so substantially from those of mainstream branding that, punk-like, stick two fingers up to three-click culture and overwrite the scourge that is simple brand design.
Brand owners must ask themselves: "Is my brand propped up by investment in content and advertising? Or is it standing on its own two feet before any promotion comes into play?" And if the answer to the first question is yes, which it probably is, it's time to stand up and do something about it or face the reality of being irrelevant.
Think beyond minimalism. By this I mean know your brand and what it stands for — then, rather than strip it back for digital with a minimalist approach, expand it through a more human approach to brand design to create real personality. Be it B2B or B2C, think human-first, not frictionless-first, by default.
At the same time, enable customers to customize their relationship with a brand by giving them greater ownership of the relationship. For example, build points of friction into the UX where it best aligns with a particular part of the brand story.
Ikea asks customers to build their own furniture for a reason — it wants them to be part of the process. Even Apple has now pivoted, wanting customers to be able to personalize more of the brand experience.
By not doing any of this, brand owners are missing a massive opportunity.
If I go to McDonald’s for a coffee, I want the convenience of an instant, in-and-out, frictionless experience. But when I go out for dinner to a Michelin restaurant, the last thing I want is a functional-focused UX with my meal before me in 30 seconds.
Great experiences stand out when things are done differently. It’s a human thing. Because as humans, we respond positively to efforts to treat us so and, even better, interactions designed to meet our emotional needs.
The same applies to great brands. The brands most willing to try new things, push the boundaries and take the counterculture path will more effectively leapfrog their competition, building greater customer experience. They will makes employee culture stronger, too. They will achieve all this without needing to lean so heavily on pricey promotion undertaken with the goal of offsetting declining brand relevance. The end result? Loyalty, recognition and value.
Wayne Deakin is global principal of creative at Wolff Olins.