The Drum Awards Festival - Creativity

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Marketing Brand Strategy Rebrand

Style and substance: why award-winning rebrands can flop in the real world

By Jennifer Pyne | Brand engagement director

Radley Yeldar


The Drum Network article

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August 24, 2023 | 7 min read

Part of the branding game is about winning awards. But if your branding team has both eyes on the prize, they might just forget to make the brand work in the real world, says Radley Yeldar’s Jennifer Pyne.

A row of pencils, all of different colors

Too many award winning rebrands are ineffective, says Jennifer Pyne / Jess Bailey via Unsplash

When it comes to brand and visual identity, the design industry has a heavy bias toward awards. Whether it’s D&AD’s coveted Pencils, a mention in the Creativepool Annual or indeed securing one of The Drum Awards, recognition in this circuit dominates the agency body politic.

Work that wins awards tends to be provocative and innovative, embracing the latest technology trends. This recognition is as important for the self-actualization of design teams dedicating themselves to this painstaking craft as it is for inspiring the industry. The periodic beauty parade celebrating new work breathes life and energy into the daily grind of working in an agency.

Indeed, it’s not unheard of for designers and creative directors to spend more time and energy on case studies and award submissions than on the client work itself. But there’s an unspoken, ugly truth at the heart of this dynamic: some of the sexiest brand design work – the kind that wins awards –doesn’t really work on a day-to-day level. Long after the awards ceremony hangovers have dissipated and the Under Consideration comment sections have quieted down, someone on the client side is struggling to figure out how to actually put their glossy new rebrand into practice.

Good for whom?

The recognition problems that can come from kneejerk, radical total rebrands like Twitter-cum-X have been talked to death in this industry. But there are more nuanced challenges with attention-grabbing rebrands that perhaps people aren’t talking about enough. Case in point: the Natural History Museum’s recent full rebrand is fresh, transformational and modern. But how is that nouveau-impractical neon palette going to work across various media, particularly from an accessibility standpoint?

While awareness of the importance of accessibility has grown, too often we still see instances of it being ignored for form over function. And even when it is considered, it’s often limited to being digitally compliant but forgotten in more traditional formats like print and physical environment spaces.

Glassdoor’s new ident is also somewhat divisive. It builds off a good, simple idea but falls into the tropes of what is expected in the start-up/tech sector rather than properly exploring the strong, single-minded observation that comes from the new logo. Perhaps more problematic, the illustrative device in the visual identity means it’s impractical on a day-to-day basis. Continual investment will be required to sustain it. If a brand leans heavily on a photography or an illustration style, guidance should explain how the business can continue to use this effectively once they are no longer supported by the agency and in a way that is budget effective.

The sexy-practical continuum

All brand jobs sit on a continuum from expressive to pragmatic. The sexier end of that spectrum is needed to inspire higher-impact communications, like advertising campaigns, films, and stunts. But when brands get the balance wrong, the pragmatic end becomes an afterthought, and day-to-day applications like social media, internal communications and PowerPoints suffer.

While these elements don't always make a fantastic or award-winning case study, they are often where a corporate brand is used most and where it lives and dies. Powerful visual identities aren’t an either/or scenario; they nail both ends of the spectrum. Our recent rebrand work for United Nations agency ILO and sustainability NGO Unearthodox are two examples where as much care and attention was given to practical templates and executions as high-impact elements like the logo and graphic devices.

While agencies love it when clients come back to them for ongoing brand work, it’s neither practical nor sustainable to scope an agency for every ongoing brand application. Clients are becoming savvier to this and are rightfully demanding that their brand be turnkey, functioning effectively for employees who are using it in day-to-day applications with little-to-no design skills of their own. A strong, comprehensive set of brand guidelines is a critical way to make sure the expressive translates to the pragmatic.

The temptation to reinvent your brand identity is strong, particularly with so much amazing inspiration out there in an industry that salivates over awards. But, as Burberry learned the hard way, if you ignore the practicalities of who’s using it and, ultimately, the audiences you need to engage with it, awards and industry praise could come at the cost of your client’s business strategy.

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Marketing Brand Strategy Rebrand

Content by The Drum Network member:

Radley Yeldar

Radley Yeldar is an award-winning, independent, London and Birmingham-based creative consultancy. Our 200-strong team of specialists has been helping to create a world that believes in business for over 30 years, through a unique blend of business and strategic integrated services – including employee engagement, reporting, sustainability, brand positioning and identity, purpose and more – all brought to life through film, campaigns, experiences, print, digital content and platforms. Evidence times inspiration is the new formula for success in a changing world and everyone needs something to believe in. So let’s get started.

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