2 Assumptions & a Puzzle.
Assumption 1: Change as the only constant seems to me the most natural (and inevitable) course of all things—people, places, ideas and even brands.
Assumption 2: The purpose of brand identity** is to establish an identifiable constant for a brand. I also believe this to be true.
Question, therefore: How do we understand and work with these seemingly divergent thoughts—one of embracing constant change, the other of establishing consistency in the context of brand identity design?
**Brand Identity, in this article, refers to a set of visible elements that identify and distinguish a brand, in the consumer’s mind.
An overtly simplified timeline of brand identity.
The earliest instance of marking one’s brand is often ascribed to the ‘branding’ of livestock, as early as the ancient Egyptians, with the simple purpose of differentiating one’s property. Over time, this simple act of differentiation evolved into a statement of ownership—for commercial, artistic and ideological communication. Together this constitutes what we may today consider as the most basic identification & differentiation functionalities of brand identity—this is me, and I am different from the rest. Over time and faced with more options, consumer scrutiny and expectation became more demanding, and brands needed more than ‘standing out’—they needed to connect to people with deeper meaning. Thus the need for identity to express ‘Why I matter to you today’ arose. This was an expectation for brands to establish their relevance in the lives of their audience in that moment of time. Relevance is an animal of constant query, shaped by continuous currents of change. Herein begins the necessity for brands to respond to change, and consequently for identity design to support the responsiveness to change.
Not quite a solution.
In the past decade or a little less, identity designers have widely acknowledged responsiveness to change as the mark of a brand being alive. However identity design solutions have often only scratched the surface with capabilities of flexible adaptation and changeable avatars. But the buzz around visibly ‘dynamic’ identities, often pushes deliberation on the identification and differentiation functionalities of brand identity, into the background. Flexible, dynamic identity systems need to be evaluated, in consideration with recall and differentiation. It can be an expression of change, but not necessarily a complete solution to addressing the idea of change for brands. The ability of an identity system to do multiple things, while often applauded for ingenuity, can also miss the mark and eventually dilute recall without clear directives. Simply put, it’s great that you can do an infinite number of things, but are all of them truly representative of who you are and what you stand for?
The most basic functionality of brand identity—identification and differentiation, cannot be ignored. If anything, it is today an urgent and critical need for brands. Media and content landscapes are filled to the brim, teeming with derivatives and loud. Brand experiences are scattered across multiple offline and online channels. Brand identity needs to create stronger adhesion and connectivity. But at the same time, it need not and must not be, a passive static entity.
A different way of thinking identity.
At first look the word ‘identity’ denotes ‘the same’. But a more insightful source is perhaps interpretation of the word as: oneness. Oneness as a series of connections, a consciousness that creates an identifiable sameness—rather than a fixed, unresponsive idea of sameness.
One of the ways in which we can unpack the potential of brand identity, is by thinking of its relationship with change. For all the blood and sweat of brand identity design, eventually it is content & communication which is the ongoing conversation with the audience or consumer. This is the conveyor of change and relevance for audiences on a day to day basis; it lives in the moment and changes in the next. In this scenario, the identity system becomes the framework which can hold change (aka changing content/communication), without losing brand consciousness or oneness. Neither restrictive & imposing, nor a free for all—this view of identity systems is one of structure for change.
The template is dead.
Identity frameworks for change require intelligence, beyond limited and restrictive capabilities of templates. Templates arise from the assumption that implementation is known and locked in for eternity, an assumption which is flawed at the outset while considering an unknown future. Intelligent frameworks for brand identity therefore need to capture how elements behave and not what they do. By creating elements with personality and behaviour, they can move into newer, unknown territories—like new audiences, markets or even media—without losing their core identity.
What excites me about this model, is that the starting point is really a query of what change means to the brand itself. Change tends to get addressed as a generic term, whereas just like people, different brands have different propensity towards, appetite for, pace of, and therefore expressiveness of change. This nullifies the formulaic approach to flexible, changeable identity systems, and forces a more authentic inquiry in design towards solutions that embrace change effortlessly, but are strong in their individuality and purpose.