Distinctiveness in design

15th February 2021

My favourite quote in advertising comes from the great Bill Bernbach, who said: “If no-one notices your advertising, everything else is academic”

You can put the most motivating message in front of exactly the right people the optimal number of times, but if it gets attributed wrongly or worse just glossed over then it hasn’t worked, period, as Bill might have said.

And what’s true for advertising is also true for branding. All the product quality in the world counts for nothing if you’re not recognised on the shelf, be that in the physical or virtual world.

Because as Byron Sharp points out in How Brands Grow, the more ‘mentally available’ a brand is, the more likely we are to buy it. Our brains don’t want to work any harder than they have to, so if a brand is quickly recognised it’s a good thing. The cues we deploy to make brands recognisable are known as distinctive assets. Simply, this is the stuff you’re known for.

When I was being taught how to write brand essences we called this stuff the iconography of the brand, the facts and symbols that are most readily associated with it. The iconography of Coca-Cola, for example, includes the shape of the classic 6oz. glass bottle, and the Coca-Cola logo. These are so familiar that we don’t need any copy on this ad to know who it’s for.

Distinctive assets are important. The more recognisable they are the better. Which is why Coca-Cola, for me the best-managed brand of the last 100 years, haven’t messed with their logo for a long, long time (I’m ignoring the aberration in 1985).

Distinctive assets are particularly important if there’s value in your brand being timeless, or if your brand lacks tangibility. If, for example, you’re a luxury brand, or a technology brand. Which makes the changes to their logos these brands have announced recently a bit of a mystery:

Apparently, if you’re a luxury fashion brand the rule is that you should transform your well-established logo into your word marque expressed in sans-serif capitals. And if you’re a tech-focused brand you should do something similar, but instead of caps you should use a rounded, again sans-serif font, preferably in sentence case, or even better entirely lower case.

As someone on Twitter said the other day, it’s as though capitalism is getting depressed.

More likely, serifs and keylines do not always render well on screens, and brand experience in most categories is increasingly mediated through screens, so simplifying logos like this does make some sense. But while it may make brands marginally more accessible on screen, the trend for flat design in branding has dramatically weakened the impact of the brand’s most important distinctive asset, its logo. Berluti looks like Balmain. Burberry looks like Balenciaga. And they didn’t before.

Of course, there’s more to distinctiveness than a recognisable logo, but more often than not the logo is the focal point for the brand. If a logo becomes generic the brand loses distinctiveness, becomes less mentally available, and ultimately is less likely to be bought.

Other categories operate with very different cues. Deathfest is an annual festival of death metal in California. Not my cup of tea but the poster for the 2015 event says a lot about the power of distinctive assets.

First, the trend in death metal logos is less flat design and no serifs, and more the band’s name written in what I’ll call Spider Gothic. This font is so bizarre it’s more or less illegible, but if that’s how the metal heads like it then more power to them. By and large though, these logos look completely interchangeable. Whatever most of these bands are called, they’re operating without a pretty important distinctive asset.

There’s a convention for death metal logos, but following it rigidly has an adverse effect on mental availability and therefore on preference.

One band decided to go it alone however. Party Cannon sound like Wolf King or No Altars (I know, I listened to all three of them) but they look completely different. They’re so distinctive it’s not funny. (Well, it is quite funny but you know what I mean).

But they’re also so far away from the category mainstream that they risk losing relevance, the other critical requirement of any communication. If your average metal fan doesn’t know Party Cannon, they’re unlikely to think of them as a band for people like them based on their logo.

So where does this leave us? Being distinct? Being relevant? Trying to be both? Well, perhaps making the distinction between brand and category might help.

As consumers we remember more about categories than the brands that constitute them. We all have an idea what ‘insurance’ is but I bet few of us could spell out the different propositions provided by insurance companies. So part of the job is to reflect category norms – the vocabulary of what we all understand by ‘insurance’. But the way that vocabulary is expressed by individual brands – the tone of the brand – should be as distinctive as possible. We need to be familiar in the context of the category, but distinctive as far as the brand is concerned.

Finally though, there’s a caveat. Picasso said “the chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense”, and while creativity in marketing exists for a different reason than creativity in art, the point is still valid. Sometimes, breaking the rules is the best way to stand out. But we all need to understand the rules first.