Has branding become boring?

(Image credit: & SMITH)

Recently, the logos of the world’s biggest brands have opted to go character-less, rather than character-full. Pinterest, Google, Uber, eBay and Microsoft have all stripped back, simplified and lost their ooomph. Indistinctive, inoffensive and strictly no fun seems to be the order of the day.

But it’s no longer just an issue with logo design (to avoid any issues with yours, see this handy logo design  guide). It’s branding in general. Once brands get established, risk aversion seems to drive the once-fun, opinionated and loveable start-ups down a more serious path. So why do our most successful start-ups eventually feel the need to be safe and conform?

Are we just biding our time until the likes of Oatly, Monzo and Habito opt for a more buttoned-up approach to attract a global audience? Does growing up mean you have to lose a lot of what made you great in the first place?

Why do brands lose their fun?


Will Oatly retain its light-hearted branding? (Image credit: Oatly)

When new brands are born they have the flexibility to play. They can take risks, be light-hearted, look different and divide opinion. They’ve got little to lose, so a fresh, alternative approach helps them stand out and engage with consumers.

But as brands develop they often find it harder to be fun and show their personality. They worry that it may isolate and deter potential customers. They feel the need to be seen as a safe bet, becoming more serious. And naturally the fun tails off.

It’s our role as designers to try and break this predictable pattern. Yes, there are times when we have to be more subtle, but what are we here for if we can’t have fun with our work and push our clients creatively? We need to reassure our clients that they’ve built a powerful brand with that approach – why change as soon as you become successful?

The same goes for the more traditionally ‘serious’ sectors. Just because you’re working in financial services and law, for example, doesn’t mean you can’t strive to be different or have fun.

Designers can bring back the fun


& SMITH learned how to have fun with their design (Image credit: & SMITH)

At & SMITH, we’re guilty of it too. Several years ago we partnered with a firm of solicitors on their new identity. We presented what we thought was the perfect brand for a legal team: quiet, trustworthy, reassuring, corporate. It was exactly what they didn’t want. The firm had built their reputation taking on challenging cases and doing things differently and wanted a brand to match. We tried again. And failed. And again.

And failed. So, we decided to start from scratch, trying to unsee and unlearn all that we knew visually about the sector. It felt like designing a funeral director’s logo in Comic Sans. It didn’t sit quite right, but we knew we had to get out of our comfort zone and have some fun.

We got there in the end. The job resulted in A1-sized screen prints with personalised logos for each member of staff. And although it was difficult to stomach at the time, we realised it was real turning point in & SMITH’s development and approach to branding in general.

We learned that it’s possible to have fun in a serious sector. In fact, there are brands out there actively searching for it. When you look more closely there are some brilliant examples where mainstream brands have found joy in the everyday. Take the McCafé ‘Flat what?’ advert, for example. It’s a clever piece of advertising that highlights just how difficult the simple things in life have become (like ordering a cup of coffee) and makes a joke out of it. It’s playful, lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek, but still looks and feels like McDonald’s.

Why should brands try to be different?

Dr Martens

Dr Martens' branding remains opinionated and strong (Image credit: Dr Martens)

Today, too many brands get drawn into adopting commercially led identities rather than those rich in character. And it’s too easy for designers and brand creators to follow trends with little originality or point of difference.

The brands that rise head and shoulders above the competition are those that stand for something. Being decisive makes for compelling brands, but decisive doesn’t have to be dull. It’s our job to open our clients’ eyes to the possibilities of design.

There are some great brands out there that have stuck to their guns going through growth and expansion but remaining opinionated, emotional, brave, fun and different. Brands like Marmite, Virgin, Channel 4, Dr Martens. Let’s hope in years to come these brands don’t become a rare species.

This article was originally published in issue 296 of Computer Arts, the world's best-selling design magazine. Buy issue 296 or subscribe to Computer Arts.

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Creative Partner & SMITH