The flexible future of branding and the death of the logo as we know it

Moving in with my girlfriend uncovered an unexpected irritation. Her penchant for owning all the cushions? Her eternal delegation of “the bins” perhaps? Nah, I can get over those things. It was using her Netflix account.

See, for some time now, Netflix have been personalising artwork used to represent content. They use complex algorithms, based upon past viewing habits, to try to generate a thumbnail image that might be most appealing to you. When logging onto my girlfriend’s Netflix account for the first time, I was met with a cacophony of garish typefaces, overlaid upon screenshots of lovey-dovey boys and girls. As an intelligent and successful lawyer, she has a guilty pleasure for all things, well… trashy. My viewing habits are of course considerably more high-brow. Kinda. I found myself scrolling through thumbnails for new shows that I knew — and might like — but not in a visual style that particularly appealed.

When I first learnt of Netflix’s thumbnail swapping antics, my mind was blown. Brushing aside ‘big-brother’ and fears for our personal data (as well as accusations of some rather clunky racial targeting), it’s hard not to be impressed. As somebody that works in tech, I’m astonished by the technical wizardry. As a user, I appreciate the value of a dashboard that’s designed to uniquely appeal to me. As a marketer, I enjoy the meticulous manner in which personalisation (a perpetual buzzword) is used to, essentially, sell more stuff. And as a designer, I’m encouraged by the value of visuals. That’s right; graphic design is powerful (as if we didn’t know already). Especially when used flexibly, apparently.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has pondered the potential of personalised graphic design. What if we start to manipulate other — traditionally consistent — brand assets? Different colour schemes? Different typography? Different interfaces? A different logo?! All based upon individual preferences.

Imagine a digital product that visually morphs to appeal to specific individuals. My mum hates deciphering dashboard icons — give her plain text. My dad loves navy blue and black — hello dark mode! My sister only buys from hipster artisanal brands — a nice textured brush-script logo please! Rudimentary examples perhaps, but the possibilities are endless.

Plau Type & Design have discussed the role that typography can play in a future where organisations adopt ‘Variable Brand Voice’. Variable fonts are presented as a first step towards greater graphic personalisation. In the concept below, they manipulate the Vogue logo to take on a range of different ‘voices’.

This is all rather radical when you think that traditionally, brands have gone to extraordinary efforts to present a single consistent identity. This has always made sense in a physical space of course; McDonald’s needs to ‘look’ the same in Birmingham it does in London, New York or Shanghai. It needs to be recognised by millions of different people in any given street. But, in a digital world, where we each have our own personal devices, mass recognisability is much less important. A brand just needs to be recognisable to me. Does a ubiquitous logo really carry value anymore?

Designers know that a logo is not a brand, and a brand is not a logo. It’s something much broader. Jeff Bezos is regularly quoted as saying “your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room”. A decent enough definition I think. A brand is simply an individual’s perception of a product, organisation or person. It’s different for different people, so should surely be presented differently.

The tech giants are acutely aware of this already. Amazon can use the data they have to send a different message, to a different demographic, about a different product, using a different brand ‘voice’. The likes of Google and Facebook have been tailoring personal feeds of content for years. ‘Logo’ is now almost irrelevant. The big guys have a thousand other brand assets that are far more powerful; flexible, personal channels that communicate to precise segments of a vast audience.

The malleable nature of digital brands probably explains the recent phenomenon of ‘blanding’. Just about every major tech company uses a simple sans-serif for its logo. Google, Spotify, Uber, Airbnb… they all look similar. This makes sense when you consider that these companies operate across markets far broader than any organisation has done before. Just as graphic designers of the International Style era favoured Helvetica for its supposed neutrality, modern brands chose generic wordmarks because they’re inoffensive to a broad audience.

For practical reasons — for the time being at least — brands must adopt a consistent logo and aesthetic. But how much longer will this last? And if the future is flexible, then forget logos; why not have a brand name that morphs according to its audience too? Wait a minute… share a [Coke] anyone?!

Homogeneous logos and personalised content are just the beginning. They’re primitive tropes of the first generation of ‘chameleon’ brands. There’s more morphing to come. I’m sure of it.

Now let me get to that pretentious art-house title on Netflix. A couple more movies and my girlfriend’s feed should be looking juuussst right…

The flexible future of branding and the death of the logo as we know it

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