Brands that move at the speed of culture

Macleay College Advertising students recently attended an AGDA event, “How to make brands and influence people,” presented by Chris Maclean, Creative Director of Re.

1_coverMaclean believes the term ‘branding’ has become so nebulous it’s lost all meaning and is even a dirty word in some circles. Even the design industry struggles with the concept, confusing ‘Corporate Identity’ with ‘Brand Identity.’ To make matters worse, the world is confused about branding; both clients and audiences alike.

Your average cabbie, worldwide, has long been considered a good sounding board for community sentiment. With equal measures of humour and frustration, Maclean shares his regular attempts to explain what he does for a quid without saying he ‘just’ makes logos. A good analogy is that a corporate identity (beginning with the logo), is like wearing a uniform, and the brand is more about the personality under that uniform.

Maclean believes that brands are living, breathing entities that should be built to evolve and meet the changing needs of people. Modern brands are “expressive personalities that attempt to influence how you think, feel and behave.”

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Chris Maclean was “shi#*ing himself.” In 2011, as Creative Director of Interbrand, Maclean was about to launch the Telstra rebrand.

In The Australian, Sydney reporter Mitchell Bingemann had not been kind: “Telstra’s new $3m logo puts critics off colour”, and “It really seems to be a dilution of a powerful brand,” comments conveniently attributed to an unnamed “senior brand design specialist.”

A household name, we’ve probably all heard worse descriptors than “shi#’ used to relay a typical Telstra customer experience. Telstra was keenly aware that many of their customers were ‘hostages,’ and that “more people buy from us than ‘like us.’” Notwithstanding, CEO David Thodey’s mission for Telstra was “to become Australia’s ‘most loved’ Telco.”

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In this environment, Telstra had the seemingly impossible task of re-emerging as a brand relevant and engaging to everyone from a tween to a government department. This realisation was instrumental in the decision to introduce a six colour system. With colour, Maclean had extra levels of emotional flexibility to play with, from hot pink for a teenage girl toting birthday cash, to deep blues for bureaucrats and contracts.

One can only imagine the pitch required to sell this to the decision makers. He laughs at his cabbie’s efficacious summary, reducing the extent of his three-year project to having “just changed the colours, six times,” and that he “didn’t even design” the Telstra logo. By then he truly wished he’d booked an Uber and was instead enjoying his own music, the complimentary water, and mints to boot.

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Maclean takes us on the journey of the branding creative. After months of strategic planning, design work refinement, and celebratory launch, the project culminates in a design firm handing over a collection of digital artwork (brand assets) and guidelines to the company and their ad agencies for ongoing implementation. At this point, Maclean feels heartbroken and ready to capitulate – “Maybe I am (just) ‘the logo guy.'”

Reflective self-assessment leads him back to an ongoing exploration – how can Advertising and Design play nice together? He sets the scene: for consistency, designers want to build visual glue for brands. Conversely, advertising creatives don’t want to be restricted by static visual communication as it becomes featureless wallpaper. If a brand stays the same in a changing world, it loses relevance. So, while adhering to strict brand guidelines, how does a brand stay relevant and engaging?

Maclean’s discovery of the collaborative ‘middle ground’, is his innovative compromise that enables design and advertising to “play nice” together. The solution is explained with a simple graphic featuring the ‘core’ and the ‘playground.’ Maclean outlines a scenario where the brand agency creates the brand essence at the core, which remains consistent and stable. The playground is a large area orbiting around the core which allows the brand to remain relevant and engaging.

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To use a successful brand as an example, Apple (of course, though image shows Nike), has a notorious solid core (no pun intended). No other brand has managed to deliver such a consistent brand experience and any changes in the delivery move at a glacial pace. Yet, when they need to ‘circuit break’ the market, they elegantly but deliberately step into the playground and shake up the space. For example, the dancing silhouettes of the 2004 iPod campaign.ipods

Maclean’s model is entirely appropriate for a landscape of digital disruption, and brands that move at the speed of culture.  Relevant brands are in beta state – alert and focussed. They need to evolve, and as brand designers and strategists, we need to build in flexibility.  Maclean likens it to a ‘Creative Thinking’ exercise: “Listen, think, create. Repeat”.

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Chris Maclean and ‘Re’ are currently hiring: “Design Directors, Senior & Mid-weight Designers, Motion Designers, Strategists, Account Managers.” Get in touch hello@re.agency  These roles are all suitable for graduates of the Macleay College Advertising & Media courses.

In a follow-up post, Julieann will review Maclean’s theory that “brands have the power to change the world.”

jules-stripesJulieann Brooker is a lecturer in the Advertising & Media Faculty at Macleay College. Study options include a Diploma of Advertising & Media, Diploma of Digital Media, BA Advertising & Media and BA Digital Media.

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