16 Dec 2016

The challenges of brands going digital

They need to be both flexible and consistent if they are to maintain any integrity across the ecosystem.

Uri Baruchin, Strategy

Brand identities now spend a large part of their lives in digital environments. These environments offer both opportunities and challenges, but because identities rely on more established design principles, we don’t see as much innovation as we’ve seen in product design or interface design.

What are the key factors shaping brand identities in digital environments?



Intuition vs. difference

To keep digital interfaces usable, they must be intuitive and simple to use. Intuitive means familiar so that the interface can become transparent to the user. This creates an implicit tension within brand identities (and, in fact, any form of marketing communications) as these primarily aim to differentiate, surprise and set apart.

In fact, when you look at the identities of some digital natives with a strong ease of use at the top of the agenda, such as Evernote or Citymapper, you will find straightforward metaphors done with radical simplicity.

Getting a simple metaphor nailed down is a worthy target, but the simplicity agenda can also lead to cliché - to brands that have marques that are little more than blinged-up icons.

The solution may hide in the new opportunities that digital environments can offer...



Digital is interconnected and interactive

Brand identities have been traditionally created for a print-based marketing paradigm. They aim to create consistency across discreet channels. In the digital environment, channels are built as integrated experiences across interconnected ecosystems. It’s tough to predict which platforms users are using to view content.

To make matters more complex, users also engage with the content, share it and sometimes even reshape it. This creates a second paradoxical demand – brand identities now need to be both flexible and consistent, simple and sophisticated if they are to maintain any integrity across the ecosystem.



Digital moves and speaks

Digital allows for movement, animation, sound and interaction. This adds a whole layer of visual, audio and interactive behaviours that isn’t a part of a largely print-based static world. Yet most brand identities are still created firstly as static graphics.

The ‘Intel Inside’ sound, remains one of the most iconic sound branding outside TV. Mobile operator Three was one of the first pioneers of an animated logo but hasn’t done much beyond the logo. Xbox’s ‘heartbeat’ sound and animation is a fairly convincing metaphor for the gaming experience and exists both in digital communication and the device itself. Still – so far examples are few and far between and most of them seem like experiments limited in their scope.

The most outstanding example at this point is still Google. What started all those year ago as a fairly crude logotype, not only evolved and refined but turned into a whole system. It embraces movement to communicate – with the logo combining and turning into application apps, an own-able loading animation and a fluid style of movement between them that is full of personality, essentially turning the logo into an animated character. More importantly, it feels like the movement style makes sense not only as a reflection of functionality but a reflection of Google’s personality.

So, there you go – movement, sound, intuitive but unique, integrated and inviting. But what are the opportunities beyond?



Digital is technically demanding

Maybe the reason why brands haven’t made the most out of digital is simpler – the long list of technical requirements doesn’t leave a lot of space for innovation. Requirements for globalisation, localisation and accessibility. Resolution differences requiring identities to work well when scaled to smaller sizes than ever before. Current peculiarities such as common rectangular logos having to work well as squares which have emerged as the standard shape for social media avatars and app icons.

And so, while the first three points illustrate both challenges and opportunities, it may take more time – until a new generation of designers is so native to getting the technical requirements right, that they can find space for innovation and experimentation. Maybe the exciting brand identities that truly leverage these opportunities and flourish in the digital environment, not just as the business but also as iconic pieces of design, are yet to come.

In the meantime, we can see early examples. The Netflix identity creates a dialogue with TV and film while its layouts and movement are built for digital and work beautifully with the content. The Uber rebrand may have underwhelmed with the logo, but the way the interface pulses with the map while it’s connecting you to your next ride feels much more sophisticated than the simple ‘radar’ animations of most other taxi apps.

The digital environment presents a long list of requirements for brand identity design that designers and marketing professionals are just waking up to. It’s a whole new world of craft. But the amount of innovation is increasing beyond the ‘just make it simple and intuitive’ crowd.

This accelerated evolution must result in far more breakthrough work that is still yet to come.