Dispatch from TYPO Berlin 2017: Branding needs to be iconic again

Day two of TYPO was also the first ever day of Brand Talks, a new program that brings brands and agencies together onstage. And the message was simple: Branding has to become iconic again.

But what does it mean for a brand to be iconic? Perhaps another word is enduring. Brands no longer have total control over their image. Customers are as much a part of a brand as they are consumers of it, which puts the responsibility on brands to create an identity that is as flexible as it is durable.

Michael Johnson kicked off the day’s Brand Talks series on that exact topic, telling the crowd to “define your brand before you design it.” He explained there is a tendency within brands to skip ahead and begin shaping a brand without doing any thoughtful, deliberate investigation into what the brand identity will be.

This process involves asking fundamental questions about your brand. What are we and how do we do it? Who are we here for? What makes us different? What’s our personality? And most importantly, why are we here? “If you haven’t got a reason to be,” Johnson said, “you’re in trouble.”

Customers can see right through a brand that skipped this work. Your brand is “going to be taken by everyone and spread around,” said Heinrich Paravicini of design firm Mutabor, “and it needs to remain itself.” A brand or campaign that is devoid of depth won’t survive in today’s connected world, where negative feedback can spread like wildfire (see, eternally: Pepsi).

A brand or campaign that is devoid of depth won’t survive in today’s connected world.

Paravicini described bringing that approach to a rebrand for the Bundesliga (German football league). “Bundesliga had to go global and the design had to go with it,” Paravicini said. “That meant being flat, flexible, fast, and iconic.”

The result is a new, simplified brand identity, including a new typeface, that works across devices, languages, and can adapt to the different color schemes of each league club. The rebrand is endlessly adaptable while remaining consistent and instantly recognizable—the definition of endurable.

Take the best of what’s old and make it modern

It’s also incumbent upon brands and designers to realize when they have something iconic to begin with. 

Justus Oehler of Pentagram discussed the tendency for designers to redesign something just because they can, and in doing so disrupt the relationship between the brand and its customers. Instead, Oehler said, “Designers must protect, preserve, and restore good designs whenever possible. We designers should know that good design is rare.”

Designers must protect, preserve, and restore good designs whenever possible. We designers should know that good design is rare.

Oehler detailed Pentagram’s recent work with Mastercard. The company’s logo is one of the most recognized in the world, Oehler said, so the challenge for Pentagram was to update the look without disrupting what worked.

The solution was a simplified logo that highlighted the company’s distinctive overlapping red and yellow circles, as well as a new font developed with Monotype. “Take the best of what’s old and make it modern,” Oheler said, and the Mastercard project accomplished exactly that. Pentagram retained the distinctive logo and added flexibility so the identity can be used across all digital environments, print, signage—everywhere Mastercard appears.

“Corporate design is a snapshot in time,” said Strichpunkt designer Thomas Michelbach. “It’s a permanent work in progress.” Brand identities grow and evolve as the media landscape changes and customer behavior shifts. “Your people and fans are your best assets,” said Rema Gouyez-Benallal of Kiehl’s, who discussed her company’s work with Olapic to create a vibrant user-generated content program.

Each Brand Talks speaker echoed this same, simple truism: Ultimately, good branding means forming real, lasting connections with your customers. “Think of brands as a system that needs to work from the bottom up, not top-down from the brand police,” said the day's closing speaker, Thomas Mueller of Fjord. “Brands need to be created from the customer’s perspective.”

Videos of all Brand Talks, as well as additional talks from TYPO 2017, are viewable on the TYPO website.