This Scenario, curated by Marco Magalini, creative director of MM Company, deals with the theme: Debranding & deheritage, why do brands simplify their identity? Welcome to Caleido, an inspirational diary, that narrates many stories: about creative people, trends, travels, objects. / Read the Editor’s letter here
Diary of: @magalinimarco
It is clear to everyone, in recent years many luxury brands – especially in the fashion sector – have simplified their branding, stripping away the graphic elements that characterised their logos or lightening the weight of their stylistic identity to make room for a more simplified and less “bulky” corporate image. Apart from expressing a personal opinion of an aesthetic nature, or the result of a “sentimental” attachment to a brand that perhaps made us dream for years, what we have to ask ourselves is: why to change? I speak about fashion because it is one of the sectors closest to me, but this reflection also comes after more mass market – and therefore more impactful – debrandings such as that of Burger King or McDonald’s, which have reversed course, discarding the details and three-dimensional depth of their coordinated images in favour of a simpler, flatter identity.
Returning to fashion, which has always been a forerunner of macro-trends, from a media point of view the main rebrandings (logo changes and partial disaffection with the stylistic identity that has always characterised the fashion house) are the response to a new creative directors’ desire for change. He/she wanted carte blanche on the stylistic path to be taken, requested and obtained a lightening of the identity pressure of the heritage. By simplifying the logo (debranding) or even wiping the slate clean of the brand’s digital archive (removing all the posts on Instagram prior to his/her arrival).
All this under the incredulous eyes of the brand’s ‘aficionados’, who did their utmost (and accounts such as @oldceline, later closed down) to hastily salvage what little they could of the old brand identity. Apparently only an accent had been removed from the logo (I’m talking about Céline), but in reality we all understood that that small, insignificant, minimal graphic sign would have anticipated a complete upheaval. Never before had an accent been so important and considered.
What opened the way were some exciting changes, one above all that of Yves Saint Laurent (I’m writing this pre-debranding) which abolished the famous interweaving of initials and the name of the founder Yves. Or that of Galliano, who changed the name Maison Martin Margiela by removing the Belgian designer’s own name. Raf Simons as creative director of Calvin Klein continued along the same path, as did Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga, with a Univers Bold Condensed that invaded every garment. They were followed by Fendi, Givenchy and Burberry with Riccardo Tisci, who modified the font following the Sans Serif trend.
All these changes initially generated the disappointment ‘of the system’, or at least a sudden attention towards a ‘writing’ that until then had never been questioned (or perhaps never even noticed so closely), risking creating for these big brands a sort of risky ‘bad feeling’ and sometimes stylistic disorientation. So I come back to the main question: why run the risk of change?
There have always been changes of creative directors, but this has never entailed such a radical change of image (apart from a few isolated cases, such as the Tom Ford chapter at Gucci). In fashion itself, there has always been an obsequious respect for the founders, and consequently for their visible legacy on the brand, the logo. So, as a creative consultant, I can only ask myself: why have things changed now, and all at once? Why have brands suddenly agreed to break with their past?
I can find at least 5 explanations:
1) It is the personality of individual creative directors that creates the hype. In a landscape that is increasingly rich in proposals, and in which customers are culturally more inclined to change and experiment, many brands have realised that today’s customers will not remain loyal to them for the sole reason of their stylistic identity in continuity with their heritage. Instead, they will continue to buy the brand for its ability to create hype in the marketplace (i.e. to keep the public’s attention and expectation of the brand high). So that focusing on your own archive, or your own iconic style, will not achieve that. To do so, you have to be willing to change and experiment, and therefore invest in the personalities of new creative directors, capable of shifting the scales to the aura surrounding the brand rather than the products themselves. So why keep a logo that pulls on the side of history? It would go against this objective: better to clean it up and make it neutral.
2) Simplicity inspires trust. For many customers today, brand snobbery is no longer attractive: instead, customers are attracted to brands that are inclusive and open, and that inspire trust by operating in a real, honest and simple way. They are looking for a more personal connection with their core brands and this approach has turned the power dynamic on its head: rather than consumers proving themselves worthy ambassadors of a brand, a brand now has to prove itself worthy of its customers. So taking a step back with one’s ‘ego’, through debranding, is a strategically correct move to get a message of greater simplicity and equality across.
3) Less logo, more real value. The difference between premium brands and more commercial brands is no longer a question of style, but necessarily of quality. In the creative Babylon of brands, where the increasingly relevant personalities of individual creative directors override the stylistic DNA of brands, more and more buyers are placing emphasis on the value of what they buy. The challenge for brands is therefore to find new ways to deliver value to a consumer who is becoming increasingly cynical. This means that brands need to make a clear change of direction: make a public retrofront on the heritage/logo issue, and start a massive storytelling on quality and real brand values (such as sustainability).
4) Professional logo, reliable brand. In an increasingly digital world, where physical contact with the products we are going to buy is more and more distant, we often find ourselves evaluating the reliability of an unknown brand from its brand identity. We buy a pair of shoes on a new e-commerce website we found on Instagram, or we book accommodation we have never seen in person through a new ‘in vogue’ app. What we are looking for in that e-commerce or App is a feeling of reliability, which we assess through its professional image. That’s why for these new brands, modern start-ups, having a professional logo (and therefore simple, clean, and without too many graphic games) helps customers to trust it more.
5) The logo has to fit in 16 pixels. This is the least passionate motivation, I realise. But nowadays, corporate identities have to live in very tight spaces. Brand designers have to make their peace and live with the ‘mobile first’ philosophy, as a logo is nowadays seen more from a mobile phone screen than from a giant billboard. A logo, if too aesthetically complex, will be difficult to read when applied to a 120-pixel button or a 16-pixel browser favicon. Identity must therefore give precedence to functionality.
Only time will tell if this ‘little black dress for all occasions’ will last, or if these simple logos will make way for much more detailed, complex and personality-rich branding. Or if “even” the creative archives of the founders will once again become the privileged source from which to draw the stylistic dogmas of the brand. I firmly believe that branding should always communicate the essence of a brand’s long-term vision, rising above the volatile and transient demands of the short term. It should express the deep identity, the link with the original values, and keep the beauty timeless.
But to continue to convey your message you need to maintain an interlocutor: to remain influential in the eyes of your customers is the conditio sine qua non, and to do this you need to adapt to them at all costs, even if it means giving up (perhaps temporarily) the emphasis on your logo.