Jump Up, Jump Out


Brand Strategy

Mike Scott


Potatoes are very rarely perfectly spherical. Planets are always spherical. At least compared to potatoes. The forces of gravity mean that matter over a certain mass conforms to a spherical shape. Somewhere between potatoes and planets, brands also hit a critical mass — where the forces acting upon them end up shaping them, to all look the same.

We have a natural tendency to look over our shoulder at what others are doing. But a brand won’t stand out by fitting in better than everyone else.

Customers have so much choice. You want to stand out by being more clearly yourself. You want to be distinctly defined by what is unique about you, rather than being the most typical.

If you pick a fight with your competitors over the middle ground of the sector, you win a shared, vague, middling space — not differentiating. And in the process, you inadvertently endorse all of your sparring partners.

Try an image search for ‘financial services logos’. You shouldn’t build a brand identity that fits neatly into the set of logos that fill your screen.

The answer is obviously more nuanced than ‘do what no one else is doing’ but it gets you somewhere close.

Some sectors are bigger culprits than others. ‘Tech logo’ shows you exactly what you don’t want to do for your new tech brand, similarly the sub set ‘Fintech logo’.

There are sectors that have typically done well at investing in timeless or unique brand identities, such as TV channels. But still, as a barometer for how a brand shouldn’t look, feel or be, it’s a pretty good yardstick.

We all have a vague, broad-stroke, childlike impression of each type of company or brand. These are the kind used to portray brands on film and TV. It means that Big Global Bank can appear instantly and unquestionably as Big Global Bank when it’s required by the script to appear as Big Global Bank in its brief bit of screen time.

It would be easy to make an allegory with the short attention spans of customers. Why not create a brand in this way, get the instant read? The problem is that Big Global Bank, or more likely BGB, as the sector would inevitably have it, is anonymous and general, it has no customers, no context, and no competition.

The tendency towards the general is part of the same non-mysterious non-phenomenon that leads to all TV ads for high street banks being somewhere between familiar and interchangeable. So much friendly lovely saccharine softness. The friendliest bank, the friendliest lender. ‘We’re you’re friend, you’re our friend. The community is our friend. Hello? Friend?’. You might want a great mortgage, not a friend. When you buy your house, you can invite your actual friends over.

First Direct, with both their visual and verbal identity, lovingly and thoughtfully break the rules for their sector, and are having great success. All black and white, lots of type, a playfully straight tone, brave in its simplicity and directness. On Siegel+Gale’s index of brand simplicity, they’re top in banking and score very high overall too. In a recent independent survey of UK banks, they came top when consumers were asked which bank they would recommend to friends and family. Pretty good given the sector’s continued issues with transparency and mis-selling.

This is also a nice proof that it’s not only fashion brands that are bold, simple, black and white, and sophisticated.

So, just like the fundamental laws of physics break at super small and super large scales, why is it that the rules for designing a brand don’t seem to apply to the big brands? What’s really happening is the opposite: the brands that jump up, jump out. They’re more distinctive from the get go, and a little more likely to get big.

The urge to neatly fit in may come from a basic, and basically understandable, form of conservatism, where only the truly bold and rich brands feel comfortable being themselves.

Brands can skip this, and resist the urge, by defining a clear purpose, a mission, vision and voice that are authentic to it. A position based on the reality of its people, beliefs, and culture. And with it, a creative expression that is its own, not borrowed. Not from a blockbuster film.

Maybe it’s just this:
– Don’t look too hard at peers
– Resist the urge to be comfortable and to fit in
– Find the brand’s real meaning
– Reflect the brand’s real meaning in every possible moment
– Be a potato, not a planet

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