Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Why the new look?

Back in 1985, we undertook perhaps the most instructive branding assignments of my career — creating the look of “New Coke” and for the return of Coca-Cola Classic.  My partner Ron Wong and his team designed both.  To announce the formula change we put a “New” flag on the packaging — a pretty common practice.  Before we knew it, the public had incorporated the flag into what became a pejorative single identity.  New Coke is considered among the all time greatest marketing blunders.  Others have been blamed, but it was the company’s CEO, Roberto Goizueta, who ultimately pushed the reformulation forward.  Sweetening the brand’s iconic recipe came in response to its multi-year sales slide in self-service outlets.  In quickly admitting their huge mistake and restoring the original formula management did what few companies ever do.  Need-to-know security had been so tight that we were given but two weeks to create New Coke graphics; the subsequent decision for a super fast response afforded us only thirty-six hours for Classic (the designation added because the Coca-Cola name had been transferred to the new product still in market).  

The challenge in creating the return graphics was to confirm and reassure that the cans and bottles contained “The Real Thing”.  Hoping to convey more youthful modernity, packaging graphics in the preceding years had headlined Coke deemphasizing the traditional Coca-Cola Spencerian Script.  New Coke packages followed suit and for the same reason.  For the relaunch, and to offer reassurance of authenticity, we recommended doing just the opposite.   Now the Coca-Cola script logo dominated with Coke taking a back seat.  The relaunch was a massive success.  The brand, with its antique trade dress, took off resuming the leadership it had lost.  I learned many things from that assignment including that consumers take ownership of the brands they use, but perhaps even more important a deep respect for the equity and value of an established brandmark.

Inventor John Pemberton’s partner Frank Robinson created both the Coca-Cola name and script brandmark in 1886.   Aside from modest refinements, it has remained essentially unchanged ever since.  Over time a product’s brandmark can become as valuable than its name.  The cursive rendering of Coca-Cola exemplified that when it helped save the brand and the company.  Using the iconic script made all the difference; to paraphrase another brand’s tagline: it was and remains priceless.

Google is a trademark of Google, Inc
I couldn’t help thinking of my Coca-Cola experience when Google announced a change in its ubiquitous brandmark.  That may seem odd since one is a century old and the other less than two decades.  But in the Internet age time compresses and Google’s visual identity is seen many million times a day, both at home, at work and on the go.  It took the Atlanta beverage company many years to reach as many consumer eyes.  Yes Coca-Cola may refresh, but the multifaceted knowledge enabled by Google sustains — it’s not a momentary sugar high.  What is most puzzling about Google’s change is that if you know anything about typography the new logo comes off as a generic downgrade.  Of course, esthetic appeal can be subjective, so you may well feel differently in that regard.  Design is a tricky business, especially when it must uniquely convey the essence of a company or product/service.  Hopefully, a brandmark will reflect well on both.  There are many ways of achieving this, but among them is to put forward the unexpected or even a surprise.  Google was rendered in a serif (more traditional) typeface, consistent one might argue with the seriousness of delivering authentic information.  But the bright multi-color letters were unexpected, a clear statement that finding information can be easy and, yes, fun.

But I’m not really talking here about design per se.  In fact, had Google introduced itself with its new logo, I might be arguing in reverse.  It’s not the typography, but the equity.   Now don’t misunderstand.  There are times when a company should absolutely consider changing a brandmark.  For example, when the brand no longer accurately expresses what it is meant to identify, say a dramatic change in the offering or company’s product line or direction.  Logos and even names can change when something has gone terribly wrong or when ownership changes or a merger takes place.  You get the point; there should be a substantive reason.   Getting tired of the “old look” may motivate “updating”, but unless there is some real upside to change, it’s a poor excuse of a reason.

We all know that Google’s founders have decided to reorganize the company and also that they have been turning their attention to other non-search products and ventures in the recent years.  They are dreamers in the best sense of the word and we wouldn’t have this great information tool without that.   At the same time, one senses that, despite being the source of their wealth and the underwriting of new exploration, they may have gotten bored with Google.  At least, that’s what a generic looking revision of the brandmark may be communicating.  And, one wonders if they even considered the New Coke case history with its dual message of visual equity and consumer ownership.  Those who protested New Coke essentially felt that the company had taken “their” beloved product away from its real owners.  Has the management of the company taken away “our” Google, signaled that its identity no longer has value?

I’m sure that wasn’t and isn’t their intention; I certainly hope not.  We are living in an era where changes can be made with a keystroke.  That’s what makes our time so exciting, especially since we are so often in command of the keyboard.  But unreasoned change is also unnerving and more importantly can be devaluing.  I know what Google management said to justify this change, but frankly I’m not buying it.  Like many of you, hardly a day goes by — sometimes an hour — when I’m not doing a Google search.  The new graphics won’t keep me from doing so, but neither will they command any loyalty if something better comes along.

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