In the quest to be ‘digital-first’, are we putting our brands last?


How has the digital revolution changed the way we build a brand’s identity? Given how much time (and money) audiences spend online and on mobile, we wanted to find out how modern marketers are handling the challenge of being on all screens at all times. We asked senior marketing decision makers how they’re coping with 'going digital.'

According to a recent Ofcom report, we spend an average of 24 hours per week on our smartphones. For the average 16-24 year-old, it’s 34 hours a week. Brands have been adapting to these changes in audiences’ behaviour, steadily increasing the proportion of their advertising spend to digital. But what about their brand’s visual identities? Do marketers need to worry about their brand’s suitability in a multiscreen, digital world?

To find out how the marketing community was handling the drive to digital, we asked 101 senior marketers from across a range of sectors and found that 89% of marketing decision makers thought brands faced a significant challenge in establishing a distinctive identity in the digital age. That statistic isn’t surprising when you look at the striking similarities between some of the tech and digital industry’s rebrands over the last few years: flat, graphic marques, fronted by a tightly-kerned geometric font.

There is some legitimacy to the argument that samey-ness of a number of tech companies’ logos reflects that sector’s attempt to codify what a ‘digitally-native’ brand looks like. And a number of the brands that fit this description also make heavy use of other elements in a brand’s arsenal, like a strong icon, identifiable user-interface design, and an ownable tone-of-voice. 

But it does call us to question if we’re now following the guiderails of “how to design a digital brand” so closely that some brands are failing to generate the very thing every marketer says they want: a distinctive brand.

That question is particularly relevant when we look at the recent flurry of fashion logo refreshes, many of which have abandoned their brand’s heritage identities in favour of simple, straight, sans-serif solutions. In a bid to be modern, have these brands lost some of what made them desirably different?

The marketers we spoke to admitted they feel the problem acutely, with 77% (and 88% of those with the highest budgets) saying that brands face a significant challenge in retaining their authenticity and heritage when adjusting to the digital age.

The problem here isn’t just one of logo design ubiquity. When we spoke to senior marketers about the impact of the digital design trend, 71% agreed that brands’ failure to develop a distinctive identity when adjusting to digital is harming their ability to stand out from their competition and cut through to consumers. Given nearly half of marketers also believe that a brand could add over 20% to its bottom line through a successful redesign, the financial impact of failing successfully to design a brand for today’s multiscreen world is significant.

The good news is that some of the best re-brands in the last couple of years have bucked these trends, creating truly distinctive brand identities that work hard in digital, while taking their inspiration from the brand’s own backstory, rather than the internet.

One of our favourites is last year’s re-brand of Shakespeare’s Globe (The Partners/Superunion). The multi-award-winning visual identity features a logo design that draws inspiration from the theatre's architectural form and a stripped-back colour palette of just three colours: red, white and black. Another great re-brand is the refresh of the iconic Guinness identity (Design Bridge), which bucks the minimalist trend, adding sharp design detail back into the iconic harp design, righting years of wrongs for that brand identity. And finally, with our re-design of crime brand 13th STREET, we took inspiration from the genre of crime and from the brand’s existing logo to create a series of identifiable brand imprints that work hard to stand out in small, multiscreen spaces.

At Red Bee, we talk  a lot about the dangers of the “design echo chamber”: that tendency to share the same ideas, look at the same references, and to come to a brief with pre-conceived notions of what a brand should look like. It’s our job to help our clients understand the code of their category, to be functional in digital environments, and to be distinctive.

So, if you’re about to embark on a digital re-design, mind you don’t get too caught up in today’s trends, and make sure that your brand’s refreshed visual identity is also a distinctive re-design.

Aileen Madden, Deputy Managing Director