Breaking Out of the Digital Design Echo Chamber


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 101 senior marketing decision makers across a range of sectors how they’re coping with "going digital."

Whether we like it or not, brands are hugely significant in how we navigate, even function, in our modern material world. This isn’t new: in 2,700BC ancient Egyptians used branding to differentiate one person’s cattle from another’s by burning a distinctive symbol into the skin with a hot branding iron. These days, branding is a little more sophisticated and a lot more prevalent. Consumers are inundated with around 10,000 messages a day, compared with only 2,000 messages 30 years ago. We switch between screens up to 21 times an hour and, according to Microsoft, the average person’s attention span is now just a disconcerting eight seconds.

The digital revolution has reached far into long-neglected corners of our organisations. That a big adjustment in how we present our brands is necessary is not in doubt. To find out if the marketing community agreed, 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, across all platforms and formats. Further, 77% (and 88% of those with the highest budgets) felt that brands face a significant challenge in retaining their authenticity and heritage when adjusting to the digital age.

It seems we’ve all read the same rule book, the same top tips and digital best practice and are following these guiderails so closely that brands are failing to generate the very thing every marketer says they want: a distinctive brand. A flurry of logo re-designs in the last couple of years have all followed the same trend: flat, graphic marques, lacking typographic personality. When coupled with the trend for bright, multi-colour palettes, too many brands have forgotten the power of single-minded, clear, differentiating design. There has been plenty of emotional internet debate about the topic, with many design and marketing professionals debating the decisions made by their peers to shed their brand’s distinctive identities. From digitally-native companies (like Google, Airbnb and Spotify) to iconic fashion labels like Burberry, Balmain and Berluti, there is a clear trend in logo design for tightly-kerned, geometric, monospaced looks.

The problem here isn’t just the shame 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 with the design refresh of Pinewood Studios last year, we worked hard to retain the core elements of a brand’s visual identity, while addressing its application in small, multiscreen spaces.

It’s crucial that designers are mindful not to get swept up in today’s visual trends when creating a brand’s identity. We call it “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 “digital brand” should look like.

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
Kath Hipwell, Planning Director