Design Is a Driver of Transformation

How pioneer and legacy brands can leverage design to remain relevant

Culture, values, behaviors and attitudes. Everything we do and engage with is changing at a rapid pace. Pioneer brands, investor darlings and legacy stalwarts are suddenly falling by the wayside, losing relevance and share at an increasingly fast rate.

Making your brand "future-ready" can be daunting—let's not underestimate the challenge. At times, it's a reaction to increased awareness. For example, Aunt Jemima had been under scrutiny for years, but it was the BLM movement that helped the brand radically transform through reinvention. Sometimes becoming future-ready can be a total structural remodeling of the business or its message. We see this in the case of Abercrombie & Fitch gaining relevance again. And sometimes, it can be a proactive investment for the future, like when we helped Palmolive dish soap rebrand with their new sustainable structure and less harsh, more natural formula. Becoming future-ready takes commitment and bravery. Smart brands take their values and do something meaningful for their consumers' lives.

We know rediscovering one's "purpose" or role is a pivotal first step, followed by defining character, values and personality. Those are the critical strategic foundations. But what about the outward expression or design? Visual identity, portfolio architecture, language, product innovation and overall experience play a critical role, too. How can brand owners make the right decisions and avoid the paradox of choice? You could stay too close and risk no uptick, or risk throwing away precious elements in the proverbial "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." For us, successful change comes down to three foundational elements.

Character at the Core

Character is an often overlooked or misunderstood asset. It is the keystone of your brand. It's a source of strength and the bridge between what it is on the inside and how it shows up on the outside. Character impacts the role of the brand beliefs, values, principles and actions. It is unique and should be treated as such.

Resist the temptation to borrow from category peers. Look within the brand and unpack four key parts:

  • What is at the core, what makes it special?
  • What drives it, what is its purpose or motivation?
  • What kind of energy does it put out to the world?
  • How does it form relationships or bonds with others?

Design is the extrinsic manifestation of your Character; the outward personality. Though, despite being used interchangeably, Character and personality are not the same. When defined with refracted clarity, Character is the filter by which all aspects of the brand or organization (internally and externally facing) get measured.

The big idea? 

Character, along with purpose, behavior and personality, should inform the recurrent creative theme or mantra that runs through the whole brand experience. The idea should be culturally relevant to your design target and will guide every aspect of the brand ecosystem. If you are true to your brand self, then the outward expression will likely be more idiosyncratically unique. That's real authenticity. Be brave and be yourself. Avoid the pitfalls of category mimicry.

To express its new purpose of Feeding Clean, the creative mantra for this legacy global natural pet-care brand, Nutro, was "pure, vibrancy, fresh." Fresh cut ingredients on a clean white marble background became the core asset that reframes Nutro and its promise to a new generation of pet parents.

Finding the Hidden Gems

Define design assets that are a reflection of your brand. Let's not forget that transformation isn't about starting from a completely clean slate. Instead, go mining for the existing nuggets that make your brand unique. There will often be a gem or latent equity that still has some emotional connection with your design target. These can be refined, repurposed or reinterpreted as powerful assets that imbue meaning of the brand experience. To uncover these valuable assets, deconstruct the target-facing components of your brand; everything from visuals, sensorials, experientials, key language, imagery and more. In exposing these "precious elements" (as we call them at Clarkmcdowall) to your design target, you will learn what is culturally relevant, what emotional connections they make, and what stories they tell. Additionally, this invaluable exercise reveals what is not pertinent and where there are gaps.

For example, the Doritos "sound wave" was a product attribute consumers didn't even recall despite its ubiquity. But in repurposing it as the "spark that ignites the moment," the new asset carries the meaning across the whole brand experience.

To meet the headwinds and shift in consumer values, Palmolive took the bold step to transform itself with a more natural formula and to stop using virgin plastic, but could not lose its efficacy equity. Rather than completely tossing the iconic yet dated hand-and-glass symbol, we reinterpreted it as a "Beacon of Optimism." The new mark suggests a power of performance and positivity in making good choices for the planet. The original green shade was tweaked to feel less artificial. For the brand mark itself, we discovered there was equity in the "a" and "e." All to say, you never know what gems are hidden in plain sight.

Transformation can be an anxious moment for our clients. We understand that. However, despite inherent challenges and perceived pitfalls, there are many success stories where design has been the key driver in getting consumers (or people, as we like to call them) to re-evaluate and re-engage with a brand or organization.

Pioneer brands such as Starbucks' Evolution Fresh have come back from the brink of being delisted, to outpacing category growth through a rebrand and redesign alone. The small but mighty Theo Organic Chocolate boasts a similar success story, as do globally reaching brands such as Mars Petcare's Nutro or even Burger King.

For legacy brands, the "relevancy window" is only getting smaller. Keeping up, staying ahead, and taking leadership back gets harder. But don't forget what made your brand special in the first place. Find the magic locked within and leverage the power of design to bravely transform.

To see more examples of brand transformation, check out our work here.

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