Reflections on 20 years. Part 4: The future of branding
21 October 2016
Mytton Williams is celebrating twenty years of business in 2016. It has been quite a journey. So, to capture and reflect on our story, and mark this important year for us, we’ve collected together twenty thoughts on our twenty years. This is the final part in our series of four articles. We started with the changes that have happened since we began. Then we revisited some mistakes and lessons we have learned. Last time I offered five pieces of advice to my younger self on running an agency, and here we close-out with our eyes on the future. In these fast-paced times it would be naive to predict another twenty years ahead right now. So instead, here are some of the trends we see that will affect the next 3-5 years in branding and how we are dealing with them.
The role and value of brands is now understood by most business people. Alongside that, general access to computers and the internet means that designing is open to everyone. Photoshop used to be specialist software, now it’s commonplace. Building a website used to require coding skills, now we have Squarespace. We all walk around with video capability and a quality camera in our pockets. And the reality is that, with basic understanding, people can create and build the brand materials they need to a perfectly adequate standard. Who needs a design agency anymore?
As design professionals it would be foolish to ignore this. The tools and templates to create materials cheaply and quickly just keep coming and the quality of them keeps improving. So as designers, it is important that we focus our services on where we continue to bring value. As well as providing outside expertise, we increasingly work with clients to guide their in-house options. We work alongside to sharpen projects that are taking shape, we offer a variety of training for client teams and we connect clients with our wider network of contacts. In this way, our role shifts to being brand collaborators with each client. Our work becomes less about controlling the production of every piece and more about partnering with specialist advice and guidance.
Creativity is at the heart of what we provide. Clients may handle more of the ongoing implementation, but we explore, structure and test initial ideas so a brand will work at different scales and across all the channels. And because those options are becoming more diverse and complex, the creative foundations of a brand have to be robust. Today’s brands have to move and speak as well as sit on print materials. Next on the agenda is adapting brands for virtual worlds and augmented reality. It’s not just playing with the latest novelties. Creativity is needed so brands can embrace these changes but with a clear sense of purpose and difference.
The success of creativity is about connecting with customers – the magic spark. Which is why user-centred design thinking is central to our involvement at the very beginning. Asking the right questions and revealing the best insights is a key part of our process and capitalises on our external perspective and independent position. Developing these into clear narratives is as important as translating them into the visual logos and layout styles. And as communication campaigns blend and personalize to provide customers with seamless brand experiences, tone-of-voice and story-telling is increasingly the route to being remembered.
At the other end of the design process from the creative ideas and insights is the crafting of the delivery. As the general quality of brand materials goes up, the details separate good branding from great branding. The fine tuning is not always appreciated and sometimes not even consciously noticed. It takes time and resources to go the extra mile. Especially in the further stages of projects, when pressure to deliver is mounting, it becomes all too easy to leave it out and save it for another time.
But it’s the details that can make a design, and in a world of increasing choice and noise, it’s investment in the details that will give brands the leading edge. This is where our experience as professionals has a level of impact beyond the online tools and templates. Decades of learning and daily practice across numerous sectors and situations means we have the skills to craft the details. From designing bespoke letterforms to knowing when to break the rules, we bring our twenty years of knowledge to the table.
A core brand message needs to be consistent and it needs to be true – authenticity wins. But being authentic is getting harder as people tune-out marketing messages and the perceptions of businesses change. This is accelerating in part because of the much talked-of Millennials and Gen Y coming through into the workplace. Senior people making decisions about branding can be a generation, or more, removed from their younger employees or customers. At the same time business is changing. Global-minded social entrepreneurs are creating new business models. They are brand-aware, tech-savvy and lead with values – a highly compelling mix that is giving some established businesses a run for their market share.
Larger companies that had the money to invest in branding used to stand out. Having budget is no longer the main factor. Brands that lack substance and relevance, regardless of size, will struggle to cut-through. With so many changes happening, it is easy for brands to get stretched in different directions and lose consistency. Challenging our clients on their core purpose and strengths is important. It is not a time to be complacent. Companies need to review and assess the authenticity of their brands or risk competition coming from a new direction.
We have always been about designing beautifully simple solutions to tricky business challenges. It’s the challenges that change (and we like a new challenge), but our drive for simplicity remains. In a world of ever-increasing complexity not everything needs be simple, because complexity can be necessary too. People seek real experiences and increasing levels of participation with brands, and that form of relationship is complex. But simplicity and complexity work together, so first we seek to understand what’s going on to get to the heart of the issues – the simple truths.
Unnecessary complexity, confusion and lack of structure in a brand is often the problem. What has worked well in the past might no longer be appropriate – be prepared to start anew. We look for opportunities to experiment and try alternatives, with concepts and visuals to help people understand. Good design is about providing structure and conveying meaning. Simplicity is about removing the meaningless and adding the meaningful. In these changing times, knowing the difference (and when to stop) is the hard part.