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Looking back to go forward

Dauntless design, liberalising luxury and Africa's coming of age. MD of The Brand Union – Johannesburg, David Blyth takes a closer look at the next directions in branding on the back of what's been happening in the market last year.

The Brand Union’s unusual identity is designed to reflect our positioning as becoming master brand builders, the elements shaped to look in a constant state of flux – advancing and receding – in the process of building (not built). The various parts – our markets, our offices, our people, our skills – represent a unified whole, while the colour palette – logical grey and creative blue – are complimentary dualities: strategy/creative, consultant/client, rational/emotional. We’re having a lot of fun with it, bringing it to life.

Sun Square, a new boutique hotel offering from Southern Sun, fits in the new category of Economy Premium, a category pioneered by the hotel group.
Emancipation of the logo
Arguably the most argued-about industry subject last year, the London Olympics 2012 logo generated spurious and furious debate from all camps. The unconventional logo was undoubtedly a brave move from agency Wolff Olins and, as purveyors of a new direction in logo design, they received a not unexpected backlash.

Front-runners but not pioneers, this approach of bringing logos to life to express the entire persona of an organisation has been dabbled with in the past by a few others. Notably, British Airways tried a few years back when it introduced funky tailfin designs for the aircraft based on Chinese calligraphy, Polish tower blocks, the Kalahari desert and Delft pottery. It's more notably remembered, however, for Margaret Thatcher's show of distaste by hanging her hanky over a plane's tail fin. A PR disaster, the UK's national carrier failed to align design execution with the brand's position in the public's mind.

A successful case in point is Sony-Ericsson's unconventional placement of the identity in their tag lines, working it into the meaning by assigning it the function of a verb. Instead of a mere full stop at the end of the name plate, the logo actively expresses the brand proposition. And it works. So too does MTV's logo which sees it applied differently in each instance, giving it a brand persona that literally and graphically speaks of innovation and movement.

But more importantly, the highly provocative London 2012 design brought the value of design into public conversation. Everyone had an opinion with equal numbers of fans and foes, judging by the reams-long threads on design sites around the world. But the repository of meaning has yet to be created.

However, it gave designers inspiration and confidence – indeed a mandate – to experiment.

Increasingly, in our sphere, we find clients asking for more freedom outside of the grid, wanting to change the rules in their visual language and application of corporate identity. This is progressive. Brave, some might say radical, but undoubtedly progressive.

And these aren't isolated examples. There is undoubtedly a trend here and we're going to see traditionally conservative brands experimenting with dynamic visual language. The rules are grey, the territory unchartered. And to succeed, it needs to be done on the back of rigorous analysis of the presentation of competitive offerings. The early adopter shoulders the risk, but it's a great pay-off it if succeeds.

Luxury Liberalisation

Firmly linked to the mega-trend of complexity, which sees the ‘moneyed' trading down to simplicity and minimalism, while ‘aspirants' trade up to luxury (whether bling or authentic), we're seeing massclusivity reach the market in a massive way. Think of her what you will, Britney is a savvy scholar of the dollar of mass appeal, as well as being a firm and shameless advocate of the fake designer hand bag; and her dutiful handbag toting disciples number in the thousands.

While it's a well-documented observation that the rich are returning to basics and downsizing while the have-nots-previously are aspiring to bling, it's noticeably exacerbated here in South Africa with a growing middle class with increasingly deeper pockets than 10 years back.

This Want- rather than Need-Economy, where image before basics is driving an entire category of growth in accessible luxury, offers astute marketers a range of opportunities for shiny new offerings. Mass-clusivity is the new black. But how are brands responding? Some, cleverly:
  • More accessible than Private Banks, Premium Banking offers pad the gaps between the middle class bracket and top tier wealth
  • Mobile phones are no longer exclusive items – everyone has a cellphone. But is yours equipped with 3G, a 3.2 megapixel camera, Bluetooth, WiFi and/or a combination of the above?
  • Even the gyms have started to segregate the perspiring bourgeoisie from the sweaty proletariat, offering über-premium facilities that cater exclusively to those who ooze mineral water and not tap.
  • The iPod, easily three times as much as another MP3 player that plays the same tunes, is a sought-after status symbol. Because of brand alone.
  • While cars have always been traditional status symbols, have you noticed how image-oriented the entry level car market is today as opposed to just five years ago? ‘Economy models' the Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Getz now offer the same bells and whistles as the middle range car of just a few years back.
The savvy brand manager should assess his/her brand or brand portfolio and look for opportunities to create new categories and sub-brands that can slot neatly between the gaps. Look for latent opportunity within your brand system to stretch up, down or cross-category. Better still, can you invent or own a new category?

New markets and new customers are not as far out of reach as you think.

Africa switched on

Long branded as the “dark continent” (a term that has new relevance of late, thanks to Eskom), there has been a tremendous upsurge in economic activity on the continent in the past two years. But our workings in Africa in 2007 have observed a distinctive competitive confidence in the African brand spirit. No longer perceived to be the poor cousin of the south, Africa is coming into its own with homegrown brands looking to – and having the competence to – export themselves to the world.

By this, we don't mean Africa as a brand, which still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of image. Still largely perceived as needy and aid-dependent, the West has as yet failed to see past this to our unique inventive, enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit. Or is that our fault for accepting the aid mantle?

But there has been a strong emergence of homegrown “African” brands that are confidently world class. African companies that we are working with, not considering our South African players, extend to as far as Nigeria, Egypt, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ghana and Kenya – to name a few. Unconstrained by the perceptions they are now helping to change, these organsations are stepping out of the Western archetype and are making bold statements, giving us as brand partner aggressive briefs to take on Africa and the world.

For example, Nigeria's financial giant UBA aspires to “be the undisputed leading and dominant financial services institution in Africa”. Egypt's leading investment house EFG-Hermes intends to become the Goldman Sachs of the Middle East, while Nigeria's Intercontinental Bank aims to be among the top five banks in Africa and in the world's top 100 by 2010.

There is a tangible confidence and thinking beyond Western models, exhibited in carefully considered mission statements that point to an aggressive confidence underpinned by competency, foresight and a belief in Africa's talent.

The lesson here is to not underestimate the competition on your door-step. For too long, we've been gazing over the horizon. But take a closer look at the players on your doorstep and factor in leapfrogging of the global players – in both your market – and theirs. South Africa would be wise to sit up and take notice, to not become complacent.

This bold sense of confidence is contagious. It's wonderful to be underestimated. Leapfrogging will be the next move. Watch this space!


This article was first published in The Brand Union's monthly e-zine CyanPost. To subscribe, please mail
5 Feb 2008 14:04

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