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Why design needs to develop brakes in a fast changing world

It’s hardly surprising that we are obsessed with change. Life feels less like being on a travelator and more like being on a roller coaster while wearing a VR headset showing a sci-fi movie. There is a sense of everything changing – massive global cultural movements, technological advances, and the rapid transfer of ideas. What kind of marketer wouldn’t feel the pressure to keep up, to evolve and to make changes? Change becomes something we worship as our only defence against being left behind.

Many elements in the marketers’ remit are not easy to change, or at least the road to change is a long one. But design is often something that we can change quickly. And what’s more, design changes are an incredibly visible aspect of a brand so they are an overt and external signal of change and keeping up with the times.

Yet it is the fact that design is so visible externally which makes design’s role in the building of a brand’s distinctive assets so important. Distinctive assets are the things that make a brand instantly recognisable and memorable. They are the components that constitute people’s mental footprint of a brand and they are both unique to the brand and sticky (by sticky we mean how strongly they are linked to the brand by how many people).

Distinctive assets come in many shapes and sizes – they can include packaging, logos, taglines, colours, shapes, a look or feel (e.g. a website, masthead or an advertising style), fonts, characters, music, sounds, and smells. It’s easy to see that many of these have a design element to them, and indeed design is often the driving force.

Strong design is memorable and that’s important for a brand because it creates high salience (the memory of your brand and its linkage to other important memory structures), and some elements of the design become distinctively associated with the brand – they become what we know as distinctive assets.

We know that good design appeals to all of our senses, which enables it to speak to our emotions and get coded into memory structures. And we also know that perception doesn’t work like a camera. Instead, what we see is framed by our expectations. As a result, things that might seem very obvious to some can be completely missed by others, such as not seeing something that is right in front of you (it’s called having a ‘man look’ in my house!). So if a brand makes a major change to a visual component of its distinctive assets it may at best cause some cognitive re-evaluation and at worst may make the brand less salient.

Marketing history is littered with the consequences of packaging changes resulting in plummeting sales, despite the pack theoretically aligning with people’s current priorities.

If we are specifically trying to cause a re-evaluation of a brand, how can we implement design changes without losing valuable distinctive assets? The solution is to retain the triggers to our emotions that evoke the brand’s mental footprint, while adding the new cultural codes that are required to move the brand forward.

There are a number of emotions that distinctive assets trigger – the reassurance of familiarity, the warmth of remembered emotions around consumption, usage or purchase, the emotions uniquely associated with the brand (happiness, excitement), and the emotions that connect us to the brand (reinforcing self-image, feeling good about your choice, reaffirming your values) – and these are signalled by our senses. It could be a visual signal but, equally, it could be a sound, a smell, a taste or a texture.

Distinctive assets received through our senses are the unconscious signals in the system. It is identifying these signals that are key to enabling the design to add fresh ideas without diminishing a brand’s salience. Fortunately, there are effective research techniques to enable us to do this, which makes incremental change relatively easy if enough care is taken.

But what about deliberately non-incremental change, for example when a brand wants to shed previous associations and take on a new identity?  We’ve noted that our senses trigger emotions such as the reassurance of the familiarity of distinctive assets, so it’s not surprising that there are many examples of an outcry when brands change things to a significant extent.

Non-incremental design change which deliberately discards some (or all) distinctive assets can succeed when there is a significant and tangible change in the business and if there is a commitment to support the new design beyond its introductory period. Discarding distinctive assets means losing the history of sensory signals and the emotions and memory structures associated with them. So it is not enough to simply introduce the new design and assume it will become embedded like the old pack, website, logo or other assets.

The process of building new distinctive assets is like launching a new brand and requires similar levels of investment and consistency over an extended period. To imbue a new design with memory structures that will come readily to mind and evoke the brand’s mental footprint is a gradual process of consistently presenting the design along with other distinctive assets. Progressively these accrete and forge a new mental footprint that is relevant to the new brand identity.

The formula for success is to keep it simple and single-minded. Repetition of distinctive assets is the way to ensure that sensory signals repeatedly trigger emotions that become embedded in memory structures. Building memory structures takes time – neuroscientists believe it takes up to two years for these to become hard wired – so a design change of distinctive assets can set the brand on a two-year journey of single-minded reinforcement.

Yet marketing focus often drifts to other matters after a design change is completed. There is a danger that not enough attention is directed at evolving the design from being merely recognised or promoting awareness into a powerful distinctive asset for the brand with all the associations that are sticky to the asset. 

Colleen Ryan is head of strategy at TRA.  
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