From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding


We are currently witnessing a whirlwind of debranding — as corporate identities shed complexity and dimensionality to become simpler, sharper and flatter:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Although various forces are driving these debrands — from the vagaries of fashion to the constraints of mobile-first design — the most interesting is the power of flatter identities to become portals through which companies can project an infinite range of moods, flavors and messages.

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Of course, portals are not new. Absolut Vodka, to take a celebrated example, has for decades deployed its pharmacy-inspired bottle as a flexible stencil for an exuberant riot of executions:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Recently, however, a small group of hitherto sober brands have been exploring the full potential of portals and, in the process, tentatively transforming themselves into blends.

From Brand to Blend 

For generations brands have aspired to be magnets, spending vast sums drawing consumers to them like iron filings, there to be held captive by the world’s finest strategists, artists and technicians.

Blends take the opposite approach — overlaying themselves onto consumers and integrating themselves into their lives. This is by no means passivity, but a more flexible form of persuasion.
An interesting (if subtle) example emerged from a recent McDonald’s outdoor campaign promoting British home delivery during lockdown.

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Two interconnected elements of this work stand out: First, that the “golden arches” are so iconic that McDonald’s need not speak its name; and second, that the corporate glow dives into and shines out from the consumers’ window. In a departure from decades of Big Mac hero shots, or the virally pedagogical “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun,” McDonald’s now positions itself — with complete confidence — in the background.

A different blending approach was taken by Peugeot during its recent rebrand — the eleventh since 1850. While many noted that the new identity dislocated the lion’s head from its torso for the first time in 46 years, more significant was the decision to overlay the corporate crest onto the heads of its customers:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Such blending is not simply heraldic whimsy for, in addition to the standard marketing copy (“the Peugeot lion roars louder”), the company claimed

“This coat of arms opens the way to a brand ecosystem that is not limited to its visual identity alone. It carries within it a deeper change. A shift in stance; a new state of mind; a new lifestyle.”

*  *  *

If blending aims to integrate into and overlay onto the consumer — what of its techniques?

Blend = Brand ± Transparency ± Framing ± Bespoke ± Blur

Transparency • As consumers question the social, political and environmental impact of their spending, so brands have been forced to embrace transparency. This adaptation usually involves beguiling copy, accountable reporting and see-through packaging:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Blending sees transparency differently: not as a (defensive) window into the company, but as an (engaging) overlay onto the world. Such an approach works on a tactical scale, as with this intriguing campaign for the French supermarket U:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

And on the global stage, as with BMW’s recent transparent rebranding:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Although BMW explained its shift to transparency was driven by the demands of digital — and was “for brand communication only” — it also claimed the redesign heralded a fundamental philosophical shift: “BMW becomes a relationship brand.”

If BMW’s old logo was a “stamp,” the company told Design Week, “the [new] logo becomes part of the context.”

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

 This goal of contextual integration is shared by Nissan, which recently unveiled its own blended identity:

“In certain digital and video applications the logo will actually ‘come alive’ as it shifts and pulsates against a variety of backgrounds, allowing the logo to reflect today’s ever-changing environment and the flexibility needed to remain exciting, relevant and intriguing.”

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Framing • Whereas conventional frames delineate the edges of a work, blending frames intrude into an image: to direct the gaze, focus the message and claim ownership. Blended framing is elegantly illustrated by Volkswagen’s 2019 debrand which, among other innovations, introduced a flatter “floating” logo and a dynamic “moving frame.” 

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Volkswagen’s shift from branding to blending was more than hinted at in its corporate statement:

“The aim in future will not be to show a perfect advertising world. In our presentation, we want to become more human and more lively, to adopt the customer’s perspective to a greater extent and to tell authentic stories.” [Emphasis added]

Framing is also central to Heinz’s recent rebrand —  its first global visual consolidation in 152 years. At the heart of this new “masterbrand” is the company’s distinctive “keystone” through which any number of products and ingredients burst forth.

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Admittedly Heinz’s framing thus far is more old-school branding than new-look blending, but the keystone opens up a world of overlay options for the famous 57 — even if none is likely to be as bold as this Stonewall campaign from Absolut:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Bespoke • Because magnet brands are hellbent on drawing customers to them, personalization is often little more than mail-merge (“Dear ”) and lip service (“Your call is important to us!”). 

There are historical outliers, as Tom Goodwin noted:

But until recently, mass personalization was an oxymoron. Even Coca-Cola’s oft-cited “Share a Coke” campaign, which relied on national lists of popular names, was more “made to measure” than truly “bespoke.” 

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Technology is set to revolutionize personalization. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are already powering Amazon recommendations, Spotify playlists and Netflix watchlists, and we are only in the drop-ship foothills of print-on-demand, make-on-demand, 3D-printing and the Internet of Things. 

A swathe of magnet brands — from Nike and Gucci to BMW and Apple — are shrugging off conventional qualms of “brand dilution” by allowing customers to customize their products:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

And even retail rooted in physical presence may slowly evaporate to the cloud. You can already order custom footwear from your cellphone, and may soon be able to obtain remote robotic tattoos.

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

By meeting consumers in their own lives, blending enables brands to transcend platitudes and genuinely tackle inclusivity. For instance, both Crayola and Band-Aid recently launched new product lines intended to address the shame of one-skin-tone-fits-all:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

And online retailers are exploring tools that integrate every consumer — notably Brilliant Earth’s ingenious skin-tone jewelry slider:

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Of course, personalization is not without pitfalls. Targeted advertising is not merely annoying, intrusive and potentially fraudulent — it may well be a threat to democracy. Personalized pricing may encourage discrimination, gouging and rent-seeking. And because personalization is premised on personal data, blending comes at costs to privacy: Activity levels from your fitness tracker; psychiatric disorders from your mental health app; sexual preference from your movie selections.

It’s also true that talking blending’s talk is easier than walking its walk. The British bank Barclays recently launched a personalized campaign that places customers inside their own bespoke financial constellation: “This is your Moneyverse. It’s as unique as you are and we can help you become the master of it.”

It’s unclear how “Mastering Your Moneyverse” is any different from the timeless Micawber-esque truths of earning and saving , but Barclays’ intent is certainly blended: The customer, not the bank, is at center of their financial universe — so long as they pay their bills, presumably.

Blur • Businesses have long promoted their wares with celebrity — from 18th-century royal endorsements to the current crop of (un)likely collaborations: George Clooney for Nespresso, MC Hammer for Cheetos, Malcom Gladwell for General Motors, Rudy Giuliani for Famous Smoke Shop. But while celebrities are effective because they stand out (stars shine brighter), influencers are potent because they blend in.

So blurred is the line between content and commerce that influencers are increasingly obliged to state explicitly when a post is actually an #ad. Conversely, so powerful are the new platforms that users can block advertisers they dislike — an innovation unthinkable to legacy media.

Blurring is also central to the burgeoning world of podcasts. According to 2019 data from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, only 6% of U.S. podcast advertisements were supplied directly by brands or agencies, whereas 66% were read by hosts. Survey after survey suggests that host-read ads are more memorable and effective, and Spotify for Podcasters explains why:

“Unlike traditional radio or TV advertising, host-read ads are increasingly being tailored to the listener and the intimate, earbud-induced environment that podcasting fosters. … One tactic is to have the host share a funny personal anecdote that relates (directly or tangentially) to the product being pitched (aka the Maron method). And then there’s the Pod Saves America approach, where the hosts make a sport of riffing on — and at times openly mocking — the ad copy, to the point where it feels more like a casual water-cooler conversation than an ad break.” 

When every sidewalk is a catwalk, every pose a pitch and every quip a commercial, “product placement” morphs from 007’s $36 million Heineken flash to a deliberately blended miasma. And because authenticity is the new artifice, many influencers work hard to eschew (like Volkswagen) a “perfect advertising world.” As @mypaleskinblog solemnly informed her 759,000 followers in a paid post for @olayuk, “being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect.”

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

Even so, brands do like their logos to be legible. This need explains why in 2020 Budweiser introduced the very blended #SelfieBud bottle “with a label in reverse to look perfect in selfies, live videos, filters and boomerangs.”

From Absolut to Volkswagen, Blending Is the New Branding

* * *

There’s an old joke: 

— How do journalists count? 
— One, two, trend! 

And although many more than three examples have been cited above, they may prove little more than data points in search of a curve. Magnet brands will still abound, and “blending” — as envisaged — might simply be a blip on the brandscape. 

That said, it remains notable that so many major global brands are exploring transparency, framing, bespoke and blurring while simultaneously pledging to “reflect today’s ever-changing environment,” “become a relationship brand” and “adopt the customer’s perspective.”

In our brave new non-linear world, traditional consumer hooks — from “shelf-space” to “ad breaks” — are being bested by social, mobile, streaming, catch-up, e-commerce algorithms and box-set binges. Simply adopting each new platform is necessary but not sufficient; messages and media strategies have also to adapt. 

When attention is golden, and “Don’t touch that dial!” gives way to the infinite scroll, so interruption must give way to integration. Why, then, would companies with the capability not want to evolve from the magnet pull of brands to the morphing overlay of blends?

Some have claimed that Apple’s engraving service is, in part, a way of limiting the second-hand market.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” The Personal History of David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (1849).

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion's advertising and brands columnist. He created the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series, and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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