By  on April 11, 2007

Google has cast itself at the forefront of brands showing different faces, notably in the playful change of its search engine logotype to reflect various holidays and in the company"s quirky secondary stock offer of 14,159,265 shares, the number representing the first eight numbers after the decimal point in pi. (Pi, the ratio of a circle"s circumference to its diameter, is commonly expressed as 3.14).

Saks Fifth Avenue has been mixing it up by ripping apart its logo and reconstructing it like a jigsaw puzzle on the store"s shopping bags and by displaying a piece of it on its Web site, for instance. And the retailer has signaled there"s more than one way to see the brand in ads like the one that assured "Saks loves it both ways," which portrayed two women wearing the same Pucci blouse differently. One top is unbuttoned to the breasts of a blonde with hand on hip and eyes behind sunglasses looking off camera; the other is entirely unbuttoned and knotted at the midriff of an Asian model looking directly at the viewer.

The Apple iPod, which quickly was transformed from a mobile music medium to a statement of fashion cool, keeps stepping into different roles, from digital DJ for a party when paired with a sound dock, to a means to take in podcasts that entertain or educate.

Welcome to the world of the morphing brand. These brands, with their fluid identities, are in synch with people"s growing inclination to exhibit different personae — an inclination that makes it harder for 21st century labels to succeed by catering to a single consumer type. "A problem for marketers is they won"t be able to profile people in the same way," in the months and years ahead, projected Marc Gobé, chairman and chief executive officer of desgrippes gobé, which creates images for brands. "People are experimenting with different sides of themselves and want to be empowered to change their identities."

One way brands can respond is by transforming their logos and marks from their traditional status as one-dimensional symbols into dynamic messages, with the addition of higher emotional content. "In the industrial age, a logo was just a signature. It should be a message," advised Gobé, author of the recently published "Brandjam: Humanizing Brands Through Emotional Design (Allworth Press, $24.95)." The new Saks Fifth Avenue logo, introduced in January, can be shuffled in seemingly endless permutations of its 64-piece grid, signaling that today the store is "not the same thing all over again," he said.For Zach Urlocker, editor of the satiric Web site Valley of the Geeks, Google"s Pi ploy was aimed at a particular group who"d find it amusing. "A secondary offering is a mundane thing," Urlocker said. "Most of the time, it"s about raising money. [Google"s offer] can be seen in a way that"s quirky, unexpected — a display of irreverent style.

"It says Google"s a cool company to math majors, quant jocks, statistical Ph.D."s and rocket scientists," the digital satirist added drily.

Creating an alluring appeal to consumers is getting tougher in the 21st century because of what Gobé called the "more active choices" people are making about the brands they use. "The modern take was people were blank slates that could be impressed and manipulated," Gobé noted. "Manufacturers made things and promoted the hell out of them." Now brands must interact with people in order to satisfy them, the brand image creator advised. Interactions of this sort could succeed, in part, because the connections people make for themselves tend to be stronger than those advertisers attempt to make for them, observed marketing expert Mark Joyner.

A brand offering healthful drinks, like Jamba Juice, can be viewed variously by different people, raising questions about who actually is defining its chameleon-like qualities. Such a drink could be seen as a healthy juice by teens; a beauty brand by fashionistas, or an antioxidant by mothers, observed Marian Salzman, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at JWT.

While people in their teens and 20s traditionally have been characterized as individuals who are finding themselves, these days they are arguably the most comfortable in assuming various identities. "They"re much more open to experimenting with different roles than my generation," suggested Massimiliano DiBattista, the 37-year-old president of Management Artists Organization, a photography agency specializing in fashion, fragrance and luxury. "They are so much more aware of the possibilities because of the Internet."

Indeed, with more people spending more time in mediated spaces such as virtual communities and video games, they are increasingly likely to express fluid identities in a range of settings, predicted Judith Donath, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. "People — even our children — might find us almost unrecognizable," Donath said. "There is a question of what is an outright lie versus play acting versus another aspect of someone"s personality."Clean design provides one medium onto which people can project divergent expressions of themselves, Salzman posited. "Kate Spade is like that. Jack Spade is like that," she said. "It is an essential element of chameleon brands." The clean design of Brooks Bros. draws customers who are described in Gobé"s book as a "predominantly conservative clientele of a certain age." Yet the author saw the brand"s duck-print pants transformed from a design he"d considered traditionally WASP-y, with a quirky twist, when he first glimpsed them in the company"s catalogue, to something connoting cool and "humor in a sexy way" when he saw them worn in a Washington, D.C., airport by an athletic blonde man who"d paired them with a sporty sweater and Adidas athletic shoes, and who"d slung an Adidas sports bag over his shoulder.

"We have noticed our product gets mixed in with other brands, especially men"s and women"s shirting," said Louis Amendola, executive vice president of merchandising at Brooks Bros. "It"s the same thing with our cashmere sweaters. I"m a realist. Even though we portray people wearing head-to-toe Brooks Bros., it"s unrealistic to expect they"ll always wear the brand head-to-toe."

Staying true to its core values gives a brand "more permission to play" with its persona, counseled Pat Fallon, chairman of branding agency Fallon Worldwide, citing Nike"s fluid identity ("fun, aspirational, serious athleticism") as an example. "If it"s a brand for people under 18, it doesn"t have to be as rigorous in establishing a fundamental value," Fallon added, because youths are more capricious themselves.

In Dunkin" Donut"s 30-second TV spot called "Tom" that began in March, the brand flashes rational and emotional sides, each based on its proposition that Dunkin" offers a way for everyday folks to keep themselves running throughout the day. After being called a variety of names instead of Tom by more than a half-dozen people in his workplace, Tom finds respite in the warm greeting and iced coffee he gets at Dunkin". The messages are that the doughnut chain gets the coffee right for its customers (rational) and likes its customers and is there for them (emotional), said Jeff Bonasia, a senior vice president and group account director at Hill/Holliday, which created the commercial.There could be something else at work as well in a brand"s chameleon nature. "Brands change their face when they see a competitor succeeding where they once did — less so in response to consumer changes," contended Richard Laermer, ceo of RLM Public Relations. "The mistake most brands make when they suddenly want to be about something else is it"s done out of feeling threatened versus feeling creative," contended Laermer, author of the recently published "Punk Marketing: Get Off Your Ass and Join the Revolution (HarperCollins, $25.95)."

In Laermer"s view, Head & Shoulders, for one, has diluted its image in recent years with different marketing messages. "For years, they were about being a dandruff shampoo. Then they started calling themselves H&S and airing groovy commercials," he recounted. "The net effect was they didn"t seem to be about anything."

Not so, protested Anthony Rose, a global beauty spokesman at Procter & Gamble, who noted there are 10 versions of Head & Shoulders "to meet a variety of hair, scalp and experience needs." When Head & Shoulders uses H&S in its ads, Rose said, "it"s like a visual identity." It is intended to be "easier to get," in countries where English isn"t spoken. In the U.S., however, P&G has dropped the abbreviated moniker for its current campaign and has no plans to use it going forward, according to the P&G spokesman.

Marketing efforts that strike people as more disjointed than fluid could be emblematic of a brand"s lack of effort to keep a customer once they"ve made a purchase. "Today brands want to get you in and out," Laermer griped about those companies that segment products rather than improving ones that have loyal customers. The marketing expert was particularly chagrined that his favorite Pop-Tart, chocolate, has been supplanted by chocolate chip, chocolate fudge and chocolate vanilla creme. "[Brands] are so interested in getting money; they aren"t as interested in developing a relationship with you," said Laermer, a Pop-Tart devotee for 20 years who no longer eats the pastries.

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