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NEW YORK — Too much similarity breeds disconnect.

That’s the first law of visual branding, said a half-dozen marketing experts, asked by WWD to discuss the role played by a brand’s initial visual impression on consumers today, who are said to value substance over style.

This story first appeared in the June 25, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“There’s a basic psychological rule: People faced with too much similarity, too much ubiquity in visual imagery, will subconsciously disconnect with those images,” said brand image guru Marc Gobe. “People need change.”

By comparison, said Gobe, president and chief executive officer of desgrippes gobe, which creates brand images, “Brand identities that evolve and surprise us do communicate with us. A brand is like a personality. It needs to be multifaceted. That’s what makes it approachable and charismatic.”

For this reason, marketing observers said, the visual identities of fashion brands such as Coach, Talbots and Gap, among others, could benefit from a makeover. While crediting Coach’s brand reinvention several years ago, Cheryl Swanson, principal at brand creation firm Toniq, noted, “They haven’t taken the brand to the next level. I’m worried about Coach getting Gap-ped — doing the same thing for too long.”

As for Gap, said Gobe, the brand’s logo imagery begins and ends with three white letters on a blue square. “That’s where it stays,” he offered. “It’s very static.”

And although Talbots enjoyed a long run with a marketing proposition and imagery based on the “rational benefits” of buying its apparel, consumers now are craving an emotional appeal, said Jonah Disend, partner in strategic marketing consultant Red Scout. “It helped them for a time, but then times changed and it hurt them,” he added.

In contrast, said observers, Target uses its bull’s-eye logo imaginatively in print ads and TV commercials, as does MTV, whose on-screen logo morphs into different patterns and colors suited to the programs in which it appears. Memorable uses of Target’s bull’s-eye logo, Gobe recalled, include print ads portraying people dressed in logo-adorned apparel against a bull’s-eye background, and those showing tabletop items falling off a table and onto a page with a Target bull’s-eye logo placed in one corner. There was no mention of Target in the latter ad.

That sort of brand imagery, Gobe said, made him want to shop there. “It said the stores are about creativity, fashion and spirited merchandising.”

The good news for brands is today’s consumers are processing information approximately 400 times faster than their Renaissance ancestors — and are able to soak up more brand imagery as a result, Swanson said, referring to a finding in “Thinking in Future Tense,” by Jennifer James. Further, she noted, approximately 80 percent of what people learn comes through their eyes, where about 70 percent of their sensory receptors are located. “Therefore, it becomes crucial to convey a brand’s story visually,” advised Swanson, who’s trained as a cultural anthropologist. “A brand is almost an instant message. It’s a cultural totem — a story symbolically synopsized into visual images.”

And according to Gobe, about half of a brand’s image stems from its visual identity. “It is critically important because it is the face of a brand,” he offered. “It is perhaps the most continuous interaction a person has with a brand. The brand image is a powerful symbol, but a lot of brands limit the way they express it.” For instance, he added, if Target treated its bull’s-eye symbol merely as a static logo it would fall flat — in contrast to the way it has made the symbol a dynamic part of the store’s message.

Currently, color is the best-remembered element of a brand’s visual identity, followed by a logo or distinctive product shape, like a Coca-Cola bottle, consultants said. Words, which once played a bigger part in a label’s identity, are now least well remembered. Examples of the power of hue include the reds used by Target and Coca-Cola, the blue in Jet Blue’s imagery, and the greater use of green in British Petroleum’s green and yellow logo, when BP aimed to associate itself with renewable energy.

Although brands need to evolve and aim at a new group of customers — every five years, according to Gobe — the basics of building effective visual images have remained constant. They are creating images that conjure a sense of optimism and empathize with the consumer, stir people’s senses, and — above all — are simple to grasp.

While those fundamentals have stayed the same, it hasn’t gotten any easier to reinvent a brand’s visual identity, observers agreed. “The truth is, a large number of brands haven’t done it well,” declared Robert Passikoff, president of customer loyalty consultant Brand Keys. “When brand marketing efforts are ineffective and a brand decides to make changes, reinvention of the visual identity is usually the court of last appeal.” A case in point, Passikoff said, is McDonald’s new smile logo: The brand imagery was changed, when what the chain most needs, fast-food analysts have pointed out — and McDonald’s recently acknowledged — is to offer better food and a better experience.

Surprisingly, fashion brands are not necessarily most adept at creating new visual imagery, consultants said. For his part, Passikoff stated some of the most effective reinventions have been those of iconic images: the Morton Salt Girl, who was given a fresh set of clothes to replace her decades-old raincoat, and Betty Crocker was given a fresh hairstyle after decades without an update. Exceptions in the realm of fashion include Dior Addict, whose ads featuring bright colors juxtaposed with dark tones updated what Swanson termed a “tired” Dior brand image, and Nike, whose well-known swoosh logo remains prominent amid marketing messages and images tailored to fit various audiences.

Of course, changing a logo for its own sake fails to move consumers — there has to be a story behind it, stated Mike Cucka, partner in Group 1066, a product and marketing consultancy. For example, Lacoste changed its alligator from green to silver on a limited edition, slim-cut polo shirt offered last year at Barneys New York, and British Petroleum used its BP symbol to represent its efforts Beyond Petroleum in ads explaining its clean air initiatives.

Trickiest of all, Disend said, is knowing when it makes sense to focus more on brand building than on product changes. “A lot of brands have lost their way and have needed to resurrect their image. Some make rash moves and then pull back,” he continued. “There’s a bit of desperation out there now among brand marketers.”

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