The Radical Future of Branding

Last week the Fast Company design blog checked in with some leading brand strategists to identify the trends that the pros think are going to influence branding in the year ahead. One thing is clear, the would-be authoritarian regime that has taken over the White House, combined with powerful new technologies, is having deep impact way beyond just the political sphere. Here are their five key predictions.

Brands will radicalize

Once one simply didn’t talk about politics in business, After all, why risk alienating as much as 50% of your audience? But that was then.

“As a reflection of the changing political tides, many brands will evolve from ‘mission-driven’ to ‘activist,’ encouraging consumers to go beyond simply subscribing to a set of core values and driving them to participate in actions to defend them,” says Geoff Cook, partner at the branding agency Base Design. “In choosing sides, brands will alienate certain consumers, yes, but will galvanize an impassioned constituency in the process.”

Brands will finally stop trying to trick you

Trump’s pathological lying could affect brands another way: It could actually persuade them to tell the truth.

“2016 was one expression after another of an unprecedented collapse of people’s trust in established institutions,” says John Paolini, partner and executive creative director at Sullivan. “In 2017, this macro-societal trend will impact brands, creating pervasive skepticism among consumers in how they perceive the messages and promises companies are making to them. This sense of distrust and suspicion will catalyze a brand neo-traditionalism.” Brands will be stripped down to their essential parts, their narratives made simpler and more transparent. “Honesty will reign,” Paolini says. “Successful branding will have fewer tricks and more truth.”

Symbols will become more than graphic icons

Sagi Haviv, partner at the graphic design firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, believes the era of traditional symbol-based logos has drawn to a close. “When my partners Tom Geismar and Ivan Chermayeff were designing logos in 1957, the year our firm began, practically any conceivable geometric shape was available for trademarking,” he says. “Today it seems like every conceivable shape has been done. . . . As a result, both designers and clients have started to associate graphic logo design with trademark infringement, and many of them are deciding to play it safe by simply rendering the name alone, without a distinctive graphic icon.”

Or, that icon might have a more literal meaning. I’ve mentioned the brilliance of the Amazon logo that features a broad, brushstroke arrow that links ‘A’ to ‘Z’ and makes a smile at once. Haviv holds up how “The hotel booking app HotelTonight turned its logo, a bed-shaped “H,” into a user interface element that consumers swipe to confirm a purchase.”

The visual language of VR will creep into meatspace

Yes, VR is a currently hot marketing tool, suggesting to some that it’s already irrelevant. But James Trump, creative director at Moving Brands in San Francisco notes “But there’s so much more that can be done. It’s new ground, and we haven’t really scratched the surface.”

“Brands will start to be influenced by and borrow from the visual style of VR,” he says. “I can imagine this playing out in lots of ways—combining flat and 3D elements, more spatial-feeling typography, and more layering to imagery.”

AI will force brands to examine their ethics

Things get a whole less clear when you consider the power and reach of Artificial Intelligence.

Whether through chatbots or voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, brands can now speak directly to customers. On one hand, this lets companies cater their message to individual consumers, which could potentially reduce the annoying, spray-and-pray approach of most marketing today. As David Schwarz, partner at the experience design agency HUSH, puts it: “Much like your Facebook or Instagram timeline is both personally and algorithmically curated, branding will be more in the eye of the beholder than in the eye of top-down business leadership.”

On the other hand, companies now have unprecedented access to our lives. Schwarz asks “Will we all just be consumer pinballs, being knocked around a manipulation machine? Will regulators be able to keep up? Will social niceties allow big data to meld with big manipulation, so we’re sweet-talked into supersizing before we’re shamed by a drill instructor into exercising it off?”

I, for one, want to believe that trends 1 and 2 – that brands will radicalize and stop trying to trick you will provide the moral rudder needed to guide companies’ integration of AI into their operations. Then again, I never, ever believed that Trump could steal our democracy, either. Of course, I never did trust his brand.

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