Visual Brand Language

14.04.11

Establishing a Visual Brand Language enables brands to sow their DNA right into their products. So why aren’t more FMCG brands doing it?

Peter Kay (no, not that one), head of FMCG design at DCA, was kind enough to come into our offices the other day to give us a short talk. DCA is a leading product design agency whose work has included everything from insulin pens to pushchairs to trains and everything in-between, while Peter’s work in FMCG has touched many of the products on supermarket shelves today (and tomorrow).

The subject of Peter’s talk was what DCA calls Visual Brand Language (VBL). VBL is that most elusive of things: the intrinsic design qualities which serve to not only convey brand and/or product messages, but also – through its consistency of application across a brand’s output – to identify it as unique to that brand without reliance on badges or logos. As DCA put it, “a concise and powerful way to translate a brand’s unique values and personality, its DNA, into tangible physical elements, such as form, detail, material and colour”.

BMW serves as a good example: for starters, its grille design is a characteristic element that has been present in one form or another on its cars for years:

BMW grill on the 1938 328 Spezial (left) and the 2010 E61 (right)

But beyond this, BMW’s focus on design as a fundamental element of its philosophy has meant that it’s an example of a brand where just a glimpse of those lines, angles and forms that make up their VBL is enough for many consumers to be able to identify the brand behind it.

One of the benefits for brands is that, when it comes to launching a new product, the designers can write the brand’s VBL right into the product, so that consumers can both identify its provenance and assimilate what kind of an experience they’ll get from it, right from the off.

Case in point? BMW launches an SUV, the X5. The continuation of the BMW VBL, here applied to a new product type, sows all those brand values right into the product.

BMW’s SUV, the X5

Of course, the clever bit is not just establishing and applying the VBL, but applying it in a way which is right for the product and its category. For instance, while a sports car’s design needs to speak of speed and dynamism, an SUV’s design needs to convey strength and robustness. So all the curves, edges and angles that make up the BMW VBL are applied on the X5 in a way which says all those things which an SUV needs to say – but in a distinctly BMW way.

Of course, BMW is but one example. Think of the best brands in the world, and they’ll be the ones that know precisely what their VBL is and how to apply it. Think of Apple‘s application of consistent design principles across their devices – not just hardware, but in software too (when Steve Jobs says they’re integrating some of iPad’s ideas into Mac OSX – that’s Apple harmonising their VBL across different software platforms).

Macbook Pro & iPod Nano: different beasts with the same genes

While these principles are now well-established in lifestyle goods like cars and computers, they’re relatively underemployed in FMCG – and yet in this category they’re arguably even more important. In a world where product and brand engagement is relatively low, having a distinct tone of voice expressed across your product range represents a fantastic advantage; not only for boosting brand presence but also laying strong foundations for NPD.

Lynx (Axe) shower gel & deodorant: common values expressed in two different categories

One brand that does it well is Axe (Lynx in the UK). First, the brand team established the values it wanted the pack to convey. Then, their design team developed the VBL needed to express those values, which manifest in Axe’s deodorant range. So when it came to launching a shower gel it was a case of sensitively applying the VBL – which by now consumers are familiar with – to a new category in such a way that it still says ‘Axe’, but now also ‘shower gel’. So here’s a brand that has not only strengthened its presence but made it easier for the brand to expand its offer.

So why aren’t more FMCG brands applying these principles? One theory is that VBLs aren’t being given the time they need to develop – the time for consumers to absorb and become familiar with the nuances of a brand’s VBL. But in FMCG, brands’ design teams (not to mention brand managers) tend to change quickly; while BMW’s Chris Bangle was their Design Chief for 17 years, and Apple’s Jonathan Ive has been their Principal Designer since 1997, FMCG brands chop and change their design agencies, meaning that time is something that’s not afforded to a brand’s design team: or to put it bluntly, just as a VBL begins to grow and develop with one team, it’s promptly crushed underfoot by the new design team wanting to make their mark.

Patience, patience…

So there you have it: have patience, brand managers, and allow your design team to nurture your brand’s VBL. As one brand once said, “good things come to those who wait”.