Before you tackle your next branding project, up your expertise with these insights from FINE, a brand agency for the digital age that connects brands with customers in the ways people connect today.
1. Back to Sensory Basics
“So much of our world is consumed by tech,” says Josh Kelly, managing partner and chief strategist at FINE. “We all spend our days engrossed in screens, pushing buttons. We see more and more a need and desire for brands to engage non-visual senses offline, like touch, taste, sound and smell, to stand out.” That could mean anything from considering how to orchestrate all the brand touchpoints of a place-based experience to remembering “old-fashioned” tools like print or highly refined promotional schwag.
“For one of our highest tech clients—Cloudera, a company that sells its brand and its wares to chief technology officers to solve the biggest data challenges of our day—we found success with unique, personalized and extravagant direct mail rather than falling back on ubiquitous digital outreach to tell the story,” Kelly says. He adds that when it comes to FINE’s hospitality clients, the team thinks about those moments when people put down their phone, interact with people, pick something up, or see/hear/touch/smell something they’ll forever associate with a brand.
Kelly says they also see this happening in retail. “Many brands shifted their in-store experiences to accommodate flashy tech and digital screens—but forgot to consider the larger impact those tactics would have on the guest experience and long-term relationship. Now we see retailers scaling back on tech and humanizing their environments.”
Brand strategist Emily Buchholtz adds that at a brand experience level, they’re interested in tech that adds value to the relationship and doesn’t distract from it. “Brands must consider all inflection points within the guest journey to understand which demand tech, and which are best served by tapping other senses.”
2. Branding from the Inside Out
Principal and creative director Kenn Fine believes that increasingly, brands do best when they think inside out. “When we begin an engagement, we always start with the core of why the brand exists and what it has to offer to those who will engage with it,” he says. “What is the experience and how does that fit or drive the brand? It’s given us phrases like ‘Brand Is Operations,’ or ‘Deep Branding.’”
This process also often aligns consumer branding and employer branding. “We also say that increasingly ‘Employer Branding is Good Branding,’” Fine says, noting that the messages you use to lure and guide employees are often the same as the ones you use to lure and guide customers—as they should be. For this reason, some of the best brand work today is going into the key challenge of shaping companies through hiring and training the people most responsible for creating the product and experience.
“Each employee needs to understand the larger vision and have a clear sense of purpose in bringing that vision to life,” Fine says. “Developing a methodology and training systems to empower is what makes people want to work there, and what helps them create customer experience.
“We found this with Ten-X, a Google-funded real estate venture, where the company’s vision of ‘changing the state of real estate’ was the key selling point to prospective employees, customers and even investors alike.” Fine points out that this is apparent too in the agency’s hospitality work. At Kimpton, for example, the term “ridiculously personal experiences” inspired people, and McKibbon Hospitality rallied around the idea “Hospitality Begins With Me.” All joined by a mission, vision and shared purpose.
3. Quiet is Speaking Louder
“From a brand and design perspective, more and more of our work is about stripping away layers to allow very simple messages, images, names, experiences, and impressions to come into full relief,” Kelly says. Of course, this has always been somewhat true, but as new customers like millennials come along, Kelly notes that making things that seem less noisy and busy and brand-y is becoming more important. “We’ve even used the phrase ‘un-name’ and ‘un-brand’ to describe what we do in helping to rethink brands. Removing artifice, being simple and honest, creating whitespace, minimizing visual and textual clutter.”
Kelly notes that they’ve observed this trend with their business-to-business client M3, which is simplifying complex business services, and with their client Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa, which offers respite from the noisy commercial world as a core benefit.
“Consumers are constantly inundated with distractions,” Buchholtz adds. “Brands are competing for attention and only causing more noise and anxiety. When everyone else is shouting, we see tremendous opportunity in a personal whisper. There is power in operating at a lower volume that cuts through the noise and adds simplicity versus chaos.”
4. The Un-Commodification of Design
Digital creative director Tsilli Pines suggests that we consider more closely the commodification of design in the digital space and beyond. “It’s happening through the proliferation of tools and platforms—like, Squarespace, Virb, 99 Designs or even Wix—that enable a baseline of visual standards.” she says. “These companies sell accessibility. And that’s really important.” But what it means is that designers will increasingly focus on the aspects of their work that cannot be commoditized: custom interactions, insight-driven design, content strategy/IA—not just grids, type, color and images, but true solutions to your actual brand challenges.
5. Honest Branding
Fine says that we’ll likely see the continuation of “honest” branding as organizations confront what they really stand for and craft their brand in line with that to build engaged and dedicated communities. “Look for more brands bundling activism of some kind with their product or service—connecting with meaningful issues that matter to their customers, and/or avoiding socially charged negative associations that disconnect with their audience—to gain meaningful traction. More than ever, it won’t be enough to try to be all things to all people. Brands will now need to examine and reflect their ethics on a continual basis.”
Buchholtz adds that there is a key consumer trend that tracks with this: the idea that we live in a “post-truth” world. “There is a lot of information but little credibility,” she says. “We are constantly questioning the motive and have developed a skepticism around individuals, platforms and authorities who used to hold clout.” As traditional role models and cultural perspectives struggle to express the truth, she notes, brands have a unique opportunity and play a larger role in upholding a sense of truth and a sense of values with which people can align.
6. Being Useful is More Valuable than Ever
Kelly believes that the tone of branding will continue to shift toward service and utility, and that sophisticated and tech-empowered consumers will increasingly avoid sales pitches and seek answers in a world of noise and misdirection. “This plays out in a number of ways, like renewed focus on careful and succinct IA in digital, brand use of wayfinding symbols and visual languages in lieu of clever logos, a paring back of content strategy focus, and an emphasis on product and service delivery as the impetus for brand communication,” he says. adding that as screens and attention spans shrink, we’ll have less room for fluff and bravado and more need to be helpful, useful, and humble.
“It’s about relevance,” he says. “Brands who understand their consumer on a deeper level can articulate a narrative that will resonate with them across myriad moments in their day and across the trajectory of their life. Then, they can meticulously design touchpoints and interactions that punctuate that narrative in a way that is truly meaningful and relevant.”
7. Commoditizing Disruption
Design director Mehran Azma sees a sort of gentrification within brand design in metropolitan spaces. “For years, the buzzword has been ‘disruption,’” he says. “But now we’re seeing the reversal of this trend with brands that want to (and have the tools to) fit in amongst competitors and peers,
ideally unnoticed at first to allow for time to assume pre-establishment to the consumer.”
Azma observes that an overall modernized aesthetic has become the norm, with the rise of “hipster logo” DIY kits appearing in just about every design-oriented blog or showcase site. “It’s paved the way for story-less brands for dispassionate business owners less interested in cultivating community and more focused on profit margins,” he says. “Granted, this isn’t the first time (or likely last time) this shift has occurred (see: just about every 80’s mini-mall)—but it is striking at a time when social media serves as a vehicle to extend blasé brands into a greater socio/eco-sphere.”
He notes that in the past, marketing initiatives were fairly localized for small to medium–sized businesses. “Now we live in a boundless commercial frontier, and as a result we’re being inundated with logarithmic advertisements catering to data that doesn’t correlate to our actual sense of ethics, just our browser-history. The end result is an influx of brand everything, and with it comes a proliferation of identities that are drummed up without any actual story backing. They take no consideration of context, and appropriate whatever is on-trend recklessly.”
To counter this, he says, the team at FINE develops brands, like Kimpton, from the ground-up, taking the time to understand the core values of the organization, partnering with them in all avenues of strategy and execution, and then extending that across all associated initiatives.