• American inspiration
  • Branding with intrigue


    The future is no-name branding, believes Neil Whitehead of design practice Ashley Carter Whitehead.

    Traditional thinking about branding is no longer relevant for the way we live today. I’m not simply alluding to Naomi Klein’s No Logo thesis. Neither am I parroting the wave of anti-brand feeling that has emerged throughout the demographic range and which is still much in evidence during the annual May Day protest demonstrations.

    The fact that Gap and Starbucks must barricade their fascias during this time, and in so doing mask their marques to protect their branded property, is ironic. Such brands are so ubiquitous and irritating it makes them an easy target – not just for the virulent campaigner but also the cynical, brand-worn advocate of retail. However, I would argue that this is not an on-going brand backlash, it’s simply a visible criticism of these particular brands and what they stand for.

    The truth is, people are not anti-brands per se – even ‘good’, ethically-sound brands can lose with the consumer if they are inappropriate or seem irrelevant. Look at the way Iceland’s attempt to launch an organic range nose-dived a couple of years ago. No, I would argue that consumers are anti-branding!

    Today’s youth market – the well-spring of most trends that filter upwards – is very focused on being ‘in the know’ rather than overtly brandishing labels. They are in control, adopting and adapting brands for their own use rather than slavishly following them.

    Clearly, when something becomes mainstream it is way passed being cool. Likewise brand-savvy teenagers are not impressed by the manufactured, over-marketed nature of Pop Idol and its spin-offs. Instead they respond to discreet and intriguing identities such as Gorillaz band. Which is evidence that marketers and retailers must communicate their brands in a new way to a whole new youth culture. And the way to do this is no-name branding.

    NNB is not just a case of leaving off the brand identity altogether – this would hinder rather than help the consumer – but there are ways of establishing brand recognition via subtler, incognito marketing. Subconscious and implicit brand cues appeal to the anti-branding group, whereby only the informed and the discerning will identify the brand by its packaging., shape, colour and merchandising. If a brand or product is deemed to be worth seeking out, those in the know will do just that.

    Similarly, a retailer whose site is located off the beaten track and does not ostensibly appear to be a shop may well attract a cult following. Those that resist the branded rollout route but individualise each new store – think Paul Smith – are able to expand while avoiding the negative connotations of a chain and mass-merchandising.

    Moreover, less controlled, underground channels of information such as the internet are feeding trends more than any other media, while also providing the research tool and transactional apparatus to acquire products. In this way, today’s consumers are discovering their own brands, rather than buying into the mainstream.

    June 2004