When we first think of a brand we think of its brand mark as its identity ‘ a two-dimensional graphical image. Surrounding that mark will be other graphical elements: typography, colour, texture and imagery. Often, that’s where we think a brand identity stops. Yet physical branding has form, weight and energy. Take Coca-Cola’s iconic brand mark, its red colour and then draw the bottle; we all remember that waisted curvaceous shape. When we pick it up, it will feel familiar ‘ we will feel connected to it physically and emotionally.
Two-dimensional branding stands out, is recognisable from afar and tells us core things about the brand. Three-dimensional branding does the first two: think of the Royal Mail’s iconic red post box. While, of course, the colour is striking to the eye, combining the red body with a black base in a unique cylindrical shape and vertical proportion makes the humble post box instantly recognisable from a great distance. Beyond that, physical branding differs from graphic communication. Its message is simpler, more straight forward and direct. A DeWalt drill, for example, is recognisable by its mark and distinctive yellow, but when we pick it up, its rugged angular form gives us an immediate sense of its purpose, its strength and durability. We know we can rely on it. In this case, the form very much follows function and there is a direct connection between what the product does and how it is portrayed.
This is not always the case. One could argue that car styling very much follows the function of a car and, indeed, it does but in many cases this is just what it is: styling. If you take the badges off, you would still find it unrecognisable. It is not always about branding. The Rolls Royce Cullinan is a good example, as its form is a conventional off-roader sitting high and square. Gone are the sweeping forms of the iconic limousine, its branding is reduced to its Spirit of Ecstasy ornament and RR logos. This is the strength and danger of embedding your 3D identity into the functional characteristics of your product. It will help you dominate your core business but can limit your desire to enter different categories and markets. For example, Caterpillar found that expanding from excavating machines to rugged boots was an easy step; the aesthetic and rugged dependability were parallel qualities in both machinery and leisure apparel ‘ yet a move into high heels would be interesting to say the least.
So, if your physical identity needs to focus on one thing, how do you choose?
A mistake I often see is when the 2D identity is done separately from the 3D one but using the same brief. This usually happens when different specialist design agencies are engaged. The result is, more often than not, discordant and messaging is duplicated. It is best to design the roles of each element of the branding so that they work together but can each play their part in communicating the brand values that they are most suited to do.
For example, Apple’s iPhone is the single more successful product ever sold. This was born out of the original iPod. Twenty years ago computers were tricky things indeed, their overly complicated operating systems were only penetrable by computer geeks. The iPod changed all that with its supremely simple scrolling interface making music accessible to everyone. The simple, elegant, understandable styling embodied that democratic ethos and remains rooted in Apple’s design philosophy to this day. The graphical interface plays a different role. The classic icon system is simple to use, but as you enter the Apple world there is a joy and richness in its presentation that captures the excitement of what you can do with your iPhone.
While the role of physical branding is more singular, the sensorial messaging is more complex. As with graphics the form can be seen, but its shape casts light and shade offering
a richer, ever-changing image depending on its position and context. This is taken full advantage of in the perfume and premium spirits categories; a walk through Duty Free is accompanied by twinkling of reflected light from a multitude of cut-glass bottles attracting your eye and filling the room with glamour and elegance.
I read somewhere that you are ten times more likely to remember something if you pick it up and touch it. I’m not sure how true this is but, like smell, touch seems to produce a deeper more primal memory, particularly if it is pleasurable and this is very helpful in branding. When we created an aerosol can for Sure deodorant’s women’s range, we designed the button to have a soft touch finish. This small physical feature provided a tactile interaction with the consumer every time they used it; its sense of ergonomics simply embodying the brand idea of ‘elegant performance’.
The way an object or product moves and interacts with the user also generates a sensorial connection with the consumer. The click of a car door communicates quality, the pop of a champagne cork marks a celebration. Generic to their category, but all in a kit of parts to be assembled in a unique way by the designer. Grolsche’s swing top bottle has become an integral part of its brand even though it is a standard closure.
Designed in the right way, physical branding is a powerful tool to help you stand out in a crowd, connect to the consumer and form visceral memories. The trick is to give it a clear role in the marketing mix and design it in a way that emotionally exemplifies the function and role of the product whilst avoiding generic forms. It is also important to define its role broad enough to encompass all your range ambitions and to be as timeless as possible. Investment in three dimensional structures is time consuming and expensive so you need to get it right and maximise on your investment.