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The Two Different Ways We Now “See” Brands

April 16, 2018

SeeingHow much time do you spend online? If you’re a typical American baby boomer, you’re probably racking up about four hours of screen time a day. If you’re of the Gen Z or Millennial age groups, you’re putting in closer to eight! That’s on desktops, tablets and mobile devices. (One caveat here: Typically, boomers also consume hours of television viewing each day. Younger folks tend to get more of their entertainment by streaming it online.) But, whatever age we are, we’re all beginning to live more and more of our lives with our eyes glued to a screen. That means where once brands were only perceived in the “real world”, now markets encounter them in cyberspace as well. Owners and managers of brand assets need to consider how they’ll maintain a consistent identity across the digital and analog worlds. How does the website relate to the store? How does the product photo relate to the product on the store shelf?

Maintaining a consistent identity was never easy to begin with. For instance, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ team color is Pantone 294. The color is so central to their identity, in 2009, a group of Dodger fans adopted it as the name of their fan club. But Pantone 294 is a notoriously difficult color to print. The color tends to vary depending on the hue and brightness of the paper. The Dodgers have a devil of a time making sure the color comes out consistently from one printed piece to the next. And it’s an extreme chore when four-color process has to be used to try to match Pantone 294. The resulting color tends to appear purple and the printer has to correct for it. And that was all before the internet came along. Now Pantone 294 is viewed on millions of different monitors as well, each one of which displays it differently. And on screens, the color is emitted rather than reflected off of printed paper. It’s all a brand manager’s nightmare but the Dodgers do a good job of making it as consistent as possible.


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Luckily, we’re all pretty used to things looking crappy on the internet and we make allowances for it. Videos buffer. Colors don’t match. Whatever. We live with it. Still, it would be better if brands could exercise more control over their identities online. To the extent it is humanly possible, those responsible for a brand’s general appearance should standardize every logo application, every corporate color, every font across all media, whether digital or analog. 

But since brands live online now, as much as anywhere else, they engage in content marketing, which means social media. And in this sense, brands are being seen in entirely new ways. Brands now exist in contexts over which they have little control. In broadcast or print advertising, brands get to select the message they want to be seen supporting. Their choices almost never get them in trouble. Laura Ingram’s current advertisers dropping her show in droves is a rare exception that proves the rule. But when a brand goes online in some social media campaign, it has no control what kind of noxious content it might appear alongside. Most brands can’t afford to be seen that way. The problem has a name now: brand safety. Brands have to guard their identities against unwanted associations. That means brands have to demonstrate their values. They have to take stands on the issues of the day. This is absolutely new territory for most of them.

So now we see brands in two ways. We see them visually; we see the logo, the corporate color, the corporate font, etc. And we “see” them in the sense of understanding them; we see where they’re coming from. Again, brands never really had to think about this pre-internet. And, to guard against unwanted associations, brands need to consider what kinds of associations are wanted. They need to align themselves with the right kind of allies. They need to understand their markets like never before and make their values clear before some sort of brand safety issue comes up.

Ironically, the same internet that can get a brand in trouble can then be used by angry consumers as a tremendous tool for mobilizing against them. All the more reason to make markets aware of what a brand stands for – in advance. When the market sees a brand’s true identity, it’s much more likely to give the brand a pass if its logo occasionally pops up next to objectionable content.

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