Written by Russell Shaw

Published on December 08, 2014



Visual identity work is the process of creating a visual personality and tone through which a company can communicate to its audiences. In the past, there was a high value placed on the idea of creating a brand personality based around legacy – putting forward a pristine image of a company; traditional, full of heritage, it was a defined set of visual cues or messages that are to be preserved and never altered or tampered with. A brand image came with a set of do’s and don’ts in effort to create and maintain uniformity at all customer touchpoints.


There is enormous value to a visual identity being consistent. It fuels recognition and thus builds equity in the long run. But consistency can also miss opportunities to engage with an audience if it is followed to a point of strictness where the uniformity becomes sterile. Effective brands today should know how to remain true to their core identity, while being open to the idea of committing a little brand heresy – breaking the rules, expressing empathy and the humanness behind the company’s face, being open and democratic and allowing others to carry the brand’s flag to re-interpret, riff on it, and make it their own.

In a JWT trend report earlier this year, the firm wrote on this idea, saying, “Consumers have been busy creating a never-ending stream of brand heresies of their own. Just a glimpse at Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook will bear witness to how consumers both participate in (or are at the very least observers of) the remixing, hijacking, copying and redefining of brands, and their products and services.”

Their point being: consumers today are already subverting a brand’s materials to make them playful, customized, creative expressions of a product or service they use. If this is happening on its own outside of a company’s marketing team, what would it look like to embrace this idea rather than run away from it? What if a company viewed its brand identity as something that could be played with like its audiences are already doing?

An example of a group whom I think does this so well is Mailchimp. They are an email marketing company who has become known for so much more, simply by the way they communicate fun and creativity around their company’s identity (and obviously in many other ways as well). Their sponsorship opener on the Serial podcast has someone mispronouncing their name; their billboards around Atlanta have gallons of paint dumped over their logo, so that the canvas is more of a unique blur of colors than a clearly readable wordmark; some ads in the past have featured only Freddie the monkey smiling and winking at the viewer without even displaying the company name at all. These are ideas that people wanting to constantly promote a clean heritage may be adverse to, but for those at all familiar with Mailchimp, these ideas have worked to build a great loyalty by being deeply engaging.

Rather than a sterile, stodgy and strict tradition, brands should know how to create materials that are lively, amusing, creative, playful, irreverent or subversive – that still carry some of the recognizable tone and cues of the company, but explore them in new ways that poke fun at the image, offering new expressions that can then connect with an audience on a more emotional level.

Sometimes creating brand messages that are slightly twisted from the norm can surprise an audience with a little pleasure and delight; it may form a connection that lasts a lot longer and speaks a lot louder than something that plays it safe yet lacks dimensional personality. To quote Charles Eames, “Who ever said that pleasure wasn't functional?”



“Rather than a sterile, stodgy and strict tradition, brands should know how to create materials that are lively, amusing, creative, playful, irreverent or subversive...”