The Power Of Subtle Branding

The Power Of Subtle Branding

need to be recognized and remembered. And a strong logo or wordmark is one of the easiest ways to activate recall. So, when a major global brand executes something understated, it's worth taking notice. Cheryl Barbee, a frequent collaborator of Geoff Colon's DisruptiveFM podcast, shared the photo above on LinkedIn with this insightful commentary:

“Another great example of brands choosing subtlety over noise, is this scene from Chicago's Wicker Park. Can you spot the typically bold mega brand? No? Well, that's Taco Bell (the simple “Taco” plus arrow sign). In a hipster area typified by bespoke boutiques, artisanal ice cream, bike cafes, vape shops and record stores, Taco Bell smartly chooses extremely modest branding, to artfully blend with the mindset and aesthetics of the neighborhood while delivering the products that are a guilty pleasure of its inhabitants. A great reminder that even the biggest brands can smartly adapt to the smaller spaces.”

Cheryl is right. Too often, brands compete by increasing the volume, which works great in Times Square, Tokyo or Vegas, but that's not where most of us live. Brand is defined by individuals and is the sum of the experiences and associations that a person has. It's every bit as important to be recognized as it is to be associated with the expectations of customers. Sometimes the best way to get noticed is by blending in.

While, as brand builders, we tend to think of what we're creating and how to grow it, there's equal power in thinking about what can be removed. A philosophy called subtractive design is a process of removing imperfections and extraneous parts in order to strengthen the core elements. It's pruning away the excess that gives a design a sense of simplicity, elegance, and power. Apple (up until a few years ago) was a master of this principle.

In a noisy and attention hungry marketplace, more brands can benefit from being less. Here's two questions to consider:

  1. What's the minimum a customer needs to recognize you? Stabilo Boss has a great ad out called “Highlight the remarkable” which shows a highlighter drawing a line to a vintage NASA photograph. No logo, no website. They weren't needed!
  2. What's the environment in which the customer is going to experience your brand? Pay attention to the cultural cues. Starbucks Reserve does a fantastic job with their logo design using a simple Star with an “R” underneath. They don't need to spell it out for customers while still conveying they are a premium product.

What other examples come to mind when thinking of brands that have taken an understated approach that has allowed them to differentiate?

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