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Brands and The Importance of Being Visual
by Cheryl Swanson and Kyla Lang


Only in the past decade, has the visual brand presence, what we consider “brand essence,” been approached in anything resembling a strategic, holistic, creative manner. Traditionally, the visual aspects of a brand were treated as “decoration,” with each marcom agency (design, advertising, promotion, digital) promoting its own vision of how the written brand position should be “brought to life.” As a result, key consumer touch-points often remain disparate entities, rather than offer a unified visual presentation to the consumer.

That approach simply won’t do in contemporary culture in which, dictated by our very biological wiring, brands are primarily experienced visually, in their totality. Unlike dogs, cats, or crocodiles, we humans are a sight-driven species, with 80% of our experience mediated through the eyes. We now understand that, with its direct link to the brain’s primitive limbic region, visual communication collapses the five senses into a primarily visual experience, evoking sensations of touch, taste, smell and sound.

Consequently, marketers must become students of the emerging art and science of visual positioning to ensure that their brands present a consistent, compelling visual platform as a focus to their marketing messaging across media.

A quick rear-view glance can help put into perspective how the visual vocabulary of our culture has changed dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, reflecting and anticipating 21st Century lifestyle needs.

Throughout the ’80s Western culture was dominated by a square, linear, geometric, hard–edged “yuppie” aesthetic, vividly depicted by Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. The age was a celebration of testosterone in Armani, dominated by the attributes of the masculine principle. Even women looked “squared-off” in their faux-masculine business suits.

In the early 80’s emerging star “FedEx” was a new brand. Fax machines were all the rage. The IBM Selectric typewriter, with 1,000 characters of stored memory, was the envy of every office. The idea of a computer on one’s desk, or in the home, was just beginning to take form, and the vocabulary of “Big Boxy Beige” would remain with us well into the ’90s.

Even visions of the future were dominated by the masculine principal. Science-fiction portrayals of the 21st Century limned a landscape of sleek, steely square technology.

At the pinnacle of the ’90s, the product color vocabulary evolved from the heavy, serious darks and glitzy golds of the ’80s to a recycled, earth- friendly palette reflecting the prevailing themes of globalization and eco-friendliness, a key visual cue that often signaled premium a brand status.

The World Wide Web was but a glimmer. Portable technology was still a future concept. The concept of sophisticated technology and performance was represented by rigid geometry (Gillette Sensor and Sensor Excel) dictated by the masculine principle. By the late ‘90s technology had become our daily sustenance.

The collective vision of machines doing most of our drudgework, freeing up great quantities of leisure time, did not come to pass. Instead, we are more tethered to work than ever. Technology has become our taskmaster.

Technology has bound us to our jobs in ways unimaginable a decade ago. We live at the speed of technology, which creates great strains and has unleashed a powerful antithesis dominated by a need to reunite with our biological rhythms, to reconnect to our senses.

The natural order provides a counterpoint to our “high-tech” lifestyle. Celebrations of nature (natural products, shapes, textures, colors) reconnect us with our innate humanity.

As technology exploded into our personal and work lives throughout the ’90s, our cultural visual vocabulary evolved away from one rationality to one influenced by biology and genetics.

The tectonic shift occurred in 1998, with the first break from the domination of the grid toward the emergent celebration of humanity birth and a new “Human Aesthetic.” The most influential products of the year sported rounded, ergonomic forms, translucence and COLOR, and exhibited a sense of optimism and two even showed a sense of humor. Importantly, they realized success through a commitment to design and a consistent cross media visual presence: the Apple iMac, the new VW Beetle and the Mach 3 razor (Grand Edison, New Product of the Year).

The Feminine Principle:

  • Private Domain
  • Passive
  • Intuitive
  • Organic
  • Associative
  • Soulful Soft, pliable
  • Contraction/Inward (Home/Hearth)

The Masculine Principle:

  • Public Domain
  • Active
  • Rational
  • Geometric
  • Linear
  • Logical
  • Hard, unyielding
  • Expansion/Outward (Exploration/Discovery/Conquering)

The Human Aesthetic:

  • Empathetic (to our time pressed needs)
  • Simple
  • Sensory
  • Optimistic
  • Evocative
  • Biological, Natural form
  • High performance, high value
  • Help us unplug, keep up or go faster

This Human Aesthetic, Where Does it Lead?

In 1997, we identified a trend that was a manifestation of our being “tethered to technology” and called it “Survival of the Fastest.” Daily life had become a sustained workout, dominated by the new speed paradigm. We found ourselves living at the speed of technology and felt a growing need toreconnect with the natural biological rhythms of life.

Sleep deprivation is a key fallout of “fast living” (impacts two-thirds of Americans). Living on six or less hours of sleep has become a badge of status, of entrepreneurship, power, and leadership. Our natural circadian rhythm, which balances our internal systems with the environment, has been defeated.

The oscillation between wakefulness and sleep has been flattened to a state of semi-wake / semi-sleep. Artificial lighting, and the move to indoor work has disconnected us further from natural rhythms. Human physiology is now experiencing a collision between the demands of a 24/7 world.

Pre-modern sleep was that of mammals in the wild, punctuated before and after REM sleep with periods of quiet rest. “ prehistoric times this [sleep] arrangement provided a channel of dreams and waking life that has gradually been closed off as humans have compressed and consolidated their sleep. If so, this alteration might provide a physiological explanation for the observation that modern humans have lost touch with their wellspring of myths and fantasies.” (Awakening to Sleep: Verlyn Klinkenborg, The New York Times Magazine)

In this Survival of the Fastest era, brands have taken on a more subliminal and emotional role in society. Brands have become our new myths and fantasies; cultural artifacts that define our hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears. Like totems, brands represent personal and cultural identities, indicating where we have been and where we are going while they remind us of our humanity.

From Squares to Altered States

Brand trends for the near future reunite us with myths from which we’ve become disconnected. Designers and entertainers draw from a deep well of human myth, Norse, Celtic and Arthurian legend, to create brands and entertainment offering a sense of mystery, awe and magic, an alternate reality that harnesses iconic fairy-tale imagery as a distraction us from our harried lives.

TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a young woman with superhuman strength who vanquishes vampires, was a precursor of this trend. The show spun off Angel, a vampire with a soul. The new TV heroine is Sara Pezzini, the supernaturally gifted detective of “Witchblade,” who defeats demons with her gauntlet and magical blade. The overwhelming success of “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings,” with adults too, demonstrates our fascination with the unknown, a yearning for escape, and a poignant, utopian idealism.

Fashion designers have embraced the symbolic nature of myth in feminine and masculine form. Close-fitting hoods, seamed and cinched tunics, gossamer fabrics and belled or puffed sleeves evoke “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” the legend of Camelot and medieval symbolism.

Born in our subconscious, myths provide a shared connection, uniting us with earlier and future generations, living in the “collective unconscious.” In the past, such lore was the stuff of stories. Today, those stories have a strong visual narrative, distilled to their essence for use in brand communications - by pioneering marketers like LVMH Louis Vuitton’s Snow White and the Seven monkish, gnomish dwarfs; by Neiman Marcu’s flying, floating nymphs, by Disney, and even Jell-O.

The visual vocabulary of fairy tales provides a sense of reassurance that appeals to the childhood innocence latent in adults, as it evokes feelings of wonder in kids. In this information overloaded era, entering magical worlds (if but for a moment) keeps us vital and lessens our cynicism.

On a deeper level, myths provide cues for facing hard realities of our post Sept. 11th world. And, the “altered states” landscape of fairy tales is part of a broader trend toward the incipient bio-design and genetic engineering.

“Myths address the recurring human fantasy of fusing with nature to harness its mystical powers. We want to recover our sense of nature, the wind, waves and oceans because if we understand these things, we may be able to remove the scales from our eyes and rediscover our sense of wonder”. (Dr. Theodore Sherman, editor, Mythlore.)

A rediscovery of nature (if only through brands), biology and our subconscious is a backlash against the machinery of our daily lives. This trend, will be a key cultural force over the next decade and will be a strong influence on brand development, communications and design.


The Authors

Cheryl Swanson and Kyla Lang are Principals of Toniq LLC, a brand strategy firm dedicated to building Brand Effervescence©. Visit .

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