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The Impact of Cultural Transformation on
Brand Marketing

by Cheryl Swanson


Consumers experience brands visually, in their totality, placing new importance on "visual positioning," which holds the key to successful brand marketing today.

Consumers experience brands emotionally, not through individual communications, i.e. advertising, packaging, online presence or promotions, but in their totality. An effective "visual position" is a pre-requisite to delivering a consistent message across media.

To understand the visual brand future, we should review our visual past.

In the mid 20th century, we defined the "future" much differently than it exists as we begin the 21st century. We grew up with a future defined by NASA and Hollywood and with President Kennedy fueling our collective dream of landing a man on the moon. The realization of that dream, and movies like Stanley Kubrick's classic "2001: A Space Oydessy," led us to imagine a very different visual landscape than exists today.

Surfaces would be hard; shapes would be rigid, machinelike. Cool, clean lines would replace the warm and fuzzy. We would find ourselves in a highly logical order where mankind would evolve beyond our biological roots and into the biomechanical.

The clunky electronic gadgets (PCs) that navigated ships to the moon have shrunk to become part of our everyday lives. Technology is now sustenance. By 2006 we will likely spend nearly as much money on computers as on food and beverages.

The Myth of Leisure - Fast Times

Technology was supposed to take on boring tasks to provide us more leisure time. Instead, time management is a major issue. The computers which made our lives FAST leave us feeling sensory deprived; disconnected from our bio rhythms as we struggle to cope with the pace of technology. This "Survival of the Fastest" trend, characterized by a dynamic of forced evolution, evolving language and sleep deprivation, is likely to accelerate over the coming 15 years.

Along with technological change, language is evolving rapidly, underscoring the importance that visual language plays to the long-term health of brands.

Sleep deprivation, the third dynamic, has progressed to an average of less than seven hours daily. Two-thirds of American adults (62%) report sleep related disorders. "Functioning" on little sleep has attained status as a sign of vigor and leadership. We've flattened the oscillation between natural sleep and waking cycles, become disconnected from natural rhythms, creating a collision between physiology and the demands of a 24/7 world.

Brands Take on New, Subliminal Meanings

As we compress the sleep cycle, man finds himself losing touch with his wellspring of myth and fantasy. Brands take on a subliminal, emotional role in society, replacing myth and fantasy to become the defining cultural artifacts of our hopes, dreams and fears.

The Future Takes on New Shape

The visual landscape of the 21st century is morphing from a masculine, machine-based vision, rational, geometric, linear and logical world, toward an organic, bright, sensory reality that celebrates the human spirit. This viewpoint provides a wake-up call filling us with optimism. Organic shapes and sensory textures reunite our biorhythms (if but for a moment) with our emotions. This new world combines masculine with feminine principles; organic, soulful, soft, inward oriented, producing a more humane landscape.

Future Brands

How does this human inspired vision of the future affect design and brands?" The "human principle," a sharing of our imperfections, weaknesses, feelings, and idiosyncrasies, rather than the perfection of machines or a divine being, is highly relevant to brands. We have identified four themes that make brands relevant in this "Survival of the Fastest" era. Brands can remain relevant only when they remind us of our humanity. Brands need empathy, sensory, simplicity and optimism ("ESSO") to make a solid human connection.

Brand Relevance Factors

Empathy, understanding our time pressed needs:
Empathetic brands help us more effectively manage our days, reach out to soothe, to re-energize. The first expressions of empathy are efficiency and convenience, which are best presented through a softer visual vocabulary that embraces the velocity of life through flex and flow.

Increasingly, industrial and aeronautical materials are being integrated into daily life. Materials that stretch with the body are streamlining business and everyday apparel. High-end designers create new forms of footwear that play an integrated role in today's lifestyle.

And as become ever more nomadic, product and brand design will continue to shrink, becoming lighter, more malleable. The next horizon, softness, sees "gadgets" as lifestyle accessories that express one's identity, like watches by Swatch.

Connect / Disconnect
There is an emerging backlash to our frenzied pace. The more connected we become, the more we desire to disconnect, to escape. These new escapes are meted out in small doses, at day spas, yoga class, on weekend getaways taken mid-week.

Simplicity, the second "Human" Relevance factor
September 11th was such a climactic turning point. Our "loss of innocence" makes everything that before appears innocent. Jetson's-like, we recall the '50s version of the future, rounded, elliptical shapes, bright, happy colors, and a comic vision of space.

Crafts are being revived as we seek to project humanity onto everyday objects. This new respect for craftsmanship celebrates the beauty of human imperfection and reflects a yearning for handwork. In fashion, beading and embroidery abound.

Indoors that we yearn for the colors, textures and forms of nature. In reaction, home design is integrating the sounds of water and natural light.

The yoga craze expresses our need to reunite with our bodies, to re-learn how to breathe, to stimulate our senses with aromatherapy, strong mints, body lotions.

Our senses hunger - we must nurture them.

A feeling of excitement and relief exists when our senses are engaged. Materials and manufacturing innovations will continue to create unique sensory shapes, textures, and colors.

The SOFT concept is being embraced at every level, from softer lines and materials with skin-like qualities to highly textured things that respond to touch. These products can be high-end like the Cappellini Gel Chair, or mass like the elastic techno-gel pens at the local drugstore.

Brands are investing in high-sensory experiences. Design is breathing new life into packaging in an almost magical way. Packages are becoming experiences, especially high-end fragrances and liquors, even waters like the Fiji brand.

The iMac influenced a new generation of technology products, extending its influence into categories like personal care. Although color is here to stay, bright candy colors are giving way to a more sophisticated palette.

Although bold color will continue, we will see more levity through the evocation of natural light and the interplay of whites and frosted effects. Translucence invites natural light and connects us to our biology, providing feelings of hope.

Optimism ... Celebrating the Human Form
Optimism is a celebration of the human form. We will continue to see fewer unapproachable corporate signatures as we favor lighter, brighter, more emotionally evocative symbols.

The human face and form is enjoying a renaissance in everything from corporate identity to product marketing to design. Institutions and utilities, insurance, medical, science and technology companies are choosing to visually communicate their human spirit.

The third prong of Optimism ... "Living It Up"

Americans are buying cars. The big sellers have flash, glitz and price tags seemingly out of step with the times. The biggest gainer of all is a convertible; sales of the Chrysler Sebring have tripled. Corvette sales are up 63%."

American identity is about making things happen and in the power of positive thinking. We have the energy, the strength and the determination to enjoy life to the fullest. We must simply remember that we are human.

This is the transcript of Cheryl Swanson's speech to the Business of Marketing Strategy Conference Institute for International Research, April 27, 2004 in Boston. (ed.)


The Author

Cheryl Swanson is a Principal of Toniq LLC. Toniq is a brand strategy firm dedicated to reviving established brands and creating compelling new brands through our Brand Effervescence Process, an anthropological, cultural approach to brand building supported by study in art history, the psychology of symbolism, visual trend forecasting and design. Visit .

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