Cube Conversations: We talk digital branding with Saatchi and Saatchi Design’s Ashley Goodall

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Welcome to another Cube Conversation, where we get stuck into a chat with  someone interesting in the industry. This time round I (Gemma Went) had an interesting chat with Saatchi & Saatchi Design’s Ashley Goodall on taking a brand across the digital sphere.

GW: Does branding need ‘different thinking’ when taken across the digital space?

AG: I don’t necessarily think it’s about different thinking. It’s about the execution. Brands should always have the same thought behind them, so its more a question of how they deliver this in different media. What we’re seeing in digital is a very distilled space to deliver the brand, whether through a favicon, an app or on Twitter etc.  There are two ways of looking at this. The visual brand, which has been compressed into a very small space, and the brand thought which is often more about the copy. What’s interesting is that the digital world is basically forcing a different look onto brands because they have to fit into very small spaces. So if you look at a lot of them, whether its Facebook reduced to an F, Coca Cola reduced to a very slim bottle, Yahoo reduced to a Y, the brand is being changed by the format that it is living in.  In the past brands had more control over how they looked. Now the structure of the technology is driving this and creating a visual brand evolution that we didn’t have previously. It forces brands to distill their identity to the absolute minimum shape, colour, size, tonality to fit into a micro space. They don’t have the luxury of being verbose any longer.

The second observation is all about getting across what the brand thinks is important. The message is key and this crunch means that the idea has to be faster and quicker and the proposition much clearer. Because of this we’re seeing a whole new agency alignment developing where PR, design and digital all need to work closer together. These alignments work well in the digital space as they are all about reputation, message and copy led branding as opposed to the more traditional visually led branding. The formats are really affecting how we deliver brands.

GW: And do you think anything is lost in these macro formats, or do we gain from it?

AG: Well both. I don’t tend to look at what you lose, I prefer to look at what you’ve got and how you can optimise and maximise that. It’s actually a great discipline if you’re given a much smaller box to house your brand in and make it distinctive. This is a harder job to do than if you have more space. Its a bit like giving someone a tighter brief as opposed to a lose brief. You’ve got to make it work at that level. The upside of all this is that everything is much quicker, more informal, more rapidly dispersed, like viruses if you like. For example Twitter, is super fast and allows brands to reach their audience faster and engage with them in a much quicker interaction. Another upside is that you can do this with relatively little budget. People, and of course brands, have less money so they have to make more with less, which suits this type of media. Austerity times pave the way for free distribution. The downside is that you don’t get the huge broadsheets and tv channel advertising that you had in the past.

GW: But maybe thats a good thing?

AG: It’s ultimately about efficiency. It’s not about verbose advertising but instead its about concise thinking, which really suits design. Design is about efficiency, user centric delivery and designing to fit with whatever channel or format. There is inherently a lot more discipline in design than there are in other creative areas. A 30 second advertisement can look a little verbose when a 10 second tweet can do the job.

GW: With faster than the speed of light developments in digital, such as the use of video, blogs, social media etc, are brands struggling to keep up?

AG: Probably, but there are always winners and losers. There are those that will always be behind the curve and those that will make the most of it and this is true of any media. Those behind the curve aren’t sure how to deal with it, or at least the power is devolved to a different part of the organisation. Corporate communications suddenly becomes very important in this as they deal with how the message is communicated. Of course the winners have already embraced it and made it a sharing opportunity, such as Saatchi’s T Mobile ads. Some brands haven’t embraced social media in ways that we might have expected, for example MacDonalds. Brands are definitely not making enough of it and I fear that some are still thinking about allocating budgets to other channels, outside of digital media, when they probably don’t need to.

The really exciting thing is that new entrants to the market can take more established brands by surprise and sneak up on them by making the most of social media. There’s a huge opportunity for a lower cost entry and we need to watch this. It’s a bit like the fleet ships versus the old lumbering navy.

GW: Are today’s designers equipped to keep up with the trends?

AG: If they’re aware of the trends, yes. There’s less classic design to be done but there is much more micro-branding. Design is about thinking how you apply a brand to different formats and is very good at creating user centric solutions, which is the key benefit here. We’re quick to take on new things, we look at strategic solutions, we understand organisations and we understand products, therefore we usually have a very interesting point of view. So if you look at design as a strategy for delivery, an ideas base and as a very fleet-of-foot response to user need, it is well placed to deal with that. But it wont be design as we know it.

GW: Designers are intrinsically innovative so it feels like a natural fit with their way of thinking.

AG: Yes. Designers will simply adapt to the media available. We’re used to thinking in multi formats, particularly with brand delivery. We have to think holistically which makes us adept at thinking on our feet, while being strategic with that thinking.

GW: How should branding agencies deal with taking brands across the various social media platforms?

AG: The key thing is to define the brand idea or the brand thought and take that across the various media. It doesn’t always have to be about logo or identity, sometimes it can just be a word or a thought. I’m a great believer in brand language, this and the brand thought are things that can be unique in a particular format, without having the overt look of a brand. There are cues you can pick up that are all based around a central idea. So if you are clever with your brand and have a good brand idea or thought, you can use any copy or element. Disaggregating these components allows you to tear apart the brand and throw a component of it back in a different way.

GW: Let’s talk more about Twitter. Do you think that companies are able to control their brands on Twitter, or will they have to give that up to use it successfully?

AG: You do have an element of control where you can control who you follow and who follows you. But that’s about it. Brands need to be generous and allow people to interact with them, which calls for flexibility. If brands put things out there and respond in a generous way, generally people will respond in a positive way. Brands do need a certain amount of continuity, but this shouldn’t be rigid. We no longer need the more germanic way of controlling a brand, instead we can play with a brand idea and allow consumers to enjoy and engage with it.

GW: Has social media been adopted by the brands you work with?

AG: Some are a bit behind the curve, but they’re getting there. Some big clients have had to turn big ships around and change their models. Interestingly what’s happened with the big clients is that they’ve had to slice 30% off their budgets and that led them naturally to digital. This recession has made bigger brands find cheaper ways to deliver and the only game in town for that is digital. Many of them have put it off for years, but now it’s a necessity.

One smaller client is now delivering everything they do on the web and social media. They don’t have hard copies and their model is to communicate with young people through digital media. These guys have absolutely ‘got it’ and are way ahead of the curve, which of course means everyone wants to know about it.  They’ve just received £5 million backing and this wouldn’t have happened if they’d been using tired old media.

We’re encouraging our other clients, for example charities, to use digital media to (a) reduce costs and (b) to improve impact, and this appears to be working for them. We do have a long way to go with some clients, the bigger the brand the harder it is to change how they do things. Many have entrenched silos and people with budgets that are fighting not to lose them.

GW: Have there been any specific worries from brands around social media?

AG:  It’s primarily about the risk factor. If you know a certain kind of tv advertising works you’re not going to chuck it out. If you have to deliver figures and a certainty, then you stick with what you know delivers. However that doesn’t mean to say they can’t pursue alternative methods. For some brands it’s very much to do with the media buying agencies that, of course, have a vested interested. A media agency that only deals with social media would have a very different view to one that deals with more traditional media. These media buying agencies have a lot of say in how the money is allocated as that’s where the big cash goes. As soon as we can measure social media and prove that it gives return on investment, it will be easier for brands to take it onboard. Any brand worth its salt won’t ignore it.

GW: The essence of social media is all about being more open, transparent and less ‘controlled’. How does this fit with the traditional model of ‘the brand’, which was far more about ‘talking at’ than ‘talking with’ its audience?

AG: I’m not absolutely sure that transparency is always the case with social media. Brands can still put out semi truths and change what they want to say, so there is still a certain amount of influence exerted.  However, the push pull model where brands talk at you is dead.  Consumers are in control and they will tell you what they want and you have to listen.  If brands are clever they’ll hear them, interact and be responsive.

GW: What is the future of brand design?

AG: Whatever it wants to be.  It doesn’t define itself.  I’m not even sure the words brand design are relevant now. Design is a thought process, a way of doing things which is not always about graphics but is more about thinking, strategy and solutions. It always has been, but it is even more so now. Classic brand agencies will be even more clever.

There are periods of splitting things up and reconfiguring. Right now we’re going through an integration period, which is harder for brand design agencies. But that should be a stimulus to invent. I’m an optimist and believe we are the future thinkers, so while big ad agencies might be desperately trying to do brand design, we’ll be moving on to the next big thing. We’re all about reinvention which keeps us one step ahead.

So the future of brand design is whatever you want it to be. It will be clever, user centric and psychological.

GW: Any final thoughts?

AG: There’s a big thought generally about interdependency. People are thrown together to make things work as they cant stand alone anymore. Classic design agencies need to be interdependent on other agencies. The new philosophy is all about collaboration. We need to learn from others, give to others and help each other out. Just like social media.

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1 Comment
  1. Diane Fox-Hill says:

    Really interesting to hear Ashley’s thoughts. Some phrases that really resonated with me: “Concise thinking….really suits design”, and “Design is a thought process, a way of doing things which is not always about graphics but is more about thinking, strategy and solutions.” Abso-bloody-lutely.

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