Five Brand Leaders on the State of Branding and What’s Next

Posted inDesign Culture

Last fall, I wrote about 2023 being the year of the rebrand as we saw businesses embracing change post-pandemic. But was this surge of rebranding and external corporate refreshes enough to re-engage brands with their consumer base?

Today, the branding industry is in flux. On one hand, the digital era offers brands limitless opportunities to engage with their audiences through social media, content marketing, and personalized experiences. Conversely, a growing distrust of polished corporate messages and a saturated market have given rise to “anti-branding” and “post-branding” movements. These movements favor social good, authenticity, and a focus on product quality over brand image. Patagonia is perhaps the most visible example of this. Adding A.I. to the mix can diminish brand trust if used irresponsibly. For example, brands failing to declare the use of A.I.-generated content will cast doubt on the integrity of all their content, whether or not it is in fact A.I.-generated.

Amidst this backdrop of evolving branding ideologies, many creative professionals are gathering at OFFF Barcelona this week. The International Festival of Creativity, Art, and Digital Design fosters community around contemporary creativity, serving as a trendsetting global hub within design, art, and post-digital culture.

In the spirit of “What’s Next?” I asked five brand leaders whose agencies are represented at OFFF to share their perspective about the state of branding and what the future of the profession might look like. It was intriguing to see the array of viewpoints — the similarities and disparities — regarding the current branding landscape and what brands (and their creators) must consider moving forward. A common thread; true connections with consumers.

The following contributed their thoughts to this story: Veronica Fuerte, Founder & Creative Directress of Hey Studio; James Greenfield, CEO & Founder of Koto Studio; Radim Malinic, Founder & Creative Director at Brand Nu Studio; Max Ottignon, Co-Founder of Ragged Edge; and Surabhi Rathi, Strategy Director at BUCK.

How do you interpret the emergence of the “anti-branding” and “post-branding” trends within the current branding landscape? From your perspective, what specific insights or implications do you believe this trend holds for traditional branding strategies and practices?

Veronica Fuerte: The “anti-branding” and “post-branding” trends signal a move towards authenticity, transparency, and purpose in branding, challenging traditional tactics that focus on saturation and persuasion. Brands now need to deeply embed their values into their identity, engaging in meaningful storytelling and transparent dialogue with their audience. This requires a more nuanced approach, where genuine connections and value alignment become key to standing out.

James Greenfield, CEO & Founder of Koto Studio

“Anti branding can work for some, but the key thing for most is that finding the right level of originality is crucial. …Consumers are quick to see through inauthentic attempts to jump on these trends.”

James Greenfield, CEO & Founder of Koto Studio

James Greenfield: I don’t think either anti or post branding really has much effect on the majority of the brands we see day-to-day. These trends often feel like a seismic shift when they are happening, but in reality, their impact is often overstated. Take the recent example from the start of the 2020s of leading fashion houses seemingly abandoning distinctive logos and embracing a more minimalist aesthetic. It was short lived and we’re already seeing this trend reverse, with Burberry’s recent rebranding demonstrating the continued value of a distinct brand identity. What they really wanted was the freedom to slap a hefty price tag on a T-shirt or a handbag in a flexible way so they could essentially be two brands at one time. 

Anti branding can work for some, but the key thing for most is that finding the right level of originality is crucial. While true originality might be elusive, the desire to push boundaries is essential for brand growth. It’s this very desire to stand out that fuels these “anti-branding” moments, rather than some underlying widespread political branding uprising. It’s also important to remember that anti-branding with a strong political message can only truly resonate with brands that already have a well-defined social or environmental stance.  Consumers are quick to see through inauthentic attempts to jump on these trends. The internet and our access to information means the internet is quick to punish brands it perceives to have wronged, just look at Budweiser sales in the US, so brands have to tread a little carefully and maybe know their customer more than ever? The driver for brands to change is about where and how their customer is more than what they look like when they turn up.

Radim Malinic: Have we reached the peak branding in the last few years? Having a big team to produce world-class work is no longer imperative. You need world-class ambition to produce work that can make international headlines. All you need is a small team and vision with results that align with many brand ‘deja-vu’ identity systems produced by brands much bigger with seemingly endless budgets. Producing shiny logos with animated assets, snazzy illustrations, and mood videos is no longer the stuff of dreams and hefty budgets. Take a team of five and watch the work fly. This makes our collective headway in visual excellence taste somewhat bittersweet. It also has made the branding landscape and its consumers jaded. We have been busy getting better without seeing our work’s side effects happening right before our eyes. Dog food packaging uses the same colour palette and font choices as the latest toothpaste company, bio-oil producing startup, and so on. Most of these brands rely on multi-channel broadcast instead of storytelling, which can result in greater trust and understanding. We’ve also started peeling layers of multinational brands and their campaigns only to realise things are not as we’ve been told all this time. It’s little surprise that we find ourselves in a situation where the old isn’t working anymore, and the new isn’t taking flight. 

Max Ottignon: Don’t sacrifice clarity or relevance for notoriety. Whether ‘anti-branding’ or ‘post-branding’, it’s still branding. A way of standing out and getting noticed in an ever-more competitive, noisy world. Showing up in a way that feels fresh and authentic can be incredibly powerful, particularly when pitched against an outdated, corporate approach. But lasting success still requires discipline and commitment to ensure that you’re building a brand, rather than simply making a statement. 

Surabhi Rathi, Strategy Director at BUCK

“Brand-building solely centered on commercial interests is outdated. Brands must reorient their “why” towards positive societal impact beyond just products.

Surabhi Rathi, Strategy Director at BUCK

Surabhi Rathi: At the heart of both these movements, lies a rejection of traditional branding as a manipulative tool for consumerism. It reflects deep skepticism towards branding’s roots in exploitative capitalist practices. But, they also serve as a reminder that brands hold immense cultural influence and power to shape societal values. 

And with that, we have a responsibility. 

Brand-building solely centered on commercial interests is outdated. Brands must reorient their “why” towards positive societal impact beyond just products. Clear ethical stances, environmental accountability, aligning with consumer values for the greater good – these are prerequisites, not options. Ultimately, branding should further human values, nurturing collective identities that joyfully unite us.

In essence, these movements advocate for an ethical redefining of branding’s very purpose. Brands must become purpose-driven catalysts for positive change, not vessels of exploitation. This shift is necessary in 2024.

During a time when consumer trust in institutions and corporations is declining, what do you think are necessary methods to adopt for branding agencies to stay relevant in an era where consumers increasingly value authenticity and reject traditional branding tactics?

Veronia Fuerte: To remain relevant as consumer trust wanes, branding agencies might emphasize transparency, authenticity, and direct engagement. This involves helping brands to align their actions with their messages, use user-generated content effectively, and engage in real conversations with their audience. It’s about empowering brands to embrace their uniqueness and connect on a human level.

Radim Malinic, Founder & Creative Director at Brand Nu Studio

“Storytelling with purpose is no longer just a nice thing to have. It’s the foundation of the branding landscape now.”

Radim Malinic, Founder & Creative Director at Brand Nu Studio

Radim Malinic: I’m sure many agencies have been wrestling with ideas for how to help clients identify and communicate their genuine values, mission, and story. Storytelling with purpose is no longer just a nice thing to have. It’s the foundation of the branding landscape now. Move beyond traditional branding narratives and focus on storytelling with purpose. Help clients craft narratives that resonate with consumers on a deeper level by addressing social, environmental, or cultural issues that align with their values.

Max Ottignon: While the tactics may need to evolve, the basic foundations of brand strategy remain the same. At its simplest, our job is to frame products, services and organizations in ways that get them noticed, remembered and, eventually, chosen by a given audience. That means finding a place in the world, and in culture, that feels authentic to that brand and resonant to that audience. And showing up in a way that demonstrates a deep understanding of the community you’re aiming to connect with. Whereas yesterday that might have been a sports sponsorship, today it might be a Twitch activation or Roblox partnership. 

With the rise of social movements, such as conscious consumerism and sustainability advocacy, how do you envision the role of branding evolving to meet the changing expectations and values of consumers? What do you think will be essential for brands to effectively communicate to resonate with their target audience in this landscape?

Veronia Fuerte: As consumer values shift towards conscious consumerism and sustainability, branding must evolve to meet these expectations. This means going beyond selling products to embodying the values of societal change and sustainability. Effective communication and demonstrating a genuine commitment to these values will be crucial for resonating with today’s consumers.

Veronica Fuerte, Founder & Creative Directress of Hey Studio

“As consumer values shift towards conscious consumerism and sustainability, branding must evolve to meet these expectations.”

Veronica Fuerte, Founder & Creative Directress of Hey Studio

James Greenfield: I’m not convinced consumers are giving traditional branding the cold shoulder. Look at the stats: Gen-Zers in the US are splashing their cash on fashion like it’s going out of style. Sure, there’s plenty of talk about sustainability and conscious consumerism, but take a stroll through any mall or supermarket and you’ll see a different story playing out.

Despite the rise of online shopping and influencer culture, the big players are still churning out the same old stuff they have been for decades. Sure, the marketing spiel might have changed, especially on social media, but the products themselves? Not so much. Ask any group of people about their favorite brands and I bet you won’t hear anything groundbreaking.

Now, don’t get me wrong—there’s plenty of buzz around products that feel a bit more off the beaten track, but often, it’s just the packaging that’s different. Take Tesla, for example. They’re all about innovation, but when you strip away the hype and the power source, they’re still pretty conservative in their design and branding.

Then there’s Apple. Their marketing might pop up in unexpected places, but there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about an Apple Store. Yet the iPhone is what the younger generation is clamoring for.

With the internet ready to pounce on any brand that steps out of line, companies have to tread carefully and really get to know their customers. Because at the end of the day, it’s not just about how a brand looks—it’s about meeting your customers where they are, whether that’s online or in person.

Radim Malinic: Brands must be transparent about their actions and be willing to be held accountable for their impact on people and the planet. Transparency will become a cornerstone of branding in this era. Consumers increasingly demand access to information about a brand’s practices, including its environmental impact, labour conditions, and social responsibility initiatives. New startups and brands often spring up to act as the antidote to the bad practices of the juggernauts of the past. Doing things right is much harder and more costly than old methods. To convince consumers who often feel a blind devotion to legacy brands is often a task of its own. We have our work cut out for us, that’s for sure.

Max Ottignon, Co-Founder of Ragged Edge

“Don’t fake it. …We’ve probably seen the last of a mayonnaise claiming its purpose is to reduce food waste (Hellmann’s) or a co-working space purporting to ‘elevate the world’s consciousness’ (WeWork).”

Max Ottignon, Co-Founder of Ragged Edge

Max Ottignon: Don’t fake it. 

After years of brands jumping on inauthentic purpose bandwagons, there’s been a shift towards a more straightforward approach. Perhaps in response to people having to be more careful in their spending, brands have re-focussed on what their customers really want. Not what they’d like them to want. For some, that’s making sustainability a priority. But that focus has to be backed up by action and commitment at a business level. 

I think we’ve probably seen the last of a mayonnaise claiming its purpose is to reduce food waste (Hellmann’s) or a co-working space purporting to ‘elevate the world’s consciousness’ (WeWork). The trick, as always, is in understanding what matters to your customers, and how you’re in a unique position to offer it. But if you’re tempted to fake it, don’t.

Established in 2000, OFFF has become the largest exhibition and meeting point for contemporary visual creativity, uniting the worldwide network of design and creative professionals to foster connections among innovative talents globally in an effort to share insights, collaborate, and unite.

This year, the festival emphasizes nurturing new talent through “The Next Us,” a platform enabling Barcelona’s design students to showcase their work to OFFF’s global audience.

Learn more information about OFFF Barcelona, happening now (April 4 – 6).