A design brand aesthetic should be fundamental to the creative brief for ads, putting design companies on a par with ad agencies, and semiotics provides a way of basing the aesthetic in culture, argues William Landell Mills, founder of Amaranth Insight. 

The ideal function of a Brand World is to express the Core Brand Idea in a distinctive aesthetic, across all touchpoints. However, in practice, Brand Worlds often fall short of this ideal. For a Brand World to gain traction it needs to foster cohesion without stifling creativity. Semiotics, as distinct from other forms of research, can help achieve this by rooting the aesthetic meaning of the Brand World in deep cultural insights, so that client and agencies feel inspired by its spirit, not imprisoned by its rules.

The rise of the Brand World

Until fairly recently, ‘Brand World’ was merely seen as a tool for ensuring all the below-the-line materials looked similar - and perhaps on a good day, that the colours in the ads might also be matched to the logo. Now a Brand World is defined by a set of Design Principles around which the (mainly but not exclusively) visual expression of a brand is framed and which should, ideally, shape the presentation of a brand across all touchpoints. There are significant reasons why this ideal is hard to achieve, but the need for it is more urgent than ever.

Aesthetic glue in a fragmenting media landscape

The fragmentation of media consumption, with people watching a wider range of content, on more diverse platforms, at lower levels of attention, presents a fundamental challenge for modern marketing.

The growing importance of Brand Worlds reflects the need for each brand interaction across different media to build towards a singular imprint. Thanks to the likes of Prof. Byron Sharp, Les Binet, Orlando Wood and others, the case for distinctive, emotionally loaded assets, expressed consistently over time, is beyond dispute. Adhesion to a consistent brand aesthetic is vital to that. Guinness, Nike and Apple are quoted too often, but they do brilliantly exemplify the importance of a consistent brand aesthetic over time.

But how do we get to this?

The most vivid expression of any product brand is the product itself. It is the physical embodiment of the brand that lives in close proximity to the consumer, murmuring its message whenever seen or used. In a world of fragmented media it becomes essential that the meanings embedded in the physical substrate of product and pack are translated into and amplified through advertising. 

An inspiring Brand World provides a structure to align the implicit meanings of the product to the comms so that they form a seamless web in the mind of the consumer. But it is important to remember that this all starts with the product design as it is the product itself (rather than the comms) which hold the most intimate relationship with the consumer. So, to state the obvious, the aesthetics of the creative need to reflect the aesthetics of the product. Which means that the people who determine the product aesthetic (i.e. the designers) play a foundational role in forming the wider brand aesthetic.

The importance of creativity within the discipline

The relationship between Design and Comms agencies carries a tension. On the one hand lies a fear of stifled creativity and on the other of design principles bent out of shape. These anxieties reflect profound issues within marketing. There is plenty of evidence of long term equity being sacrificed for short-term objectives, that ‘Blands’ (brands with a samey modern style) are proliferating, that we seem to be entering a kind of new creative dark age and that nobody is paying much attention anyway. There has never been a more pressing need for powerful creative ideas and nobody wants to erect further barriers to them.

That said, aesthetic discipline is not the enemy of effective creativity. One of the most self-consciously design driven brand launches was the brilliantly original Orange, brainchild of ad man Robin Wight and design guru Wolff Olins. Apple, Guinness, Nike and Audi are all iconic examples where design properties have spawned comms creativity of the highest order. There is no inherent reason for Design and Comms to pull apart.

A Core Brand Idea given definition by its aesthetic

Since the Design Idea behind a Brand World and Creative Idea behind its ads are founded on a Core Brand Idea, they should align easily. However, whether your Core Brand Idea connects to insights around Nostalgia, Progress, Hope or whatever, each of these ‘fat words’ are susceptible to infinite interpretation. A Core Brand Idea is not enough to hold things together. It needs to be defined by a distinct and coherent aesthetic as it is expressed across the piece. The specific choice of aesthetic defines the actual meaning of the Core Brand Idea. It follows from this, that Creative Comms Ideas should be derived from the Brand World, as they should be aligned to its wider aesthetic. 

Playground not prison

Many excellent brands already operate like this, but my guess is that many don’t. There will be multiple factors to do with history, personality and politics that get in the way. But one particular barrier is when a Brand World’s rules are seen as too narrow and arbitrary to be really useful. However, if the ‘rules’ are seen as the expression of compelling cultural insights, then they have more authority and can be more creatively applied. This is why semiotics is so useful for a successful Brand World. It grounds the brand aesthetic in a cultural reality that is tangible and clearly defined.

The value of Semiotics, as opposed to other forms of qualitative or quantitative research, lies in its ability to surface implicit cultural meaning, not just for imagery but textures, shapes, sounds and colours. It speaks to advertising just as much as design and can link the two. Semiotic analysis can survey the cultural landscape associated with a ‘core idea’. It allows one to visualise ‘possible worlds’ within a category, and to read their significance. From this analysis, the brand team can decide what represents the optimal aesthetic expression of the core idea, that can then be enshrined in the design principles of the Brand World.

Briefed not just with the core brand idea, but with its aesthetic expression and underlying cultural meaning, creatives can develop campaigns and designs that bring the ‘World’ to life. The Brand World can be their adventure playground not their prison.

The best hope for the cohesive alignment of design and advertising is that both share not only a ‘core idea’, but also a ‘core aesthetic’, whose deeper meanings have been clearly articulated and then expressed in the pack, the ads and everything in-between. Semiotic analysis of the brand’s core idea can help you towards this.