Category Archives: Brand Identity

Why Do All New Cars Look Alike?

I look around and all I see is the same car. A different tail light here, different door handle there, but essentially they’re all alike. I can’t tell a Honda from a Lexus from a Chrysler without looking at the logos. As a designer my first thought is, can’t anyone design something different? I mean, where’s the personality? I am forever seeing ads touting “aggressive new styling.” When was the last time you saw an aggressively new styled car?

I did some research and read that a lot of what drives new car design is aerodynamics. Okay, granted, to be more fuel efficient designers strive to decrease wind resistance as much as possible, but come on. I couldn’t imagine that there was so little room in the wind tunnel for differentiation that they all had to be so much alike.

I was skeptical of this aerodynamic silhouette claim, not that I didn’t believe in the science, but I wondered how much influence it had on the actual design. So I chose eight cars at random (no lie) from the internet as my representative sample. I traced the silhouettes of all eight cars, in different colors, and superimposed them and was SHOCKED at how closely they matched. These lines are the actual silhouettes of the eight cars pictured.

Secondly, I know that product and package designers face consumer resistance when designing anything new or innovative. For years laundry detergent came in powdered form in big boxes. When liquid laundry detergent first appeared on the market the response was: outrageous, laughable, weird. Automotive design is no less immune and is prone to follow established convention when it comes to designs the consumer is familiar with, willing to spend $25K+ on and something they are willing to park in their driveway without the neighbors snickering.

In 1934 Chrysler took a gamble and introduced the Chrysler Airflow and its lower priced counterpart, the DeSoto Airflow. Not only did the radically new designed Airflow lead the way in terms of aerodynamics (or “streamlining” as it was then called), it was the first mass-market car in the world to use the “modern” bodyframe architecture that has now become standard. However, as modern as the Airflow was, it wasn’t accepted by the buying public and the car was only in production for four years. The public was simply not ready for such a major change in automobile design. Chrysler must still be given credit for continuing with innovative design with their PT Cruiser, Crossfire and 300 Series.

There are some current exceptions in this play-it-safe world, with a few cars, the Mini Cooper, Nissan Cube and Scion iQ (ala Smart Car) as examples, that are targeted to younger consumers who are more willing to accept new ideas. But my feeling is that to appeal to a broader audience and decrease the risk of consumer rejection, especially in a recession, auto manufacturers will continue to play it safe and design cars that conform to current trends.

Wondering what the eight cars are: Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Genesis, Honda Accord, Chevy Cruze, Audi A4, Lexus LS.

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The Power of Color in Brand Recognition

I was on vacation in Egypt years ago — long before the Arab Spring threw the country into chaos — and noticed a sign above a storefront in Cairo advertising products I instantly recognized. I don’t read Arabic, of course, and there was no English translation on the sign like one might see in a train station — the dominant language large and prominent and the alternate languages appearing below, much smaller, but always viewed with great appreciation by foreigners traveling abroad.

What amazed me was the power the brand colors possessed in communicating their identities without the use of language or even graphics. How was it possible for me to identify the sign as advertisements for, from left to right, Sprite, Fanta and Coca-Cola, without a moment’s hesitation? Did you guess the same thing? I first thought that maybe it was the logos, but there really aren’t any discernible logos for these products. It wasn’t words or even photos of the product, it was the use of color, solid, bold and used edge-to-edge with the “type” knocked out from the background. Consistent use of color schemes build brand recall. Don’t believe me? Look at the same photo below in black and white and tell me if it’s even recognizable.

Color is one of the most important components in creating brand identity. Color is the first element the mind sees and the last it forgets. Walk down the laundry soap aisle of the grocery store looking for Tide. Do you look for the logo? The bottle shape? No, you look for orange. It’s color first. In the Three Zones of Merchandising (12 ft., 3 ft. and 1 ft.), product recognition starts at 12 ft. away with color recognition (Tide, that’s orange). Next comes the 3 ft. Zone, which is product differentiation (I’m looking for the Tide with stain release). Finally, picking up the product, the 1 ft. Zone is for inspection of the label, if needed, to read ingredients, features, ounces, etc. This is why every brand spends millions of dollars owning its own unique color and reinforcing that color in the mind of the consumer. However, color choice should be appropriate to its product sector. Choose a novel color not usually associated with a product and consumers may reject it as inauthentic, cheap or too avant-garde. Read my article, A Cereal Package Design Blunder for an example of this.

As you flip through a magazine, go through your mail, or browse the grocery store aisle, take note of how brands use the power of color to differentiate themselves from the competition. Observe how color is used in the marketing of products and services and note how often you use brand color recognition when choosing those products and services.

To illustrate, most of you would recognize the brands pictured below, even though only a portion of the logo is visible. *

*Left to right: BP, Coca-Cola, UPS, Best Buy, Citibank, Starbucks and Pepsi.

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A Cereal Package Design Blunder

I have a confession to make. I sometimes shop at Big Lots. To borrow a quote from Henry Higgins, “It’s so deliciously low.” The odd mix of brand names, knock-offs and cheap Chinese-made products always make for a singular shopping experience.

The food aisles are my favorite. Sometimes they’re filled with delightful imported cookies, tea, and jam; sometimes with closeout products that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it at the grocery store. One item I found that sounded delicious but looked awful was this Nature’s Path Organic Flax Plus Pumpkin Raisin Crunch cereal.

I can’t help but think that the reason this cereal ended up as a Big Lots closeout was that the packaging was just so damn ugly. I mean, whose idea was that? The purple and yellow color scheme is a complete disconnect from the product category. In Rob Kaszubowski’s article, How To Use Color in Food Packaging, he explains that food packaging uses characteristic colors that are associated with the products inside. Orange juice containers aren’t blue, they’re orange. When thinking about cereal, one thinks of healthy, vitamin-enriched whole grain. Orange, yellow, red and brown are all colors typically associated with cereal and used predominately in most cereal packaging. This purple package has none of that association. If I covered up the type and spoon, I think you’d be hard pressed to guess what was inside.

Nature’s Path’s website says, “We’ve had a makeover. Our packaging has changed.” And not a moment too soon. I’m guessing that the failure, sorry, “lack of sell through” on many of their otherwise delicious cereals prompted some market research, focus groups and a search for a new package design team. My guess was correct when I read a recent article on Natural Products Marketplace’s website explaining that Nature’s Path’s previously inconsistent packaging designs prompted them to hire a renowned packaging research firm to make sure their new packaging and logo redesign would appeal to consumers. I think you would agree that the new design is a considerable improvement over the old.

It’s just too bad I won’t be seeing any of their cereal for a buck a box in the closeout aisle at Big Lots anymore. Nature’s Path couldn’t be happier.

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Filed under Brand Identity, Color, Package Design