Branding By Algorithm

I’ve been thinking a wee bit about what happens to brand in this digital world, and one of my conclusions is that it’s being overpowered, and we’re now “branding by algorithm”.

This is leading to a homogenisation of brand by the anodyne and formulaic approach to creating them.

Do I sound like a bitter old technophobe yet?

So, it’s no great secret or insight to observe that brand and digital used to inhabit their own silos without much crossover or mutual understanding. In fact, they still do, and it’s amazing to us how differently they can still be treated: more often than not as separate disciplines, which create disjointed and inconsistent experiences for customers. But over time, enlightened marketers have recognised the value in bringing them together, which, in our view, has created a couple of trends that are worth thinking about.

The internet has democratised branding.

Anyone can create a logo. With any computer and with little skill. There are sites that will help you design your own logo for free, or they will ‘featurise’ logo creation as part of a wider offer or service. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a low bar but it’s probably raised the standard from the home-made efforts from Word or PowerPoint you used to be given by a new client as ‘references’. Smile and nod. Say something nice about the colour and put it in a drawer. The thing is, this isn’t really branding - it’s a skin deep exercise in styling. That’s it.

The rise of D2C brands.

Another impact of the internet is the fact that it’s ripped up the rulebook on distribution too. In the past, entrepreneurs were hampered by the route to market, which was controlled by wholesalers or retailers. Unless you could convince them of your product; there was no way a customer was going to see it on a shelf. Now they can just go straight to the consumer and look to build their brand online. 

Now these D2C brands are everywhere - from Harry’s, Warby Parker, Hello Fresh and about 100 mattress brands - they’re on TV, on the internet & social channels and even in the paper. The trend continues; but I guess there will come a point where we as consumers just can’t be bothered anymore. Do I really need to buy an organic, tooth whitening toothbrush from an overly excited, glossy D2C brand called ‘Brusho’, for just £5 per month? It’s easier just to get one at the supermarket isn’t it?

The interesting thing that happens when you put 1 and 2 together is that you end up with a load of ‘brands’ that all look and feel very similar. Web platforms like Wix, Squarespace and Shopify are organisations that synthesise the two parts together and create a living, breathing digital business. 

Our view is that this rush to push these businesses online has reduced the requirement to create any real depth or distinctiveness to the brand. They’re all very skin-deep and clean in their execution: flat graphic logos, a nice bit of clean type, tasteful colour palette and a crisp web layout. Hey presto: a mattress company can be switched out for a razor blade firm at the drop of a hat. The web platforms have reduced the creative process to AI that does all the heavy lifting. It’s branding by algorithm.

Now I’m not infuriated by this stuff. I think that much of it is good. Anything that allows Joe Blogs to turn their passion into a professional-looking business for $10 a month is great. And God knows I’ve spent enough time in this industry to know that we’re able to totally over-complicate the branding process, so at some level, I think that this disruption is a good thing. It forces agencies to think carefully about the type of business they are in and what value they’re adding.

In fact, Scott Galloway has stated that he thinks we’re at the end of the brand era and entering the product era. (Basically, he means it’s the end of old skool linear advertising & consumers can now see product ‘ahead’ of advertising because of the internet). I get his thought process and broadly I agree with him. But if you listen to him carefully he’s not saying that ‘brand’ is dead. He still argues it’s incredibly important; but that the digital context around brand has changed the commercials around the ad business.

For me, creating off the shelf logos and identities for mom and pop shops is a positive thing. But, as soon as you get into the corporate world, branding by algorithm just doesn’t work. There’s simply too much nuance. There’s politics, departments, regions and SVPs to be consulted and considered. Not to mention brand architecture, IP and endless digital and social media content requirements. In short, big business marketing just gets in the way. 

In order to navigate the myriad of corporate requirements, big businesses need brands that have been carefully considered at a foundational, strategic and creative level. They need more about them than a nice logo and a sharp headline. They must be underpinned by human values, emotion and flexible enough to hang on to sub-brands and be able to spin messaging from a central core to multiple audiences without sounding schizophrenic. That’s hard. And it’s why brand consultancies like Good still have a lot of value to offer that’s not (yet) available on Wix or Shopify.