Keeping Brand Identity in a Customized World

First came Nike iD, a customization concept that enabled consumers to design their own pair of Nike shoes. Then Jones Soda offered a customization platform: bottles became vehicles for consumers’ customized labels, with a guarantee the fans’ bottles would be distributed in stores. Shortly thereafter, Build-A-Bear Workshop broke new ground in the teddy bear game, inviting kids to construct their own bears. The Lego Factory enables kids to design their own Lego sets. Consider Mercedes-Benz’s build-your-own-car option and, of course, the hundreds of clothing Web sites that offer consumers the chance to design their ideal apparel.

These consumer lures have all been exercised in parallel with the online world where the very concept of customization is fundamental, and in which customization’s potential has yet to be fully exploited.

Once we’ve had the chance to pick and choose, to become kings and queens of our own brand universes, product functions, and designs, there’ll be no turning back. In the future, we’ll be able to customize every consumer item we use. The days of Henry Ford’s manufacturing mantra, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black,” are long gone.

The question thus arises: what’s the brand’s role? Is it possible to build a brand if that brand’s products can be customized by consumers?

The brand’s role is to remain instantly recognizable, even without a logo. Take the iPod. Where’s the logo? You may be surprised to learn the logo’s hidden on the back, not prominently displayed on the front, as any marketer would insist. Yet, I’m sure no one world would confuse a Sony Walkman with an iPod. This demonstrates a crucial feature of good branding. Were Sony to remove its logo from its Walkman, the device could be identified as being a product from a number of competitors. No one would mistake the iPod for one of its competitors.

Here’s more cleverness. You may claim the distinctive white of the iPod sets it apart. But an iPod in yellow, blue, or red would be equally recognizable. Fact is, the brand is so deeply embedded into the product that every square inch of it is the brand. The logo is just dotting the “i.”

If you break down the Apple brand and examine each of its components, you’ll realize the logo is a very small part of the whole equation. Apple owns the navigation wheel, the materials (combining steel and plastic), the rounded shape, the simplicity of design, the weight, the navigation, the navigation sound, the slow yet balanced movements (when navigating), and, of course, the distinctive white earphones.

So what’s the brand’s role? Steady growth in customization — online, offline, and wireless — requires brands to develop and maintain more coherent, stronger brand identities that emanate from the full spectrum of product and service components, not just from a logo.

This “smash your brand” theory, which I discuss in my “BRAND sense,” refers to the principle underlying the classically contoured Coca-Cola bottle, which was designed to be recognizable even if smashed into thousands of pieces. The theory sums up a brand’s role in the age of customization.

Assuming this trend will grow, it will be essential for a brand to be smashable to ensure its soul shines through the most customized of customizations. The brand must be visible, distinctly perceivable, to justify the consumer’s choice of it for her customized product. Brands that continue to rely on a logo for credibility and distinctiveness will face tough times because, ultimately, products will need to be so well branded no logo is necessary to signal its brand identity.

Prepare yourself for an interesting future. Conduct a brand health check today. Remove your logo from offline products and online presences. See what’s left. If the logo’s disappearance means farewell to your brand identity, it’s a warning. Time to reconsider your brand strategy. The good news is there’s still time for improvement. The bad news is the clock is already ticking.

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