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Windows 8: Brand Identity Crisis Edition

Since images of the new and improved Windows 8 logo were leaked in a post last week by the folks at BrandNew, the web has been abuzz with reactions to the new look. Microsoft and Pentagram have issued official statements on the design, and while public opinion has varied, the overall consensus has been a resounding, “boo.”

But before we condemn this comeback, let’s consider the circumstances. Microsoft has been working hard to redefine their cluttered software experience in the face of simpler, more user-friendly competition from Apple and Google. The release of Windows Phone OSrepresents a refreshing departure from their past: a clean, swiss-style interface that prioritizes legibility and gridded dashboard layouts to simplify process flows. Windows 8 promises to bring these sensibilities to the desktop environment.

But despite noble intentions, the new Windows 8 logo remains a flop. This design doesn’t just simplify the face of the brand; it oversimplifies it, and somehow manages to make it feel even less interesting than it’s did before. It abandons heaps of brand equity and recognition by severing most credible connections to its past. And it insults the audience by taking the liberty of pronouncing this about-face as “entirely authentic.”

If it seems like there’s been an epidemic of these metro identity crises lately, it’s because there has. In 2008, Tropicana played out a similar drama. Even as the product enjoyed solid sales, Pepsi redesigned the packaging for Tropicana, ditching the tropical lettering and idyllic fruit illustrations for swiss inspired sans-serif typography and a photo of a glass of juice. While the intention may have been to confront brand challengers by looking fresher and cleaner, Tropicana ended up ceding years of brand equity, coming across as generic, and angering lifelong customers who struggled to identify the product on the shelves. In no time, the original carton designs were back.


But if the blowback from the Tropicana fiasco was bad, Gap was worse. This once-dominant line of apparel line had been struggling for years, so in 2010 they finally decided that a dramatic revamp was in order. After crowd-sourcing the logo design, they settled on the ultimate in metro style—Helvetica Bold type paired with an abstract gradated square. Take that, American Apparel! But this design had so overreached that it didn’t precipitate public note so much as outcry and ridicule. Within a week, the logo was retracted and Gap issued an official apology to its customers.

It’s debatable whether the Windows 8 faux-pas is as egregious as Tropicana’s or Gap’s; what’s not debatable is the fact that to a substantial segment of their audience, they have simply missed the mark. And while it remains to be seen what recourse Microsoft may take, it’s clear is that there are a number of key takeaways that can help prevent landing in this position in the first place:

1. Brands are living things. They evolve over time, and adapt to their environment. It takes time for a brand to develop market position and a relationship with their customers. The expectation that a brand can redefine all that overnight seems about as natural as a struggling ball player putting on 80 lbs of raw muscle in the offseason.

2. Incrementalism is not the enemy. In fact, it is a brands best friend; it demonstrates a time-tested commitment to core brand values.

3. Brand equity is a trust. It’s not capital that the company owns outright; it’s illiquid, non-transferable trust that exists between a brand and their audience. Brand behavior that suggests otherwise greatly diminishes its value, and it may take an even greater effort to rebuild it. So above all, respect that trust.

4. It’s the experience, stupid. If you want to feel authentic to your audience, focus on the product, not the packaging. Anything less would be cosmetic and by definition inauthentic.

5. Use the right tool(s) for the job. Shifting the direction of a well-established brand is a substantial undertaking; don’t rely on a logo or product update to do all the work. For example, advertising can help prime the audience for a new chapter to your story; social media can help to reinforce it. By creating a thoughtful campaign that utilizes the appropriate brand touchpoints, you can create a cohesive presentation that holds more credibility with the audience.

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