“Differentiate or die”. This is branding dogma.
Yet: the majority survives nicely without true differentiation.
Clearly, no differentiation is possible without identity and to define identity is a challenge; not to mention making sure that it’s consistent within the organization and between the organization and its environment. The existence of THE concept behind identity and making sure that the concept remains uncorrupted (leadership) goes hand – in hand: there is no leadership without identity and there is no identity without leadership.
Most organizations don’t have an identity thus they have (almost) no chance of discovering or developing true differentiation; but even with a strong innate identity it maybe very difficult to manifest identity in the environment, since the environment is very often “contra differentiation”.
To explain this let’s have a quick look at space as one of many aspects of identity.
Two obvious examples come to mind: retail space and office space. Although we tend to think of retails space as external and of office space as internal environments, since it is about creating experiences based on differentiation, designing both entails similar challenges and serve similar purposes.
Both spaces are positioned in at least four distinct environments:
1. the country
2. the city
3. the street
4. the building
The first two is always more distinct anywhere in the world. There are cities where the street is less distinctive, like typical mall strips in most North American cities and there are buildings that are not very distinct at all: e.g. malls or modern office buildings just about anywhere in the world.
Lack of distinction in the environment creates a uniform feel where it’s tremendously difficult to differentiate with space; if we walk into the majority of malls for example there’s no way we can tell which country or city or street we are in: we walk into a standardized universe that rids otherwise sharp contrasts and characteristics of all their edge. A Starbucks for example feels very different in a mall than on a street where at least the character of the building (if any) and the windows enable some vague integration with the street, to some extent drawing on and incorporating the living energy of the environment.
The situation is typically much worse with office space although there are at least more design opportunities available here than in the retail space in a mall for example.
The less distinctive the environment, the more difficult it is to convey brand experience through design; this may sound counter-intuitive, since we tend to think that the contrast is bigger between distinction and undifferentiation than between two distinct entities, but if we think a little further we realize that this is not true. Undifferentiation is a force comparable to acid, that simply dilutes distinctive elements; on the other hand the more perfectly each entity is differentiated, the sharper the contrast between them, creating a creative tension, which is a pre-requisite for successful integration.
The the undifferentiated environment in a mall is so strong that a visitor is primarily in a mall and only secondarily in the retail space. To design a retail experience in such a setting that makes the visitor forget where she has been before walking into the brand space is obviously difficult: it’s a fight against the world so to speak, very different from designing space in a well differentiated setting (some luxury brands in historical environments are able to take advantage of this).
When we look at the office space setting what’s striking is to what degree visible differentiation is not a priority and how what the company’s thinking about itself as a brand is not reflected in it’s office space. This is more striking at retail and fmcg companies of course and very telling at companies where differentiation based on identity is more obviously missing: IT service providers for example.
Similarly to malls, walking through seas of cubicles makes you forget where you are. The same goes for offices that follow “design trends”, essentially being uniformly “cool” or “different” in other ways.
In short: what’s happening is that places are created that make a numbing, artificial impression, suggesting that what you see is not real (including the “brand”!).
What should be happening is:
1. Definition of the identity way beyond brand identity. In fact: brand relates to identity like the periphery of the circle to the center. This is not the job of hirribile dictu “brand technicians”!
2. In undifferentiated environments increased effort must be placed into space design for each and every location! Uniform look does not help here (or anywhere!). In order to create a favorable environment for the brand the undifferentiated surrounding must be defied, drawing on the identity of the broader environment (street, city, country); without this the brand identity, if it’s real, CAN NOT come forth.
3. In well differentiated settings (e.g. historical areas) care must be taken that an overly standardized look doesn’t become a factor of undifferentiation thus undermining instead of utilizing all qualitative elements of the environment.
What could be challenging:
– to appropriately define identity as the foundation of ALL initiatives: strategy, branding, marketing, HR, purchasing, etc. This is highly critical especially when the entity does not have an identity. In such cases a transformation must take place. There is no room here to elaborate on methodologies for defining identity or for architecting transformation, but a simple question maybe mentioned that helps us recognize if a company has an identity: what’s the foundation of your strategy if you forget last year’s results, competitive behavior, regulatory environments, availability of resources and the eternal favorite: “our people”?
– to understand and apply that consistent brand identity does not mean rigid brand identity: consistent does not mean uniform!
– to understand and apply that functionality does not define identity.