It's a given in brand communications that differentiation (i.e., standing out from the crowd) is a top priority. Yet there is a clear trend amongst a number of the largest scale tech companies in which a certain sameness appears in their approach to brand logotypes. In a recent post on its Co.Design web portal, Fast Company highlights this trend in the article "Why Do Google, Airbnb, And Pinterest All Have Such Similar Logos?"
The article identifies a number of possible explanations, which undoubtedly have merit. Among those is the observation that a logo no longer equals the brand. This definitely true, although hardly a new insight. Marty Neumeier made this idea a central pillar to his seminal book on brand building: The Brand Gap. Other contributing factors identified by the various experts quoted in the article include a necessary simplicity, unity across UI elements, and a focus on the broader visual programs each brand creates. "So much of the identity now is defined by a lot of elements and experiences that surround the logo, that are supporting it" stated Howard Belk, co-CEO at Siegel + Gale. It is also true that each brand identity integrates a symbol, or in Google's case, a monogram, that help differentiate each brand.
However the article does not go further into examining the underlying condition: that strategic convergence in big tech brands is rampant. Strategic convergence occurs when a significant number of players in an industry or market establish similar strategic approaches. In the case at hand, one sees strategic convergence evident in the visual approach to brand typography in identity. Indeed, the modernist, san-serif typography makes the logotypes of Google, Spotify, and Pinterest nearly identical, as is the new AirBnB identity logotype.
When an industry arrives at a state of strategic convergence (often described as "best practices"), it creates barriers to innovation, as more players seek to adopt the strategy choices of others. It's ironic that many of these companies, while they enjoy reputations as being innovative or disruptive, found such a similar approach desirable.
One possible explanation is less perceived risk; the success of the approach for key companies makes it appealing on its own. Drilling down further, by reflecting the design of logotypes from iconic companies like Google et. al., a new entity acquires just a little of the former's brand halo. The similar appearance of one company to another transfers just a little of the established company's trustworthiness—another brand imperative along with differentiation. Again from the Fast Company article: "All these bold and neutral logos are telling the consumer the same message: Our brand and our services are simple, straight-forward, and clear. And extremely readable.” –Thierry Brunfaut, creative director and founding partner at Base Design.
It should also be said that there is no evidence that any of these companies made a deliberate decision to emulate another. One of the conditions that defines strategic convergence is that players frequently arrive at the same or similar conclusions independently. Neither are these conclusions limited to issues of visual brand design.
There is also another, more urgent risk to any company residing in a state of strategic convergence: those companies are ripe for disruption. By failing to look deeper at ways to create a unique identity and personality, companies leave a host of potential competitive advantages on the table. The "bold, neutral" approach above may be simple, and even effective, but mostly falls short of the sustainable advantage enjoyed by truly iconic brands, via their associated identities.
It is clear that thoughtful design can meet the baseline requirements for design compatible with 21st century technology and an appropriate level of simplicity. One example of design that—intentionally or not—defies the strategic convergence of technology branding comes from Medium. The selection of a serif font, vs. a san serif, immediately distinguishes the brand in a unique and memorable way.
Companies should always deeply examine their goals and purposes, and be vigilant to avoid slipping into the false comfort of strategic convergence. When it comes to brand identity, moving away from the current status quo offers a much greater prospect of building a more compelling and dynamic personality. This offers the best opportunity for a company to truly own its market and insulate itself from encroaching disruption.
Contact Tom Berno to continue this discussion and find out more about how your brand can evolve beyond its competition.