Co.Design

American Retail Brands Are All Starting to Look the Same

More and more brands are starting to look alike, making it tough to differentiate between retailers' brands.

With re-branding happening everyday, it's becoming impossible to tell retailers apart.

In an attempt to be more relevant to a younger customer, America's department stores and retailers are quickly becoming, well, irrelevant to everyone. I know, I've been on my high horse for some time about the dumbing down of brand identities, but after seeing the continued simplification of JCPenney's, (or rather, jcpenney's*) logo, it dawned on me: There must be a conspiracy. If retail brand identities continue in the same visual direction, there will be exactly one retailer in charge in just a few years. (*The new jcpenney identity was the work of a third-year design student, but that is another discussion.)

Seriously, what is going on? Will this be the year of the generic brand 2.0? Let's review:

First Belk (or belk, as it were) department stores announced a $70 million dollar makeover to make an "emotional connection" with younger customers. Okay. Then Gap did the thing that Gap did. But undid it quickly. Oy. Then Sears became sears just in time for an Arial-dominated Christmas. And now jcpenney.

retail-pile-up

As a graphic designer and brand strategist, I realize that there are subtle, yet significant differences between each identity. But as Joe or Joanne Consumer, you just have to squint yours eyes a little, and all the logos look like siblings. Or at least first cousins. To illustrate my point, I took a single font (one that I wouldn't normally use for anything) and a square. No kerning. Just dropped it on the page.

Now squint.

If the brand foundation, positioning, and personality of these brands are all the same, then forgive me. I retract my rant, and leave with soapbox in hand. But I don't think so. Each one of these retailers has a unique value to its consumer. But are their identities a reflection of these unique qualities? I'm not seeing it. Perhaps those unique qualities are gone.

I know there is a population out there that believes a brand's identity is meaningless to begin with. That it's all about the product. Or the experience. I couldn't disagree more. A customer's experience typically begins with the logo. We have a mental image of the promise of the brand and the logo helps us visualize and realize that promise. And don't we want retailers telling us how they are different? I'm afraid that in an attempt to become relevant to everyone, our retailers are becoming relevant to no one. Perhaps it's as it should be. Be sure to turn the lights off when you leave.

[Top image is, of course, Diane Arbus's immortal Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967]

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20 Comments

  • jamey boiter

    1/30/12 update: so it seems, jcp is trying to outdo itself. the "newest" brand identity combines everything that is homely about retail right now - into one mark! we'll see. hope their strategy works. we have an afinity for all things ron johnson. fair and square. 

  • Terence BIggs

    Jamey...I totally agree. The assimilation of retail brands is leading the way to nowhere. Brands are so afraid to be unique for fear of being viewed as out of step. It used to be when you stood out you got recognized. Now it seems the philosophy is, assimilate or die. Consumers are looking for value and using lower case letters for your brand does not fool today’s savvy consumers, it merely tells then that you do not take them or their business seriously. BTW, they may not have to turn off the lights on the way out…it’s already out!

  • Paul Raybin

    Great rant Jamey. Perhaps the new logos are the most truthful of all since there is little, if any, differentiation among these retailers in product or position. Finally, they are introducing brands that reflect their actual shallowness rather than attempting to fool consumers into thinking there's something different behind the facade (of their logo). How refreshing would it be for retailers to build from the inside out, developing, internalizing, and demonstrating what sets them apart (think Apple).

  • Mike Garten

    Jamey, I couldn't agree more. Your post was especially timely for me after just watching a webcast of Marc Gobé discussing the 10 commandments of emotional branding. All the examples you offered are the antithesis of emotional branding. They’re bland, generic, safe and designed to the lowest common denominator of emotional impact.

  • bree basham

    Worthy rant, for sure, great POV! In their quest to refresh and become modern and relevant, many brands are starting to look the same, following trend in design rather than what their brand is about at the core. Love the Diane Arbus image as well :)

  • Jeff Sutthoff

    I think you've tapped into something critical that's been happening at a cultural level for sometime. Several years ago I started noticing and reading about 'The Malling of America',( i.e. The fact that someday all of our downtowns will look the same.) I think this trend is ever creeping into the marketing/Brand front.

  • Marc Posch

    Drowned in strategy. Happens a lot these days, when there's more money spent on strategy than actual design. Design is always the wild card, the value of strategy however (as useful as it is) can be justified in ratio to weight and/or number of pages. Selling an innovative fresh design is the hardest part. Believe me. We see this every day.
    Marc Posch Design, Inc, Los Angeles

  • sarah devaney-O'Neil

    Love this Jamie; this was exactly the point I was trying to make in a notice I sent out last week & yesterday for a marketing class I'm teaching. So many businesses are falling in to copy mode instead of really thinking through their own value propositions!!

  • Monty Montague

    It's design in the shade of vanilla (aka mediocre). Yes, the consumer won't hate you ....but love at first sight is out of the question.

  • Steve Jones

    Great rant! The font you choose for your logo may seem like a small factor, but it can, in the long run, be a defining factor. Nobody can ever use the iconic "squealor" font without invoking AC/DC!
    I don't disagree on the value of a logo, but I do believe the ultimate "brand" is an emotional connection that begins with the logo and grows from there. A brand's logo is like a photograph of a person. The photograph creates certain feelings about the individual in it, but the in-person encounter is much more powerful.

  • Jamey Boiter

    thanks all for the great comments. some made me laugh out-loud. it could be that "de-branding" is the new rebranding. with this less than subtle movement toward simplification, are companies in fact signaling an internal drive to be less of a brand? i don't think so. is new media forcing this? it shouldn't be. but tim, you're right, without knowing the strategy behind each move, we're just guessing...

    what is very intriguing [to me at least] is where this is prevalent — primarily in the middle tier of consumerism. at the boutique, hospitality, and luxury levels, brands continue to propagate and flourish. [lvmh just dropped $6 billion to add bulgari to their stable of luxury brands]. and the brands are being managed extremely well at these levels.

    is this a reflection of a companies drive for cost reductions and efficiencies in their business practices that we are seeing visually manifested, resulting in actual de-valuing of the brand over time by taking away its personality and differentiation? seems like the emotional connection with the consumer is being severed — which can lead to position and equity erosion and then the brand finds itself irrelevant even to its core constituents.

  • Tim Ross

    Hi Jamey, I was recently involved in a discussion on LinkedIn with some of my ol’ landor-ian cronies in regards to identity. The question proposed was: Could a company/service not have a logo? Whether it's possible or not it brings to light the intricacies of what playbook for a brand definition and identity each person/firm uses. Creating the lowest common denominator may be the closest we get to absence of identity. It embarrasses me but I may have to agree with Marc Posh, as fun as strategy is, it sure can sink a game changing design or idea faster than a trap door on a canoe.

    Tim Ross

  • Jamey Boiter

    tim, i tend to agree that there are times when strategy "feels" like it gets in the way. but a good brand strategy has to drive the brand, product, and company differentiation. if not, the company or the designer is not being challenged by the strategy, which it should be. in an existing brand that is evolving, the strategy must evolve to, and drive the creative evolution. it just doesn't seem reasonable to believe that a company would be interested in "de-branding" themselves to be more relevant with their community. and i doubt that is what a good strategy would recommend either.

    with a new brand, we try very hard through the discovery/definition phase to gain the insights required — without precepts or given constructs — through a deep immersion into what the brand should be, and what it should mean to your various constituents, in order to create value in their mind. then assimilate that info into the foundational elements — the pillars of the brand, positioning, personality, etc. That then drives the creative, so that it is reflective of the foundation, allowing the communications to build a point of view that becomes the brand. i suppose the strategy could be driving the creative to not be creative or have an identifier. but i'm not sure it would. it may drive a very kinetic type of identity that changes every day, but that is still by design, driven by a strategy. [see MIT media lab post] i saw the linkedin discussion you're referring to, and almost jumped in.

    thanks for your insights, tim
    jamey

  • Tim Ross

    Nice article Jamey. Good insight to the lack of visual differentiation. However, I do have to wonder if we aren’t unpacking the insight here. Maybe the younger customer (which they claim to be chasing) isn't interested in or truly in touch with the actual identity or mark - first impression or not. The younger audience may actually be more influenced by the brands activity on say Groupon or Twitter rather than a physical visual reference. As branding guys we get trapped in the notion that there must be a visual reference as the first and lasting touch point of a brand. In some ways we all know Amazon very clearly but have no idea what their visual identity is. Consumers would probably be hard pressed to even understand what the name means let alone recall the identity.

    At the end of the day, there may be another way to look at this challenge rather than just an identity debacle. Maybe a traditional view isn’t what brands or customers are calling for these days.

    Tim Ross

  • AdInsider

    My first two reactions: 1. Soon Federated will own them all, anyway; 2. Ever since IPG fired him, Peter Arnell has been tooling around for new projects.

  • Mike Rivera

    Companies that lack leadership do the safe thing and follows the herd. No one gets fired for that, right?

  • Chris Cureton

    Well well thanks for ranting! Now instead of doing it I can just forward the link! Seriously though, this is a truth and it is only going to cost the companies more (except JCpenney who seems to have taken the discounted route--you get what you pay for) when they have to change again. That will happen sooner than later.

  • Ed Holme

    I wonder which, if any of them, did their homework. I understand Belk did some research, which lead to the tagline Modern, Southern, Style ... which is definitely a valid positioning for them .... but I live in Charlotte, so I "get it".

    The others - you're right Jamey - the logo/mark's do nothing to communicate anything but the name ... they lack character and personality .... and when a brand should be looking for those unique and valuable points of differentiation ... well? .... shame on the CMO's.

  • tim bogert

    i see your point that it's more of a 'bland story' than a 'brand story'

    i hope that the brands each had a solid strategy to begin with prior to the visual overhaul. let's assume they did. uniqueness and personality are very individual things - to people and to brands - and tapping into the appropriate communication of those attributes goes well beyond the logo. how a brand is communicated verbally and visually to the consumer then is backed up through in-store experiences, products, customer service, etc., go a long way to build the brand story. the entire exchange a consumer has with a brand must be consistent.

    do these new logos signal something larger is afoot with the companies they represent? perhaps. do they bring a tired brand that was lagging with its core consumer back to relevance? perhaps. do they attract new consumers that wouldn't have looked at them twice under their old logos? perhaps. not being in the developmental and strategic meetings, i can't really say for certain.

    as a creative director and brand/communications strategist, i can't wait to see how it unfolds as a real-life case study. as a designer, i can say that at least 3 of those outgoing logos elicited adjectives from me that shouldn't be written here. and as a consumer, at least of these rebrands have made me pause and say 'huh, i'd forgotten about them'.

  • Chris Henley

    Nice rant Jamey, and totally justified. It seems, certainly with a few of the bigger players, that uniqueness and personality within identity is being slowly squeezed out to leave, well, not a lot. Hopefully the bandwagon will make an early departure on this one.