For a brand that fronts such a vast and eclectic array of music—a database of some 30 million songs, including the top tunes in Malta, Bulgaria, and Paraguay, among others—Spotify’s brand identity has always been surprisingly sedate: black, white, and an uninspiring green for colors; an off-the-shelf font; and a little stylized sound wave as a logo.
That made for a fairly dismal array of tools for communicating with the brand’s 60 million avid fans.
On Friday, at South by Southwest, all that will change. For the duration of the festival, Spotify House will be arrayed in a bold and explosively colorful new brand identity, which was the result of a year's worth of work, and many trips to the company’s Stockholm headquarters, by the New York design firm, Collins.
"SXSW will be first big reveal of the program," says Leland Maschmeyer, Collins’s founding partner and executive creative director. "We’ll be pulling the sheet off the car."
Spotify's festival headquarters, located in an old auto body shop (901 E. 6th St, if you're making the trek), will be the backdrop for a non-stop parade of new and iconic acts on various stages throughout the space.
Spotify hasn't elaborated on how much this will impact the look and feel of the apps themselves, but has made it clear that this is no minor initiative when it comes to the advertising and marketing side.
"Because the system is so flexible it can go anywhere Spotify goes from screens, to print, to environments and interactive experiences," says Maschmeyer. "We pressure tested the system with tiny mobile ads on tiny mobile screens."
The goal of the new brand identity was to create a look that would signal to the brand’s core audience of millennials that Spotify was as rich and lively as the music culture it fronted, rather than simply a technology service that served up songs.
The previous look, which had evolved over the company’s seven year history was, Maschmeyer says, "a consistent drumbeat through the brand. The problem was, it was just a drumbeat. When all you have is white, black, and green, the logo, and Proxima Nova (font), there’s not a lot to create with.
"The big shift in helping the company go from looking like a tech company to more of an entertainment brand, was giving them the ability to communicate in much more diverse ways," he says. "We wanted something that was wildly diverse, but somehow always familiar—and a way to balance that tension."
Millennials, says Maschmeyer, share two distinct traits that were central to this project: they’re highly visual and they want a hand in co-creation.
"Millennials’ most popular media channel is Instagram, which is pure visuals," he says. "We knew that whatever we designed had to be identifiable as Spotify’s voice, but could be adopted by the audience as they listened to it, made their playlists, and went to concerts. We needed to create a participatory system."
To convey authenticity, the new look had to channel those millennial values. "Lots of companies are targeting this audience," says Alexandra Tanguay, Spotify’s global brand director. "But for us, it’s unique. Our founders are millennials, our audience are millennials. We listen to them, we talk to them, we interact with them for hours every day. The simple language we were using wasn’t capturing the energy and power we have with that audience."
At the core of the Spotify experience is a love of music, but the Collins team wanted to push that idea: what happens when people really connect with a song? When people come to a concert and scream and cry and sing along? They found a video on YouTube of a whiny baby rocking her carseat to Katy Perry’s "Dark Horse" as inspiration.
"It speaks to a visceral feeling that people have when their favorite song comes on," says Maschmeyer, as the baby jiggled and cooed on the screen in Collins’s conference room. "It all came down to the idea that people emotionally "burst" when they connect with a song."
Out of that idea grew a series of bursting shapes that can sit behind content, or in front of it. The original shapes were abstracted versions of the "Play," "Pause," and Pause/Record" buttons on music devices.
The dreary brand palette—with one lone green as its spot of color—was particularly desperate for an upgrade. Its origins, says Tanguay, were utterly arbitrary. "The color was a decision made by our founder (Daniel Ek) about seven years ago for a simple reason: no one else was using that green. Over the years, we have some earned equity with the color, but this green wasn’t modern or fresh."
The new Spotify green has a little more "pop," says Maschmeyer, and is the central player in a palette that has grown to nearly three dozen "approved" colors.
One of the trickiest issues for the team was how to deal with photography. Since Spotify uses images borrowed from thousands of musical acts, it needed a way to brand a picture so that it looked like something from Spotify even if the company’s logo wasn’t plastered on it.
The answer came from a deep dive into music history, in the duotone photos from album covers and concert posters from the 1960s. That style originated with bands that were trying to find a low-budget way to promote their concerts.
"That aesthetic could be applied to lots of different types of photography," Maschmeyer says. " So even though the pictures were shot in different styles, and by different photographers, when you put them through that filter, they all hang together."
The duotone look became so much a part of the brand identity, that Brett Renfer, Collins’s director of experience design, created a software program (subsequently nicknamed, "The Colorizer") to automate the process—a critical issue for a company like Spotify which has designers across 58 markets, from Andorra to Uruguay, all scrambling to brand content with the Spotify look.
"The software automatically duotones photos," says Maschmeyer. "It draws from a very robust but select color palette and every image you output is always on brand. Not only is it fun, but it addressed another problem: Spotify has so much content to process that to have software do the heavy lifting was fantastic. "
No kidding: Spotify claims to release 20,000 new songs every day. Spotify users have created over 1.5 billion playlists.
"Spotify becomes a frame and platform for all the content," says Maschmeyer. " It’s not just about headlines and photography but about all those elements working together."
"Our designers have had a blast, given the box they’ve been in for the past few years," says Tanguay.
It’s the kind of client that Collins, now independent from its previous ties to IPG, is delighted to have on its roster.
"We were so honored to get a chance to work with Spotify," says Collins’s co-founder Brian Collins. "It’s our ideal: to work with brands that move faster than culture."