Long gone are the days of a one-way conversation, as complex human beings we are constantly striving for a response, an outcome and relationship in which we feel valued and appreciated. Within branding too, long gone are the days of a hierarchical relationship between brand and consumer in which the brand talks down to their audience in an authoritative nature. Post-1997 saw the generation of digital natives arise. A generation of tech-savvy people for whom there is no paradox between a sheet of paper and an iPad and this has consequently done away with a passive approach to interacting with brands. 

The current scene of brand design and application is based upon the universal existence of an open culture; full access to express and view multiple forms of media and opinions. Capitalising upon this social state brand designers are evermore creating designs that are at the expense of the customer. They create the opportunity for conversation and offers the brand as a suggestion, willing the end-user to actively form their own opinion and then express it. This is known in the branding world as ‘flexible branding’. 

Through the Shift Age we now live in a technology-driven society and Digital Migrants (those born between 1981 and 1997) and Generation X (those born before 1981) can see their power diminishing. There is a clear visible change within brand design and the creation and acceptance of flexible brands. Graphic design through the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s was heavily influenced by Swiss Modernist design. Clean, simplistic design that spoke down to the consumer with an authoritative presence and offering little opportunity for debate. Take for example the IBM logo designed by renowned American designer Paul Rand in 1981. Clean cut, economical for the company and straight to the point, this logo stands for everything that Swiss graphic design believes in. 

Fast forward to the 21st century and we can see identities such as London 2012 who’s fluid, puzzle-like design offers the ability to add in multiple images/backgrounds to cater for the many disciplines, cultures and values that the Olympics stands for and brings to the host country. The identity was created by Wolff Olins, a pioneering agency for flexible, active branding. They understand the fundamental value of allowing consumers to actively form the brand as well as buy into it.  “Brands need to be less controlling, more generous” (Olins, quoted in Armstrong and Stojmirovic, 2011)

It is this value of consumer attentiveness and desire to participate that today defines a successful brand. The disintermediation of the way humans communicate to create the open-access environment of digital media has increased the freedom we rightly possess in today’s society to express opinions in a forgiving and, in a sense, anonymous nature. “The internet…provides global, moment-to-movement connectivity for both marketers and consumers, allowing virtually everyone, everywhere to travel around the Digispace at the speed of light”. Houle, Shapiro (2014). When a brand positions themselves in the public space they agree to accept the open fire of their audience and beyond. The open vessels that they put out allow consumers to create the content and form a local/global opinion of the brand within society. It is then up to the brand to choose whether to listen and act or stay as they are. If they listen they create a brand that is inclusive of its consumers, forming an intimate relationship where one bounces off the other, or continue as you are and risk potential loss of audience and ultimately sales. Whilst everything can expect some criticism, it is important to be aware of numbers. An overriding negative opinion cannot be ignored and there have been many cases where this has occurred. Take the recent Pepsi advert scandal featuring Kendall Jenner.  The campaign was pulled after the excessive backlash for this approach in portraying the relationship between demonstrators and police during protests and being insensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement. For both the creators and the actors this resulted in the expectation for public apologies which ultimately create a lasting black cloud over the brand until they find the means to rectify their actions and offer an alternative approach.

The 21st century is the century of communication. Our rights and means of speech are fluid, unavoidable and extensive so it is imperative for a brand not to be afraid of this openness. They must be willing and clever enough to use it to their advantage as free honest marketing and ensure the advertising material and products they release are either indisputable or strong enough to withstand the raft of the public.


Helen Armstrong & Zvezdana Stojmirovic (2011) ‘Flexibility’, in Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. pp.87-115