Adam Mc

Thoughts on the web.

Brands as Patterns


This is the first in a series of in-depth looks at the topics, sessions and ideas that came out of this year’s trip to SXSW. 

(Brands as Patterns – SXSW – Friday March 9th 2012)

Establishing a brand relies on the principal of consistency. Traditionally that came down to using the same elements in multiple places, telling the same story in varied mediums and using a universal voice. But today’s brands can exist in multiple mediums and are defined by many voices – both by the brand and by the consumer. This has presented us with a challenge: How do we maintain a brand through so many varying communication channels?  

Since today’s consumer doesn’t interact with a brand the same way that they used to, consumers are now in the driver’s seat when it comes to when, how, why and where they see a brand. What a brand stands for and how they are perceived by the public can shift daily and brands today are defined by WHAT THEY DO not what they say. Brands that try to hold on to a single big idea or follow repetitive fixed rules lose their connection to their audience and seem unresponsive to what their customers want.

In today’s ever fluid world brands must evolve past a “message” and become an experience.That experience is defined through a brand’s pattern. This idea was at the core of the Brands as Patterns session.

“Brand equity is not in consistency anymore; it’s in coherence.” – Greg Johnson

Coherence communicates a personality that a consumer can feel. That personality comes from a pattern of choices, statements and actions by the brand that represent it. That pattern IS the brand and that pattern creates consistency. Rather than a stagnate and formulaic repetition of the same message, the brand ends up conveying it’s meaning in many different ways through many different mediums. Each one helping to support the personality of the brand. “Consistency in human behavior isn’t derived from repetition alone; it’s about the formation & recognition of coherent patterns.” – Marc Shillum


Personality with a “click” (or touch or swipe or hover)

We’ve all familiar with the idea that “digital mediums give consumers the ability to interact with brands in a personal way” and there are obvious examples of this in social media and customer service. Because when we think about “personality” and “personal interaction” we immediately focus on areas where that link is easy to make. Customers write on a company’s Facebook wall and the company writes back – connection made. Someone tweets or calls about a bad experience and a (good) brand jumps into action to fix the issue.

But where the “personal” connections aren’t so obvious is in the non person to person interactive channels. Websites, apps, automated phone systems, email blasts, display advertising – all of these are interactive, and all of these have a personal connection to your customer. People use these mediums to interact with your brand by clicking, touching, talking and reading. The click of a mouse or touch of a screen might not SEEM interactive – but it is. Today’s devices are as much a part of a person as their clothes and jewelry. They’re brought to life by what people say and do with them. To the touch they feel like a smooth piece of glass or a springy keyboard, but they take on a texture and feeling when you do something with them. And when a person navigates your site, uses your app or reads your email they are going on a journey chaperoned by your brand. They’re have an experience that has a life of it’s own. We have to put brands IN the interfaces and experiences we work on – not on them.

If a brand is known for being funny, witty and easy going – wouldn’t it feel strangely out of place for them to send you a dull 20 question survey? Would a brand that is known for being smart and innovative have a out of date and hard to use website? These statements talk about the personality of the brand through the things the brand makes. A solid brand pattern helps to ensure that how a brand acts, what they make and what they mean all mix nicely together.


Understand the ABCs

A key to creating a brand pattern is to understand a brand’s ABCs –  Artifacts, Behaviors and Concepts.

  • Artifacts: the things you make that represent who the brand is. They’re what people will remember. They’re logos, colors, icons, shapes and sounds.
  • Behaviors: How people will interact with the brand. But also where, why and what they will interact with. It’s the traits, actions, response and experience of the brand and the consumer.
  • Concepts: It’s not about a big idea. It’s the big IDEAS – plural. An idea can be great but it won’t live in the future. The brand will. And the brand needs more than just one idea to carry it. Concepts are the plural thoughts and visions that strategically bind an organization.

By establishing each of these elements we create a brand pattern that promotes consistency through every medium. The brand becomes a believable entity because every medium supports each other – not just repeats one another.


From Marc Shillum’s June 2011 article “Branding Is About Creating Patterns, Not Repeating Messages“:

“When we create a pattern of ABCs, a TV channel’s brand, for example, is no longer the constant logo in the corner of the screen, or a series of interruptive advertisements. The brand’s identity is defined by the set of interfaces it lives on: the design of the video player, the interactions of the user, and the discrete set of functionalities that gives the user dynamic control of the content. The identity of the iPhone is not just the Apple logo on the back. Instead, the iPhone brand is recognized by the reconfigurable app grid on the front, a pattern that can be personalized by the individual. Ikea is not just the yellow and blue brand, or the Swedish furniture store; it is a shopping event that connects multiple experiences through a physical maze. By using patterns, we place the brand in something, rather than just on it.


A brand pattern creates more value than repetition. It provides coherence among disparate mediums and continued relevance that can adapt and respond to its audience. A brand pattern connects a product to an experience and an audience, allowing the brand to continually grow.”

Brands as experiences, not owned entities.

If brands are what they do, then we are no longer just storyTELLING. We are storyCREATING. And creating that story takes more than just a logo, brand imagery, a tagline and a voice. It takes relevant, highly user centric experiences. Experiences that ring true to the personality and characteristics of the brand while taking into account the wants, needs and expectations of your customer. Because if you don’t know your customer you’re just talking to yourself.

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