Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ducks and Turtles and Bears... Oh My!

The only thing the Rose Bowl-bound Oregon Ducks are better known for than dominating PAC-12 football is their dramatic uniform combinations. In 2011, the Ducks wore a different uniform for each and every game they’ve played. When the Ducks first began experimenting with their uniform “fashion,” many fans disliked the idea of switching uniforms for every game. They wouldn’t have put it in these terms, but essentially, they were worried about the Ducks brand being corrupted. We always admired the team’s chutzpah and felt that the brand actually attracted the right kind of attention by being flexible with its identity – while always remaining true to the spirit of the Ducks brand. And fans have come around, as evidenced by this blog post about which uniform would be the best Rose Bowl combo for the Ducks.

When the Maryland Terrapins launched their own totally cool multiple-combination unis this season, we realized that we were looking at a trend in flexible brand identities. And we wondered if this trend was extending into non-football territory as well. Flexible identities can command attention, inspire consumers and signal a new direction, but how can brands stay true to their core identities while allowing for flexibility and creative expression? Branding firms have long held that brand guidelines allow for creative adaptation, but most brands err on the side of strong consistency and adherence to rules.

Coca-Cola put brand flexibility to the test this holiday season when it launched an all-white Coke can to herald its campaign to protect the Arctic for polar bears, the brand’s mascot. We loved the design and thought it was a brilliant move, until we went to buy a 6-pack of Coke and realized that we could not just scan the shelf for red; and in fact, that the new white cans looked an awful lot like Diet Coke cans. We weren’t the only ones confused, and Coke has since switched out the white cans for red ones (still with a polar bear design) for the remainder of the holiday season.

Clearly, brand identities will need to be more and more flexible to command the attention of unfocused consumers. But brands must be careful about how they execute that flexibility so that they don’t confuse or alienate customers instead of inspiring them. As you plan for 2012, ask yourself if your brand identity is nimble enough to motivate customers, without being so flexible that it fails to help them embrace or understand your value. Then settle into your sofa on New Year’s Day to join the world in wondering which uniform the Ducks will be wearing.

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