I never got around to weighing in on the Aol. rebrand, stuff seemed to get in the way as it were, however, it was one of the more recent brand launches that had real smarts behind it, and fitted quite nicely with some of my thinking on how branding must evolve in a digital environment. The new releases of work seem to press home both the philosophy and show exactly how a brand is now just a blank canvas as the Wolff Olins boys say, it’s not the identity that matters, it’s how it behaves. The new series of updates from Wolff Olins (with a little bit of help from the Universal Everything crew) have given me the perfect opportunity to take a look at the new work, and weigh in on a subject that I feel passionate about. The evolution of ‘Branding’, With two examples.

Obviously the name of the game with all this work is collaboration. With the simple Aol. logo blending nicely into the ebbs and flows of other people’s creative minds. There is a bolder, more confident edge to this work than even the launch work. I think this is simply because the parameters are constantly being adapted, there is no right or wrong answer, only what feels right and appropriate for the moment, what best represents the content that Aol. is curating. As the content comes to the fore faster and more dynamically, the ebbs and flows of the brand go with it. Aol. starts to look and act more confident as a result.

You can see this with some of the work Universal Everything have been doing as well.

and another super cool spot from Ghava. More on their website.

Here’s some of the other Logos (you can see the whole lot here at Brand New)

(Full list of designers: Darren Booth, Rachel Thomas, Sarah Stout, GHAVA, James Taylor, James Wojcik, Universal Everything, Nathan Fox, Mr Kiji, Helen Musselwhite, Robert Samuel Hanson, Phillip Low, Mike Perry, Mark Verhaagen, Kristian Hammerstad, Jenny Bowers, Jon Burgerman, Hvass&Hannibal, Hawaii, Harry Malt, Eva Hjelte, Dylan Griffin, Dave White, Chrissy Angliker, Celyn, Alan Kitching, Anna Maria, HunterGatherer, Antoine+Manuel, Genevieve Gauckler, Klaus Haapaniemi, and Siggi Eggertsson.)

Aol. isn’t  just a logo change, it was a wholesale change in philosophy, taking people on a journeys where the unexpected might happen. Where risk taking is part of the DNA of the business. That’s quite a hard feat to pull off when you are a company with such a long history (the new work is being released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Aol.) and dare I say, I perceived dinosaur in the Internet community. You’ve got to swing for the fences to make an impact. Not make bold statements how you’ll change the world, but how you’ll become a platform for the masses of the web.

Aol. has certainly not completed it’s journey, (in fact it seems at the start of it, check aolartists.com for more on that one) and that much is obvious if you take a look at the portal, but happily, the corporate site has now taken on some this evolution, and again, feels fresh and modern. Acool take on realtime website design. (I’m also very glad to see the back of drop shadows and the ‘Appleization’ of the internet)

But Aol. is not alone in taking flak for it’s creative re-birth, and for sticking it’s neck out when it comes to rethinking the parameters of Brands and Branding. It also shares commonalities with the work of the boys at Venture Three, who recently revealed an (initially) snarked upon bit of creative work for Waterstones. Although the attacks here have come from a more ‘traditional’ perspective (e.g why did you get rid of the serif ‘W’? etc.) the creative philosophy of open and evolving branding is clear and present in this work, and it rocks as a result.

Waterstones is much more of a physical proposition than Aol. ever was, or ever will be. But shares similar problems, the web has changed shopping habits, viewing habits, selection habits. These brands have to become less sellers, more curators of content. For Waterstones, that means having to work harder against the price might of Amazon to justify why you would walk into the store, or  click to their .com. The (awesome) Brand Message “Feel Every Word” that provides the jumping off point for an identity that changes and evolves, it reflects it’s users passions, reflects the journey’s that readers take in the best of  books. It’s potentially as thrilling and as dynamic as every single reading experience you have. In some ways, the vastness of what you can do with the new ‘W’ is the scary part, not the quibbles that an arc of the bottom of the w is off. (which it isn’t) Craft is important, don’t get me wrong, but the message is what is important here, how it makes you feel. Waterstones feels like a bold new step in design and branding. I personally love it.

In Aol.’s case, here you have a business that is attempting to fundamentally re-align not only a public perception (old, bloated, rooted in the first internet boom, AOL/Time Warner debacle) that has had a near death experience, and with this creative work, has found it’s old voice, a little bit wiser, a little bit leaner, a whole lot less arrogant, but shitload more passionate. It never will be Google now in terms of size or revenue, so why bother trying to run the same race? Aol. has chosen the more interesting route.

These two re-births made me think of a quote made famous by Neil Young,

“This song put me in the middle of the road. (talking about Harvest) Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I met more interesting people there”

By choosing to follow the ‘interesting’ path Aol. and Waterstones (and WO and V3) have allowed ‘Branding’ (NOT Identities) to evolve to a place where the fans of brands are placed firmly in the driving seat. Aol. and Waterstones, in their own ways, will and have allowed themselves to become curated by passionate people, not guarded by marketing departments, or defined by 30 second commercials, they have begun to reflect the uniquely individual tastes of everyone who use them. As a wise man once said. The ‘key’ to being social (read; the social web) is trading control for influence. These are the stakes that are in play. Aol. over the last few months has taken alot of flak for what effectively is this exact philosophy. Waterstones, has suffered a similar attack, but if they and the agencies that are helping to evolve these brands hold their nerve, the whole rules of what represents a brand might just have taken on a whole new level. And for that, as someone who works in the industry and perpetually frustrated with the narrow parameters the work is contextualised in, is a triumph. Awesome.

1 comment
  1. […] Olins have again looked to the future with the dynamic philosophy of living brands. Having blogged and written about how Aol. and Waterstones, among others this year are pointing the way for innovative brand solutions. While it might no […]

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