Why Netflix’s new icon is a lesson in mobile branding

Recently, Netflix attracted significant attention with its new “N” icon. The following statement accompanied it: “We are introducing a new element into our branding with an N icon. The current Netflix logo will still remain, and the icon will start to be incorporated into our mobile apps along with other product integrations in the near future.” There’s nothing unusual about most of this statement. Companies regularly update their identities in a bid to stay relevant with their customers. The intriguing aspect of the Netflix statement comes in the final sentence: “The icon will start to be incorporated into our mobile apps.”

Netflix logos N

The background behind Netflix is a story most of us find intriguing. The company’s initial success came from DVD rentals. Unlike a number of other legacy companies, it had the foresight to evolve and demonstrate its agility—and by doing so, avoid a “Kodak moment.” Today, the company still rents DVDs, but it has become somewhat of a market darling by moving to a streaming platform that has disrupted industry players such as HBO, Verizon, AT&T, and News Corp.

In addition to bespoke content, Netflix developed a user-friendly, programmatic system that enabled a level of personalization not seen before. And it created a desirable, distinctive, and engaging identity. What is unclear now, following Netflix’s announcement, is when and where the warm red rectangular Netflix logo will appear. The less interesting “ribbon N” may have more universal applications, but it lacks the distinction of the original identity.

Netflix multiple devices

The challenge of mobile branding

Netflix’s dilemma—when and where to use its new icon, and how to create an icon that represents the spirit of its brand—is not unusual. Indeed, a number of brands are already facing the same challenges—and more will continue to do so. In a world of smartphones, tablets and wearable technology, how can brands represent themselves within the commoditized parameters of mobile devices?

Netflix mobile approach

The iPhone was released on 29 June 2007. It paved the way for mobile technology, in particular, the app. Its invention heralded a new age of accessing myriad types of information, on the go. It also signaled a change in how consumers experience and perceive brands. Whereas the advent of the internet in the early ’90s provided brands with a new platform for interacting with customers, the difference with apps is that they change the parameters of how brands are perceived at the first point of interaction. As the Netflix brandmark bears testimony to, a rectangular logo does not fare well within the homogenized square of an app on the screen of a smartphone.

Within a fairly short period of time, apps have significantly changed how we go about life. Uber, Instagram, Twitter, and Airbnb have all thrived in this new climate pioneering what one might call an “app-enabled universe.” For brands like Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Hershey’s, Danone, Bridgestone, Gillette, and Microsoft, adapting to an app-based interface has been more challenging. Why? For these companies, their wordmark has always been emblematic of their brand. But in this simplified, app-centric world, wordmarks lose their effectiveness. Any brand that is unabbreviated, represented by a complex visual icon, or has more than five letters in its name will face similar challenges. So, what should marketers and designers do in an increasingly standardized world?

The shift from wordmark to icon

An interesting event occurred in the Japanese car industry in the early ’90s. Toyota, Mazda, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Suzuki all began relying heavily on icons over wordmarks. Toyota went to a cowboy hat–style “T,” Mazda to a dove-shaped “M,” Honda to a disproportionate “H,” while Mitsubishi and Suzuki adopted similar approaches. The custodians of Japan’s finest automobile brands discovered something their German counterparts had known for years: A picture is worth a thousand words. Mercedes’ three-pointed star, BMW’s blue-and-white circle, and Audi’s four interconnecting rings all demonstrate the power of beautifully designed icons.

Other industries can learn from the manner in which automobile brands have evolved. Squared app parameters need not be the harbinger of conformity. At Landor we believe brands must be agile. There are six principles that underpin this. Within the context of an app-enabled world, the two principles of brand agility that resonate the most are: Brands must be adaptive, and they must also be multichannel.

Attributes-animation-web-800

Microsoft constitutes a useful case in point. In 1987, the company evolved its identity from an uppercase wordmark to a more approachable, italicized, bolder brandmark featuring a speed-lined “O.” In 2012, however, its identity evolved again. This time it adapted to a broader array of channels and platforms by giving greater emphasis to the company’s four colored tiles. This branding aligns with a multichannel approach. Whether Microsoft’s brand adorns a billboard, storefront, Surface box, or app, the effect is the same. The four tiles signify the Microsoft brand, helping it stand out on-screen as much as it does on-shelf.

Microsoft logos over time Microsoft logo on item

The future of mobile-centric branding

The impact of apps on design could easily be viewed negatively. Narrower parameters, a uniform size, and an overtly functional purpose are all factors that spring to mind. Increasingly, the craftsmanship of an intelligently created wordmark feels a bit dusty. However, marketers and designers need not despair. One approach could be to take a page out of Snapchat’s book and simply design an identity (in Snapchat’s case, the Ghostface Chillah icon) with mobile platforms top of mind.

Snapchat icon phone

For those brands wanting to hedge their bets between online and offline, Netflix remains a brand to watch. The company is no doubt coming to the realization that a beautifully crafted wordmark is not mutually exclusive with a distinctive and engaging icon—the two can coexist. However, a brand may not be as successful if it resists having a visually enticing identity that stands out on a mobile device. I sense we are about to see a number of companies place more emphasis on apps as the gateway to the overall brand experience.

 

This piece was originally published in the BrandLaureate Business World Review (Issue No. 37).

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