Can't beat the real thing coca cola advert
3 minute read

Template culture killed the radio star

The first brand advert I can remember quite clearly was the advert where Joey from Friends (before he was Joey from Friends) sets up a bottle of ketchup on a New York rooftop. Then skips down the steps to the hotdog vendor on the street below to order a hotdog just in time for the ketchup to pour onto it with laser precision. What a guy!

There were adverts before then that made an impression on me. A red car and a blue car spring to mind. Mmm Milkyway! There have been adverts since then too. Everyone probably has an advert they liked for one reason or another, and when it boils down to it, the real reason for that is that brands went a long way to make us feel connected with them.

Before there was the internet and screen-based media there was the world of the real and tangible. Brands had personality and presence in a way that is a little lost now. Take, for instance, a billboard installation by Camel Cigarettes. Iconic now, whatever you think of the product itself. The billboard installation of a ‘happy’ football player blowing real smoke out of his mouth and across the sidewalk was an example of a ‘feel good’ brand expression that became part of the lives of the people walking by.

Billboard installation by Camel Cigarettes

There are also modern examples of brand expression that make us smile or be bedazzled with wonder like children in a wonderland. The point is that brands expressed their personality to us in ways that made them individual then and still do today (for the most part).

Brands have defined their personality clearly to us so that we can get on board with their message and be part of the lifestyle they stand for.

Matt Laakvand

Then there was the internet

When the internet started to become a mainstream media for brands to explore, they did so with gusto, as you’d imagine. The Flash website era saw ideas and experiences equal to how brands expressed themselves in other media. Take the following example of brand expression by Havaianas, for instance.

Brand advert for Havaianas

Havaianas have always been a highly expressive brand with a hugely successful brand identity, making them the flip-flop of choice for surfers and pretend surfers. Illustrative trends come and go, but the brand message is always consistent, clear and strong. The brand approached its website with unrestrained imagination even in the Flash website era. So if you are reading this on a desktop computer with Flash player installed, you can still visit the site and experience its essence here. Just grab the flip-flop and go!

Back to the future

So what about Havaianas today? Well, if you visit today, you’ll find that the brand has dulled its playfulness and unique identity for an approach dictated more by the technology it is built with than by imagination and spark. It is the same brand to brand with the same basic templated look and feel. Once you get past the images and colours, you find that the page structure and the web experience aren’t very different.

There are many reasons for the web landscape we have today, and arguably Google Analytics was the start of this shift away from Flash and the creative freedom it gave to brands like Havaianas. The reason for this was that a Flash-based website was like an impenetrable bubble for Google Analytics to be able to provide meaningful information.

That, coupled with Apple’s decision to drop Flash player support from IOS devices, effectively sealed the fate of Flash websites, so the move back to more traditional HTML-based websites began. This was a good thing, don’t get me wrong. Suddenly, brands could make informed strategic choices about how their web presence performed and how to improve the users' experience. However, arguably, it has also led to a set of rules about how a website should function, be navigated and experienced that allows little opportunity for a brand to be expressive. In a way, the striving to reach UX perfection and website efficiency have stifled self-expression in favour of technically and economically efficient solutions. Of course, other factors go toward this, like the drive to convert visitors to specific goals, and so the internet is awash with pages that have scrolling banners, followed by marketing boxes, usually 3 or 4 in a row, all trying to divert you to something the website wants to promote over everything else.

Pretty soon after that, responsive web development allowed brands to create websites that would present well across multiple platforms, from desktop computers to smartphones. This, alongside an entire industry devoted to creating template-based websites for the masses, has seen brand expression become ever more constrained by technology than by creativity.

So what now?

The truth is that technology will always be a factor in web development, but that doesn’t mean we should conform to the template culture dimming the brand personality in the process. These days with a little Voodoo magic, it is possible to create web experiences that start to rival Flash websites of old and bring back brand expression beyond the colours and images we have taken to fill predefined holes. The brand is the most critical thing about a brand, and so maybe we should be thinking about how to express it to the world in more engaging and celebratory ways on the internet that make them unique again, as they deserve to be. The possibilities are endless.