How Do You Brand In A Water(Less) World?

As designers, we find meaning in all of the attributes of a brand -- its form, its surface, its color and texture. And when a company selects orange, say, as its brand color, it's significant: Who else may lay claim to orange? Would you want to associate with the rich history of hand tools (Black & Decker) or sports (Nike)? And why would you rather evoke autumnal bliss, the energy of sunshine or the smell of citrus?

Let's take green. As the champion of the environment, green connotes the immediate and obvious qualities of growth, freshness, vitality. Great. But when all other sustainability efforts are lumped in, like energy and water conservation, does it serve them well enough? And what about the future causes, which are quickly coming into focus: poverty, terrorism, and disease? With the greens, pinks, yellows and reds of other well-known campaigns, we may run out of crayons.

Green is simply a proof-point to a broader thought: Consumers expect more from a responsible brand and are perfectly willing to identify with it, claim it, and pay for it. Brands already invest greatly in attributes that evoke their inherent qualities. Why not include their values of environmental, social, or commercial stewardship? For that matter, why would they represent anything else?

Claim What You Own

Brands need to lay claim to the attributes that they already own by making them clearly associated with their values. For instance, the form of Method's products is clearly understood a few aisles away -- clean, honest, strikingly different -- characteristics that look a lot like something that would come from "people against dirty." And just look for a logo on the front of an iPod; its soft, rounded rectangular shape and trademark click-wheel do all the work of expressing elegance, sophistication and ease of use.

Tens of millions of hands touch a coffee cup sleeve daily; can that rough, natural texture entrust consumers to the company's environmental efforts out of public view? Or does it paradoxically wrap a non-recyclable cup destined for the landfill? There's a reason why when rummaging through your pantry you can identify Arm & Hammer by touch alone: distinctive size of the box and feel of the paperboard are as pure and reliable as they were decades ago.

Brands Get the Blue

Back to color. With access to clean drinking water now the most pressing global issue, will we wait for a "blue" promotion to benefit this effort, or will a "blue" brand step up and demonstrate that it already cares? Imagine a partnership between Blue Cross and Pepsi ... magic.

Because if color or form or surface will be at all important to brands in the future, they will need to do more than simply associate with a cause; they will need to demonstrate how brands claim causes for their own.

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