Hang Five
Back in August 2013, following an $859 million loss posted for the previous financial year, the 40 year old Australian surf icon Billabong declared it’s brand “worthless”. Two other global big hitters, Quiksilver and Rip Curl have also been in hot water. Aside from the complexities associated with big business, what brand and image issues could have contributed to their woes?

Authenticity perhaps? Billabong opened around 600 retail outlets between 2005 and 2011, and concentrated a large amount of effort on getting their label into large department chains in order to open themselves up to the mainstream market. But as much as the ASP would like it to be, surfing isn’t a mainstream sport. Surely that’s actually what makes it exotic and appealing to people that might live thousands of miles from the ocean, or only visit the beach to sunbathe and drink piña coladas.

When you find Billabong shirts and Quiksilver boardshorts on the sale rails in Macy’s, something feels wrong. When you find dozens of shirt designs all fighting to mimic every (by now passé) trend running, something feels wrong. When you walk into a Billabong retail store in the mall and it smells like windex and the only surfboards are the ones hanging decoratively from the ceiling, something feels wrong.

In an authentic sport like surfing, it’s the authenticity that is key. The focus should always be the core user—the surfer—and let the romance and the realness of the sport do the rest, that’s what’s sexy to the average joe or joanne. Give them a beach not a golf course, give them a surf shop not a fashion boutique.

The troubles the big three have found themselves in makes me think of the dramatic shift skateboarding took in the late 80s and early 90s, when skaters left the vert ramps and the big contests and took to the streets. When the pros left from under the wing of corporations like Vision Street Wear and Powell Peralta, and defiantly started their own small companies. Not only had the style of skateboarding changed—the marketing, the design, the stage and the ethos had been completely flipped on it’s head. Skateboarding was getting back to being about skateboarding and skateboarders, and not simply about business.

In many ways this was simply a reset. Skateboarding had made a handful of skaters rock stars, put them on TV and paraded them around demos like pageant queens. But that wasn’t what skateboarding is really about. So, people like Steve Rocco and Mike Ternasky gave skaters what they wanted—skateboards and skate gear made by skateboarders, for skateboarders, and team riders that skated the same terrain they did—the streets. They brought back the skater attitude and they stuck a middle finger up at the big boys. This change crushed those large companies and changed the history and direction of the sport forever. Ironically, helping turn it into the multi-billion dollar sport it is today.

So, perhaps surf brands can look to learn something from skateboarding in the same way the sport itself has. It seems they’re trying, while Billabong declared their brand “worthless”, it’s obviously not and there’s no doubt some accounting decisions behind that move. Billabong is still an icon in the sport, the logo appears loud and proud on the boards of many top pros like Taj and Parko, and the company runs some of the largest contests on the tour, including the Pipe Masters. They have a pretty tight social media strategy running, and their clothing lines are looking much less mall and a lot more cool.

You can also now design your own Quiksilver boardshorts and Rip Curl has a ‘craft’ range that seems to want to grab a part of that authentic retro action you’d expect to see from a brand like Mollusk. But that already feels a little tired, that whole ‘handmade’ trend has been around for several years now, and while it no doubt still has some legs, I’d hope they’re busy looking for the next thing, which should always be about surfing. Whether they’re wanting to make clothes the Dave Rastovich’s of the world would wear, or making a wetsuit that will last a couple of seasons in Scotland, it should always be about surfing, never about the mall.

Apple Kool-Aid

Apple have just launched a long overdue new direction for their advertising and marketing. For the last few years Apple ads have been beyond dull and even condescending at times—remember the “If you don’t have an iPhone, you don’t have an iPhone” ads? That distastefully smug tone of voice left me cold, embarrassed even. Just this week I saw a billboard which pretty much summed up their ads of recent years; A plain white billboard with an iPad and iPad mini side by side, and some perfect plastic fingers typing an email. That was it. It seemed that Apple had become so arrogant with its success, and so proud of its products that they seemed to have completely forgotten about people. All their ads were simply product hero shots, often daubed with some over-thought copy that seemed to come from the desk of a maniacal middleweight marketing manager. The super shiny “Resolutionary” ad for the retina display was particularly bad.

Since Steve Jobs’ death in 2011, the tech world and the stock market have been wondering if Apple will continue to lead the way. It’s no doubt immensely hard to keep up with unrealistic expectations after the initial iPhone and iPad releases, but somewhat lacklustre new product releases, an iOS that has needed a major UI update for a few years now, and an onslaught of competition from Android and Windows Mobile has led to a plummeting share price. Time for a rethink.

So let’s take a look at these new ads. The recent iPhone 5 ads seemed to be the segue to this new direction; The all too familiar dreamy soundtrack, the sentimental ‘lifestyle’ photography of ideally hip young people living blessed lives—from San Francisco to London to China and Japan—they snap away with their iPhones without a care in the world, and then the calmly smug voice of Apple stating their claim… “Every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone than any other camera.” Hmmm, boasting, how dull.

The new TV spots continue with this ‘lifestyle’ angle but now with added ‘California’. The products now take backstage to people—by now the products are a foregone conclusion—if you’re winning at life, you already have an iPhone, an iPad, a Macbook, duh! Twee and dreamy soundtrack, check. Plenty of bokeh and soft focus on the photography, check. Candid voyeur shots into people’s lives, check. God complex voiceover hailing Apple as the conduit of all things good and worthwhile, double check.

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So, Apple has now transcended mere products, they now sell ‘experiences’. They sell the pathway to a perfect lifestyle. They are travel agents of the mind and all destinations are California. For years their products have stated “Designed in California”, and that is now their big claim. Even OSX has dropped the cats in favour of California, it’s now named ‘Mavericks’ after a notorious NorCal surf break. So elated with their ad voiceover proclaiming themselves as life-enhancing philanthropists working for a better world that they decided to include the entire transcript verbatim on their print ads. It wouldn’t surprise me if they drove a pope-mobile around the country with Tim Cook shouting it through a megaphone.

The copy is sickeningly cheesy feel-good and a whole lot of self back-patting for Apple, and so these ads are probably just about perfect for a mainstream American audience, a global one I’m not so convinced. The ads put the product into the lives of people (albeit idealistic, aspirational Californian people) in a non-obtrusive manner. The ads say that Apple products are as much a part of your life as your friends and your family. You can be proud to buy American (even though it’s all made in China). You can buy a piece of California, you can be a Californian. You’re no longer simply buying a product, you’re buying an experience, a lifestyle. By buying Apple you’re telling the world “This is me and this is how I live”.

The ‘Think different’ tagline of old seems a long way away now, this campaign rings more like “Stop thinking and drink the kool-aid”.

eBay unveiled their new logo today, 17 years to the month since their launch. The original logo, designed by Bill Clearly of the now defunct CKS Group has been one of those awkward beasts that has, through time and sheer persistence, become embedded in my brain. I’ve even begun to like something about it. One thing I did always find strange is that eBay write their name ‘eBay’, yet the logo is written as ‘ebaY’, apparently this was because the designer felt the capital B would act like a ‘roadblock’ so they arbitrarily capitalised the Y instead. Makes perfect sense I guess, if you happen to be in the business of designing brand identities using magnetic letters on your fridge as your primary tool. Perhaps the truth is that the capital B had fallen under the fridge.

The eBay logo has marched boldly through the years and has stamped its mark in the psyche of millions of users and the company has become a truly global brand. There remains a goofiness to the logo that almost helps me forget their constant fee increases and the fact they bought PayPal in order to add on even more fees. Almost.

Which makes me think that this rather dull redesign is a missed opportunity. Let’s look at the images they use to show application of this new brand:

A logo photoshopped on a phone! A logo photoshopped on an iPad! A logo photoshopped onto some bags! And what’s this — oh it’s only a logo photoshopped onto a billboard with three photographs under it — GENIUS! The shopping bags image is particularly odd considering eBay don’t actually have physical stores, though I do seem to remember seeing an eBay mall in Shenzhen, China, probably a fake. So, are eBay going to be opening stores? Or is this just some weird, abstract representation of online shopping? The point is that unless they’re keeping something up their sleeves, this seems like a surface-deep brand refresh, and one that doesn’t even seem to cover the whole surface very well. Those photoshopped application images are particularly lazy. We’re seeing more and more ads being placed by eBay—even TV spots—and yet this seems (so far) to be simply a logo redesign that doesn’t reach any deeper at all.

So what of the new logo? It retains the alternating colour letters which appear to have been muted, brought up-to-date and more tonally unified, and the letters still touch but no longer overlap. Gone is the jiggly baseline in favour of a clean, stark look. The typeface is Univers Extended, which seems like one of those rather thoughtless choices — “oh… well, the previous logo used a version of Univers quite dissimilar to this but we felt we’d stick with the same font family just because”. All in all It looks… okay. It’s fine. it looks a bit dated and frankly, looks devoid of personality and leaves me a bit “meh”, which I suppose is certainly better than “uugh”.

Perhaps it’s bland enough to last another 17 years but my feeling is that the original logo had been around long enough to have built up status, even the higgledy piggledy, overlapped letters seem like they could have been thrown a life-raft and put to good use. Ultimately it feels like it speaks to mediocrity—which is probably fine, perhaps it very well suits where they are headed; eBay has obviously been changing course for a while now, moving away from its roots as a community based marketplace for individuals and midway into Amazon territory. So, I’m a little torn how I feel about this and I’m fully expecting the story to be played out further once it is officially launched. So far there seems to be no real expansion into a deeper brand experience, which for me is a lost opportunity;  I wonder if this just the nature of companies with engineers and tech people at their very core, there seems to be an overwhelmingly flawed attitude amongst tech folk that if the product (the website) is good enough, the brand experience is merely superfluous fluff.

Click here to witness it.

Go boldly, scroll, click, ‘experience’. Witness the drama, the grit, the pain. These guys are serious about the war on crime and terror. Tune in Saturdays at 9 for next weeks nail-biting show! Woah… hold up a second—this is a website for a local Police Department, where citizens of Milwaukee are expected to go to find out how to file an accident report or pay a parking ticket or to get some news about their local area. So why does it look like the latest HBO police show based around post-apocalyptic urban warfare in a dystopian police state?

Buried at the very bottom of this long and dizzying page are two words: ‘Vision’ and ‘Mission’, and if you mouseover them you get a demure box with some small type with the following words for each:

Vision
A Milwaukee where all can live safely and without fear, protected by a police department with the highest ethical and professional standards.

Mission
In partnership with the community, we will create and maintain neighborhoods capable of sustaining civic life. We commit to reducing the levels of crime, fear, and disorder through community-based, problem-oriented, and data-driven policing.

Live without fear? Protection? Community partnership? Civic life? But I just scrolled through seven levels of hell to get here—I saw riot police with pump action shotguns on the surface of the moon, I saw barren urban landscapes reminiscent of The Wire, riot police in full armour wielding automatic machine guns. It’s as if the people who conceptualised and designed this site just completely ignored the mission statements, which isn’t surprising because clearly their desks must have been buried three feet deep in crushed monster energy drink cans and DC comics.

The site was designed by Cramer-Krasselt, an advertising company who primarily create TV advertising slots for consumer brands and even worked on some Sopranos stuff for HBO—I thought I recognised that flipped on its side gun graphic. Evidently the fabled ad agency cocaine abuse of yore is alive and well, that can be the only explanation for producing such an aggressive, oppressive, fear-inducing, gimmick driven website under the premise of instilling a feeling of safety, trust and ‘community partnership’ within the citizens who live under the iron fists of these armoured-car driving robocops. I think I’d be worried about leaving my house. Make that definitely worried—I just realised that if you click on the police dog, he growls and barks at you. Wow.

What’s really disturbing is whether this is the reality behind how the Police see themselves now? Are they wanting to recruit overgrown teenage boys with Hollywood fuelled fantasies where they run around like soldiers with machine guns? It would also be interesting to know if the same committee that signed off on those Vision and Mission statements were the same people who signed-off on this creative, because if it was, they should all be asked to undergo screening for schizophrenia.

Soon enough we’ll all be getting pepper sprayed in the face.

Microsoft launched its new brand identity yesterday and it looks like they’re finally doing something right. It does seem to have confused some people who can’t figure out why they’ve dropped the stylised italic typeface of yesteryear in favour of a simple, humanist treatment coupled with a logo they associate with Windows® in particular. And others who can’t figure out why this rebrand isn’t something completely new and mind-blowing. These pundits are missing the point entirely, and here’s why.

Microsoft have not simply updated their logo. They have completely restructured their brand architecture.

Previously, we had the italic Microsoft® logotype that you would find on various bits of hardware like mice and keyboards, but Microsoft isn’t really a hardware company. The Office suite was always called “Microsoft® Office” — but the word Microsoft had no relation to the primary brand logo, though that italic logo would be on the box. Under that ‘Office’ brand each piece of software then had its own logo.  And then there’s Microsoft® Windows® with the famous, colourful window icon. Now, the Office suite has for a while been a pretty neat standalone brand in itself, but when you start to consider the overall structure of the Microsoft brand and its relation to its products you can quickly realise what a clusterfuck it all was. Different logos for this, different rules for that, fleets of products changing seemingly arbitrarily in relation to everything else, very much a window into the structure of Microsoft the corporation — a series of separate entities working autonomously under their own flags, but somehow all in the same building. Not the best message.

So, let’s go back to Windows. Windows, the operating system is what has made Microsoft the company it is today. With Windows shipping pre-installed on over 90% of all personal computers, Windows is by far the dominant brand and the driving force of the company, it also has the most recognisable visual device the company has—the window—so isn’t it really the obvious thing to do to bring that to the forefront and capitalise on that brand equity? Well, yes it is, and that is what they have done. By no means a minor tweak.

So, now we have Microsoft back on the top of the pile, under that we have Windows and then we have the Office brand and its fleet of individual products. This is known as a ‘branded house’ model whereas what we had previously was a mishmash ‘house of brands’ hybrid that seemed to have no rules. Microsoft’s most recognisable visual asset is now right at the top alongside the company name, and it’s been pared down to its simplest form, which, by no accident also ties in nicely with the visual style of their new Metro user interface which will be in place soon with the release of Windows 8 on both PCs and mobile devices alike.

Windows’ new UI—Metro:

Jeff Hansen, general manager of brand strategy, says “The ways people experience our products are our most important brand impressions… That’s why the new Microsoft logo takes its inspiration from our product design principles while drawing upon the heritage of our brand values, fonts and colors.”

This is the first time Microsoft have updated their logo since February 1987, and with Windows getting completely overhauled and a pretty nice looking mobile platform, Microsoft certainly seem to be entering a much needed new phase, and this time it all appears to have unity. The real test will no doubt be whether any of this unity is being introduced at the business structure level, a problem which Microsoft’s arch enemy Apple have long overcome.

Oh look—this looks familiar: