Archive for August, 2009

Storytelling Through Brands.

What’s it all about?

Brands tell stories. It doesn’t happen overnight but over time certain brands become bigger and permeate our lives to the point where they become part of our culture. It might be that they fill a gap in the market, gain international status, market themselves so intensely and cleverly that we simply cannot ignore then, or maybe they simply have a kick-ass product or service that everyone desires.

One thing is for sure though, most have grown from humble beginnings.

I’m not talking about your average company here, I’m talking about the powerhouses that we recognise just by catching a glimpse of part of their logo, or the sort of company that you can almost guarantee to find no matter where in the world you might be. Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Sony, Tesco, Heinz, Apple, Google, Marks and Spencer e al.  All have iconic logos and brands that we recognise, usually trust, and often choose over rival products.

Markets are saturated these days. There are dozens of choices of brands and the company’s that stand out from the crowd are not always the best ones, but the ones that make the most noise and tell the right story.

How do brands tell stories?

It’s all about building blocks and bringing together several strands. Let’s break it down:

  • Values
    Any successful brand will be born out of carefully chosen values. They may not be explicitly written on the product or marketing material but chances are the company will have thought of a mission statement and values that they want their company to represent. They may not always live up to the values either, but they are idealistic and help to sculpt the brand and story. These values underpin everything that follows.


    Common brand values include trustworthy, reliable, honest, and open.

  • Logo
    A good logo can make or break a company. Despite our lives being bombarded with choices we can still recognise one company over another just from their logo. The old saying tells us that a picture paints a thousand words and never is this more true than in relation to branding. If we spot a logo that we recognise then we will associate that with our experiences, knowledge and expectations from that company.


    The best way to demonstrate the power of logos is to look at some:




  • Of course these are the logos for Twitter, Starbucks and Google. Let’s take the Starbucks logo. When I see this I know I will get a comfy warm setting in which to sip my tasty warm coffee whilst chatting to friends. For me the Starbucks story is all about meeting friends and catching up over a coffee, or having an informal work meeting, or grabbing a coffee whilst on the go. I know what I will get and I only need to see a hint of that green logo in order for that to be communicated to me.
  • Strapline/Slogan
    The short snappy text that anchors your logo adds to your story. In fact if it is written in a certain way, the slogan can be the story just in very short form.


    Again, this sort of speaks for itself so let’s look at some examples and think about the story they are both telling and contributing to:

    • Orange – The future’s bright, the future’s Orange
    • Apple – Think Different
    • Tesco – Every little helps
    • Nike – Just do it
    • British Telecom – It’s good to talk
    • Cadbury Milk Tray – And all because the lady loved Milk Tray
    • Carlsberg – Probably the best lager in the world
    • KFC – Finger lickin good
  • Colour
    As I have previously discussed on my blog, colours have hidden meanings and connote certain values and messages. Yellow is associated with happiness, blue can be calm and cool, green often has links to nature and red can connote love, passion or danger. That said, the dominant colour of a brand is important in telling the right story. For example, if your brand values are all about being environmentally aware then this might best be communicated through green.
  • Marketing
    A crucial element to building any brand and one that can fail spectacularly. With today’s technology, we can tweet about adverts, share opinions on a product or company, and audiences seem to have more influence now than ever before. When it comes to marketing though, you just can’t beat a good idea!


    It is important to remember that just because everyone knows your story (in the case of the big brands), it doesn’t mean you should stop telling the story. There are always new audiences waiting to be discovered and new ways of telling the same story.

    Successful marketing campaigns are the ones that people talk about long after the advert has finished. The format and content of the marketing will add to the brand story. If you want to promote yourselves as being relaxed, approachable and fun to work with then make sure this is clear in your marketing campaigns.

  • Story
    There has to be a story to tell. Whether that be how a small coffee house in Seattle became one of the most recognisable brands of today, or how two men added a special waffle pattern to his shoes to help him run faster, naming the shoe after a Greek goddess, the shoe became and still is a worldwide success (Nike).


    But how you tell the story is almost more important than the story that is being told. Cue the case study.

I’ve got a golden ticket!

Yesterday I visited Cadbury World in Birmingham. This was an interesting couple of hours, not only from a chocolate loving perspective, but from a brand and marketing stance.

The first thing of note was the colour. Everywhere I looked purple was staring back at me. From the big sign on the way in, to the handrails around the factory, the wrappers of the chocolate to the uniforms of the staff. Purple is Cadbury and Cadbury is purple!

Logo 1

Logo 2

Logo 3

It takes a long time for a brand to be so successful that a single colour can remind us of it. Here is a surmised Cadbury timeline:

  • 1824 – John Cadbury opened his first grocer shop
  • 1866 – Cadbury start to sell Cocoa Essence
  • 1897 – The first milk chocolate for eating was launched
  • 1905 – Cadbury Dairy Milk is born
  • 1915 – Milk Tray make their debut
  • 1928 – The glass and a half logo is used for the first time
  • 2003 – Cadbury become the world’s number 1 confectionary company

Ok so a lot of hard work happened between 1928 and 2003 but as you can see, Cadbury have been around for a lot longer than anyone reading this blog post! That means we have known their products, logo and brand for all of our lives and as purple is the consistent colour across all their marketing and advertising it is no wonder that the association between purple and Cadbury is an easy one to make.

The significance of purple.

I don’t expect that when the branding for Cadbury was being decided, there were many in depth conversations around the connotations of colour, yet it is significant nowadays.

In the western world, purple is a colour that is said to represent luxury, royalty, the finer things in life, and even wizardry. These are pretty good values to market chocolate as. It is often seen as being an indulgence, a luxury, a treat, and the packaging that the chocolate arrives in reinforces this belief.

As purple represents these values and Cadbury use purple as their dominant brand colour, then Cadbury are associated with these values too. In that case, we are more likely to see Cadbury as being luxurious and indulgent than we are the colour purple (as we don’t often stop to think about hidden meanings in colour) and that in turn reinforces the idea that purple is a colour of luxury and indulgence, and so the cycle continues.

Of course this is all helped by other elements such as the style in which Cadbury is written and the fact that chocolate for many people is the absolute meaning of life!

Appealing to the masses.

The second thing of note was the crowds. There were literally hundreds, if not well over a thousand, visitors. What is it that draws people to Cadbury World in such high numbers?

It undoubtedly has to be two main reasons. 1, people love chocolate, and 2, the Cadbury story.

Cadbury have one strong advantage to play with and that is the wonderment of making chocolate. Books and films have romanticised what is in reality, a rather dull production process. But we can’t help but be curious about what magic is happening behind the imposing factory gates that so many average joe’s get to pass through.

The other strength for Cadbury is the fact that it is so old. There is something inside us that jumps for joy when we reminisce and look back to days gone by. Cadbury World plays on the nostalgia at every opportunity, retro posters of their packaging, videos of the past adverts, and indeed the history and story of the company are constantly made visual during a visit there.

Telling the story … again … and again … and again …

When it comes to marketing, Cadbury could teach us all a thing or two. They could probably get away with never airing another advert again. But they do. And they work on so many levels.

They work because they are creative and just when we think we know all about Cadbury, they surprise us and get us all talking again. It’s the same old story but repackaged. There is a whole section in the Cadbury World experience that is dedicated to their adverts.

I was fondly reminded (there’s the nostalgic thing again) of the “everyone’s a fruit and nut case” advert, the “a finger of fudge is just enough” song, the Cadbury sponsorship of Coronation Street, the rollercoaster advert for Crunchie that looked like it was made of chocolate, and more recently, these two:

Quite what they have to do with chocolate I don’t know. They have been spoofed, recreated and written about countless times though. Cadbury is still making positive headlines almost 200 years after they first set-up shop.

Listening to the audience.

Despite their global dominance Cadbury are still able to listen to their audience. This should never be underestimated. People set up Facebook groups and led a campaign to bring back the Wispa chocolate bar. They succeeded.

Consumers spoke and Cadbury listened, shining yet another positive light onto the company and adding a new chapter to their story.

Quite where the Cadbury story will end I don’t know. I guess the key thing is that they refuse to be silent. They have worked hard to grow and create a brand that has now become part of our culture. They also seem intent on retaining this position and are always thinking of new ways to achieve this. Whether you like chocolate or not, there is no denying that Cadbury have created a brand that perfectly tells their story. And they keep telling it. And it keeps working, so much so that I now need to go and get some Dairy Milk. I’m confident that I will be able to spot it immediately on the shop shelf amongst all the other chocolates. I’ll just keep an eye out for the shiny purple wrapper.


Subliminal Messaging

In light of my recent infatuation with the topic of ‘invisible’ communication, I am moving on from body language to talk about subliminal messages.

These are defined on Wikipedia as:

a signal or message embedded in another medium, designed to pass below the normal limits of the human mind’s perception. These messages are unrecognizable by the conscious mind, but in certain situations can affect the subconscious mind and can negatively or positively influence subsequent later thoughts, behaviors, actions, attitudes, belief systems and value systems.

With that in mind, subliminal messaging can be a powerful communication tool, and as we live in a world where sex sells, it makes this invisible layer of communication even more influential.

Sex does indeed sell.

In fact sex has become a commodity so it seems only natural that many subliminal messages are related to sex. It is best to show this through examples so where better to look than at the films of Disney!

Hold on! Disney? Yep, Disney films are rife with sexual references, imagery and ‘hidden’ messages. Before I proceed, these are just my thoughts on possible hidden messages within Disney films! Please don’t sue me House of Mouse!

Right, legalities over with, let’s start with my favourite Disney film.

The Lion King

When Simba relaxes under the night sky, the stars above can be seen to spell out ‘sex’. The animators claim it says ‘SFX’ as a signature to their work. I’ll let you drawn your own conclusions:

Lion King - Subliminal Message

The Rescuers

There is one scene with a rather naughty image in the background. This was admitted by Disney and the film was recalled in the 1970’s and this image did not feature in the 1992 VHS release. See it for yourself:


The Little Mermaid

The cover artwork for this film, undoubtedly features a penis. Apparently the artist intended for this to feature but admitted that it was perhaps a little too obvious. Here is the cover:


Look a little closer though:ewwwwwdisneyisapervetjv7

Whilst this is quite explicit, it is still subliminal in the sense that we may not consciously notice references like this until they are pointed out to us. From afar it is quite subtle.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

It may only last for two frames but Jessica Rabbit does indeed do a ‘basic instinct’ as she exits a taxi, perhaps setting the benchmark for trashy drunken celebrities here after.


Beyond the few examples show above, it is also suggested that the personalities of the Seven Dwarfs represent the seven stages of cocaine addiction, Aladdin tells teenagers to take their clothes off in one scene, and the minister becomes, ahem, aroused, in the wedding scene of The Little Mermaid.

It’s not just Disney who are at it.

Whether these examples are real or not, it is important to remember that things are not always as they seem. As well as subliminal messaging in films, song lyrics can have hidden meanings (often related to sex), paintings can include subtle referencing, and adverts often have a distinct sexual undertone.

It is a proven effective way of communication. This video, whilst not the best quality, shows some examples of subliminal messaging:

For me it comes back to asking questions about the texts we consume. If we take things at face value then we risk missing out on a whole new level of the film/song/advert. It is good to challenge the assumptions and ‘read’ texts. Once you know what to look for it is surprising just how much can be read into texts and films are by far the easiest to study.

Does it happen online?

Do subliminal messages exist online? I haven’t stumbled upon any websites as examples but I’m sure they must exist. Maybe next time you are designing you can sneak in a phallic symbol or two! 😉

If you have your own examples, please leave a comment here as I would love to hear and see them.

Invisible Communication

Human communication consists of 93% body language!

Arguably then, 93% of what we communicate is invisible. Not literally as it is there on show and if you know what to look for you can read someone’s body language to understand what they ‘really’ mean, but how often do we do that, we tend to focus on the words they are saying when there is a much deeper level of communication happening in their gestures, posture, handshake, facial expressions and smiles.

In the name of research I have recently been reading a book called The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease.

It is a fascinating book on this topic and here are some of my favourite nuggets of information from that book:

  • It is proven that less than 5% of people can identify the back of their hands from a photograph (so be careful next time you say ‘I know it like the back of my hand’)
  • Phrases we use highlight the importance of body language to our communication, get it off your chest, keep your chin up, face up to it, put your best foot forward, and shoulder a burden are just a few examples.
  • Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell estimated that we can make and recognise around 250,000 facial expressions (dare you to try and find them all)
  • 7 out of 1o people cross their left arm over their right arm.
  • There are many cultural differences but the basic body language signals are the same everywhere. One universal gesture for example is shoulder shrugging.
  • Modern humans are worse at reading body signals than their ancestors because we are now distracted by words.
  • A natural smile produces characteristic wrinkles around the eyes – insincere people smile only with their mouth.
  • Science has proved the more you smile the more positive reactions others will give you.
  • When you fold your arms your credibility dramatically reduces.
  • American television is the prime reason cultural body language differences are disappearing.
  • If you make a V sign with your fingers it can mean ‘two’ to an American, ‘victory’ to a German and ‘up yours’ in Britain.
  • When a man is excited by a woman, which part of his body can grow to almost three times it size? His pupils!
  • An American survey found the 3 words women would most like to hear from their male partner were not ‘I love you’. They were … ‘you’ve lost weight’.

This is by no means a definitive list and if it is a topic that interests you then I urge you to buy the book. It doesn’t end with people though. Invisible communication is all around us. An overview of some examples include:

Supermarkets – they are designed to make us buy things. It’s a science! Not only are we subconsciously made to buy lots of things but we are influenced to buy specific products the supermarket want us to buy. The biggest influencer is the layout of the store and positioning of the shelves.

Colour is used effectively, red for offers, green for fresh and so on. Popular brands are placed at the end of aisles to ‘welcome us’ to that section, fresh fruit is almost always placed as you enter the store as it says ‘we have fresh food here’, items like bread and milk are at the back as they are often items people need when doing a quick shop so they make you walk past everything else to get to them.

The trouble is, supermarkets don’t put the customer first, it’s all about the money for them which can make for a poor user experience for the shoppers

Airports – It is no secret that airports too are designed in a way that means passengers can get to where they need to without too much thought.

Different floor surfaces represent different areas and signage is vital. The most talked about airport is Schipol. Yellow signs here provide information, signs for cafes and shops are blue and green is used for escape routes.

A considered combination of terminology, colour coding, placement and fonts can make for a much more pleasant airport experience, subconsciously of course!

Advertising – this fascinates me. I like to think that I am not influenced by adverts, I am above it and I decide what to buy, not the global corporations.

If truth be told though, I am influenced by advertising. Again I think this influence is invisible in the sense that I may not see an advert and immediately rush out and by the product but next time I am in the supermarket I am drawn to it.

Messages are communicated to us which we think we ignore but perhaps we don’t. If you buy this aftershave you will be more like Ewan McGregor, eat this cereal and you will lose weight, wear this deodorant and you will be fighting the opposite sex off, and so the list could grow and grow as adverts use idealistic lifestyles to influence us. (a blog post on advertising is coming soon!)

Films – We may think we go to the cinema, we watch a film, we leave. Not so. Films are rife with character types, narrative twists and turns, storytelling techniques, and codes.

Throughout our childhoods and into our adult lives we learn about storytelling conventions and the characters of hero, villain, princess etc and even though we may not recognise it when watching films, we can often look for these characters and apply these storytelling methods to what we are seeing.

That’s why it works so well when the conventions are played with and turned on their head. (Lost for example!) Films communicate a lot more than what is presented literally on screen to us. This is also true of the media in general.

The web – And so to the web. Invisible communication is also present here. In the colours of websites, colours that can connote various messages to users and influence their moods and colours that have different meanings depending on which part of the planet you live.

Navigation should communicate to users too and if it is designed with the user in mind then they should be able to move around websites with little thought as to what we are clicking on, it is almost like an innate sense.

Navigation tells the story that guides the user to where they want to go without having to think about it. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end and this storytelling should be applied to navigation telling the user, where they have been, where they currently are, and where they can go next.

Signs and icons communicate messages to users too, we can see an icon and know instantly what it represents. If I see an envelope I can send an email, a green tick means go, proceed, ok but a red icon is likely to be a warning.

Types of websites also share conventions that could arguably mean that there are genres of websites. The words we use are important, the design/layout of a website creates the ‘scene’ and brings together all the elements of copywriting, colour, design, typography, navigation and so on, in the same way the scene of a film brings together the lighting, script, actors, set decoration and costumes.

So much to say.

This topic is deep and something else I will blog about in the coming weeks but nothing is as it seems, adverts, supermarkets, pictures, colours, websites, they are built with layers and if we peel back those layers then we can reveal some interesting insights into human behaviour, the media, and the web.

Colour me Fuzzy Wuzzy

It’s hard to know exactly how many colours there are. My Google search brought up answers that ranged from 3 to 16 million!

Colour is a complex subject with many strands, some of which I am going to talk about below. It is a topic that stretches far beyond the 7 colours of the rainbow. Crayola, for example officially have 133 different coloured crayons, including Fuzzy Wuzzy, Granny Smith Apple, Macaroni and Cheese, Purple Mountain’s Majesty, and Outer Space.

Beneath the surface.

I’m not interested in the science of colour though, I’m interested in how those colours are associated with the world around us, such as the four seasons, our favourite rooms in the house, our favourite clothes, and our favourite websites.

There is a reason we are drawn to the red jumper rather then the yellow jumper. Most notably because red and yellow express very different messages, but in order to connect the colours to the messages we must gather this understanding from somewhere, from the world around us. As colours and their meanings are so engraved in our cultures, we often don’t realise that colours make us feel a certain way or influence our decisions, it becomes so natural that it is a subconcious process.

Colours impact on our moods too.

Stories, brands, cultures, they all give meaning to colour but we often overlook this. For that reason, the true value of colour is arguably, invisible. Colours undoubtedly mask our world but how often do we stop and consider what messages we are conveying by choosing one colour over another?

It is well documented that in psychiatric and mental health hospitals, they paint the walls in muted tones such as cool blues, as this creates a calm mood for the patients. That’s how powerful colour can be.

Colour in Culture.

Beyond all the studies into how our brains and eyes receive and process colours, and further to the issues of hue, saturation, brightness, and contrast, colours have cultural, symbolic, and religious associations which, if we don’t consider during design, means we could stand to offend our target audience by getting it wrong.

The brand colour for Thai Airways is purple. In Thailand purple is a colour of mourning. Mourning and flying are not two things you would connect in order to increase your customer base! In the West though, purple is associated with royalty and luxury, and even magic. Therefore, if Thai Airways see their target audience as people outside of Thailand, then they are saying to them ‘ we provide a luxurious service’.

Connotation and denotation.

The denotation of something is its literal meaning. For colour then, the denotation of red is red, for blue it is blue and so on.

The connotation is the meaning that is implied or suggested. For red the connotation varies depending on the context
it is viewed in, but most commonly red connotes danger or love.  It is the mood often associated with the object.

Take this rose for example:


The denotation here is a red rose with a green stem as that is literally what it is. The connotation however, is passion, love and romance, as a red rose is a symbol of these emotions. That is what a red rose has come to represent.

Applying this to colours rather than objects can help us make informed decisions when choosing colour in website design.

Is this a black square?

Black Square

Yes it is if we look at it literally. The denotation here is the absence of colour. It is simply a square that is black.

The connotation however could be fear of the unknown, the dark, a void, space and so on. Perhaps not as obvious as we first thought.

Meaning through relevance

Beyond the descriptive and mood words, colours have significance in other topics. Sports teams are always a good example. In Wales for example, red is a colour that our national sports teams wear so for us it is very much a ‘Welsh’ colour. In Scotland it is blue, white for England and Green for Ireland.

What this clearly demonstrates is that relevance will influence the significance of colours. Red is relevant to me as I am Welsh. Red is also associated with love, Christmas and danger so there are very different contexts within which red communicates very different messages.

The colours we choose in our designs should be informed decisions rather than ‘I prefer purple to pink’ or ‘just use green’. We should think about what invisible meanings the colours will bring to our sites, what audiences and cultures they will be seen by, and undoubtedly, will they turn my design into something beautiful. Colour combinations can communicate emotions without the need to show actual objects.

If we understand that different colours have different qualities then this will directly impact the designs that are produced, but what should never be underestimated is making informed decisions on what colours to use in web design based on cultural representations and the hidden meanings of colours.