Debranding: When Less is More


According to Michelangelo, sculpting David was simple. All he did was chip away the bits that weren’t David.  

Brands can benefit from the same approach - stripping a brand back to its very essence can help articulate its core qualities in a way that’s real, honest and simple. It’s an approach known as ‘debranding’, and it’s a much-needed response to brand fatigue.

Our world is loud enough as it is. By dialing back the volume on our branding efforts we can craft identities that speak honestly and meaningfully - without having to shout. Because as it turns out, a little bit of branding can go a long way.

No one wants to be a walking ad.

Recently an anti-fashion movement sprang up among Brooklynite youth: ‘normcore’. Characterized by bland, nondescript attire, it was fashion’s answer to vehicular debadging. It wasn’t really about the clothing. It was more of an attitude. It was about wanting to be something other than a clotheshorse for corporate logos or a participant in the trend du jour of the advertising powers-that-be. 

It embodied the rumblings of concern and mistrust that occur in a world of huge, faceless monolithic companies – behemoths whose day-to-day workings and practices are impossible for consumers to identify and assess.

Today’s consumers necessarily want to support big business – and nor do they want to be a walking advertisement for the products they choose to invest in. They’re looking for a more personal connection. The power dynamic has flipped. Rather than consumers proving themselves worthy of being a brand’s ambassador, a brand now has to prove itself worthy of its customers. Consumers want to opt in to a product, not be shouted into using it.

Brands don't need to go all out.

Rolling back the visual assault of a highly branded identity has been the solution for some of the usual suspects. Take Nike, Coke, Shell, and even Starbucks, all of which have pared back their brandmarks or packaging – achieving greater impact as a result. 

Not everyone has this kind of existing brand equity to tap into, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. New brands don’t have to worry about having to unravel years of big corporate connotations and the baggage of globally recognizable visual identities. They can enter the market with the unassuming charm of a “little guy”.

Brands such as Justin’s Nut Butter and The Originals keep things simple, with understated packaging and purely descriptive product names. They don’t need to make big claims about what they are or aren’t, because their they’re so honest and straightforward that the advertising machinations we’d expect from other companies haven’t even crossed their minds. Brilliant, isn’t it?

We know when brands are pulling a fast one.

Using debranding to convey authenticity is one way of catching the eye of customers who have decided to step outside the all-pervasive ecosystem of the major conglomerates. But if you’re going to play the humbly authentic card, you have to be humbly authentic. 

When the Harris+Hoole cafes beloved by UK hipsters were revealed as being backed by mega supermarket chain Tesco’s, public sentiment plummeted. It wasn’t Tesco’s itself that was at fault, but rather the perceived deception. Oregon’s beloved boutique 10 Barrel Brewing similarly made waves a couple of years back. Even though nothing about its products had changed, consumers were aghast to hear that the brand had been acquired by Anheiser-Busch InBev – the multinational owner of all things Bud. 

Of course, taking your debranding all the way back to the anonymously generic has its risks, too. Google can reduce its logo to a series of colorful dots and still be recognizable, but a lesser-known brand runs the risk of becoming invisible. In these cases, context and distribution can be key.

Keep it simple and keep it real.

Debranding doesn’t have to mean unbranding. Think of it more as a decluttering of a visual identity. The marketing equivalent of Coco Chanel’s advice about taking off one accessory or item of clothing before leaving the house. 

A debranded brand can be a sight for sore, over-stimulated eyes. It’s a gracious move – one that indicates that the brand values the consumer over its own needs. New York’s Brooklyn Fare, for example, has crafted a memorable, fun identity using nothing but quirky copy typed in a simple serif font on one-color backgrounds. Even the website is refreshingly text-only.

In a world of increasing visual noise debranding can create a haven of sorts. By artfully distilling a brand essence down to its core and communicating it in a simple, minimalist fashion – whether through identity or strategy – brands get to play with the power of suggestion. And consumers get to choose whether to be a part of it.

Debranding isn’t for everyone. It requires a certain degree of existing brand equity and a deep awareness of how customers respond to a given brand or product. But brands should be far less concerned about how loudly they’re shouting – and far more about what they’re actually communicating. 

After all, even Michelangelo’s David wouldn’t be David if he hadn’t been stripped back to the basics. 

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