The Hits and Misses of Brands That Break Their Own Rules and Why it’s Ok to Break Them

The list of brands that stagnated because they didn’t realize that the rules are there to be broken is long, says Danny Lye.

Some of the most iconic brands have become just that due to the strength of their convictions, sense of self, and the brand rules they adhere to. Strong guidelines create laser-sharp focus and consistency, all hallmarks of successful brands.

A good set of rules documents the brand strategy, identity, visual expressions, and experience through various touchpoints. It communicates why the brand is relevant – the who, what, and why it stands for.

However, the changing everyday reality of many consumers and the speed at which consumer behavior and priorities are evolving means that it’s almost as important to break those rules as it is to use them as guardrails. While guidelines are good for the now and near, if adhered to too rigidly, they can stifle reach and relevancy.

 
 

The list of brands that stagnated because they didn’t realize rules were there to be broken is long. For example, cosmetics company Avon. The previously ubiquitous brand is arguably hobbled by its outdated approach and not mixing up its narrative. Despite its recent rebrand it fails to be as relevant as some of its more risk-taking competitors.

Then there’s American multinational food company Kraft Heinz. A classic example of a stagnating brand that fell behind after failing to evolve and innovate in line with consumer behavior. And one that gives hope to other fading brands, having had an impressive turnaround under its latest CEO, Miguel Patricio.

Missing out on local relevance

One of the biggest challenges is local and cultural relevance. Gone are the days when global brands were immediately benchmarked as much better than local ones. The increasing complexity of local legislation, channels and competitors means that a global brand can’t rely on identikit rollouts that don’t dare to steer from the centralized path.

 
 

Local players are fast and closer to their markets, so have the potential to grow their footprint quickly. In Asia, brands such as Uniqlo are setting the benchmarks, demonstrating a close understanding of what is relevant to people, fully attuned to their market’s lifestyle, from design and cut to size, material technology, and affordability.

In contrast, those that have failed to do the groundwork struggle to have an impact. Forever 21 is now on its third attempt at entering the Chinese market, having introduced designs popular in America to a Chinese audience without fully immersing in the region’s tastes – and therefore missing the mark.

“The changing everyday reality of many consumers and the speed at which consumer behavior and priorities are evolving means that it’s almost as important to break those rules as it is to use them as guardrails.”

That need for understanding your consumer is one of the key reasons to start breaking rules more often. People are increasingly looking for more than a product and its clearly defined benefit. They consider why they’re investing in a brand, if that brand truly understands their needs and whether it is relevant across their life stages. In addition, audiences are growing up fast, while brand loyalty is much weaker than it was.

LEGO has recognized this and is broadening its reach by using narrative in different ways. It realized that it has a wider story to tell, one around passion, interest and occasion, and events in people’s lives, expanding from a children’s toy producer to a lifestyle brand that fits into the lives of both children and adults.

Brands as media

Brands, therefore, need to uncover their users’ mind and need states and connect with them through experiences. But to do that they have to think more like storytellers; dial into the sensorial, take people on a journey and allow them to discover something new and relevant. Ways of engagement need to be more experimental, be culturally relevant and provoke.

Brands have to realize that they are now content makers, and storytellers. They are all, effectively, media that need to explore different ways of communicating around their brand.

Candy brand Skittles for example ditched its distinctive rainbow assets for a monochromatic packaging for the first time in 2016, in support of Pride Month in the UK to make a statement on inclusivity. It has been part of that conversation ever since.



More recently, Philips partnered with Dunhuang Museum in an unexpected Year of the Tiger collaboration that saw the brand explore the creative connections between art and tech. This approach allowed Philips to home in on a relevant occasion and create another channel on which to reach new audiences.

Both examples show brands casting off the expected – the benefits and promises that made them successful in the first place – and focusing on what is relevant now.


Philips and Dunhuang Museum Tmall collaboration. Image via Marks.


Another trigger for rule breaking is the importance of digital. It is particularly acute in sectors such as banking, where brands need to demonstrate agility and a sense of moving with the times if they want to retain customers and attract new digital savvy audiences over their lifetime.

“Breaking rules is not just about the visual or playing around with brand assets. Rule breaking also applies to the wider business approach.”

Recognizing this, HSBC has been tinkering with its iconic identity. Previously sacrosanct with its use of clear space, the brand is now being applied in a more fluid way. It is becoming more expressive in its use of spaces, allowing it to speak to the digital native in a more engaging way.

A prime example of this came in a 2020 out-of-home campaign, featuring the ‘forward hexagon’ – highlighting two right-facing triangles in the HSBC logo representing the fast-forward button as a ‘symbol of forward movement, acceleration and progress’.



Mixing it up to remain connected

But breaking rules is not just about the visual or playing around with brand assets. Rule breaking also applies to the wider business approach. For example, Singapore Airlines used nimble thinking during COVID-19 restrictions. Not only did it turn its aircraft into pop-up dining experiences, but it also supported hospitals, delivered vaccines, and expanded its subsidiaries such as catering and online shopping.

It found a way to increase its brand relevance and remain connected with Singaporeans and neighboring countries and was the first to turn a profit when allowed to fly again.

The pace of change in people’s relationships with brands shows no sign of slowing. So, whether through co-creation, innovative partnerships or reappraising your route to market at scale, being more nimble and daring will only become more crucial. Rule-breaking brands stand out and they also stand up for what’s right.

One of the biggest drivers of success for any brand is creating value beyond its own sphere of influence. So, if the rule-breaking rebels find the right cause, think of the great change they can effect.

Danny Lye

Danny Lye

Danny is Vice President, Design Greater Asia at Marks

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