Fixed or fluid brand management. Which is right for you?

(First published in The Marketing Scope)

When faced with an opportunity to rebrand, it’s easy to get lost in the range of creative possibilities. So before you pick a direction, make sure to weigh the options and implications of your choices.

Let’s consider the differences between a fixed and a fluid identity system – two frameworks that guide how a brand is implemented and managed.

In a fixed system, the brand looks uniform across all communications. Think of GE, for example. GE looks, feels, and sounds the same in every communication. That’s because detailed brand guidelines and templates give brand managers and creators the specific instructions and tools they need to implement the brand the same way every time.

On the other hand, a fluid system evolves and adapts like a living organism. Think about Google and its frequent logo doodles. The brand maintains a simple, sequential color palette, but it playfully abstracts the logo. Even if the logo becomes a child’s drawing, a foreign language, or a series of geometric shapes, you still know it’s Google. A fluid system like this is in stark contrast to GE, where the logo is sacred and steadfastness is in the company’s DNA.

So how do you know what’s right for you? Let’s start by establishing some basic criteria. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll organize those criteria into two categories: audience and resources.

Getting this question right depends in large part upon your audience.

How often do people see your logo? If your brand’s impressions are few or sporadic, a fixed system gives you a more unified experience for your audience. But if your audience regularly interacts with your brand, a fluid system can keep things fresh by offering something new each time.

What’s your audience like? A fluid system helps brands stay agile by quickly adapting to market, industry, and cultural shifts. It’s great for audiences that respond to those trends. Alternatively, fixed systems are resolute, providing a singular voice and perspective. Oftentimes, this approach connects with a more traditional audience.

Is your brand a startup or a standard-bearer? When managing a global brand with a diverse audience, the fewer the variables of brand application, the better. The more pragmatic choice in this case would be a fixed system. For a smaller audience base, a fluid system helps brands connect with customers through more targeted positioning and messaging.

But your brand system must also reflect your company’s internal resources.

How hard is it to maintain the integrity of your brand? Fixed systems require less time and fewer resources. Your brand managers can simply follow clear guidelines and police all brand expressions. Because fluid systems shift and evolve, you’ll need more hands-on guidance from managers.

Are you sending a press release or throwing a global party? When you create a new brand, the work has really just begun. The conversion and launch process is a big job, and getting it right takes a great deal of coordination. A myriad of applications, ranging from external websites and sales materials to signage and swag, need to be updated and distributed. With specific guidelines and templates in place, a fixed system can help streamline this process.

A fluid brand management system requires more case-by-case customization. That means higher costs and a need for more advanced users fluent in the new brand. In general, the resources required for implementing a fluid system are exponentially higher than a fixed one.

How sophisticated are your marketers? With specific rules in place, the users of a fixed system can apply the brand without an in-depth knowledge of the business and brand story. Fluid systems leave room for interpretation, so users have to have a deep understanding of the brand story, business, and audiences if they’re going to effectively express the brand.

There are pros and cons to each system, but we tend to see broader and more successful applications of a fixed system. Fluid systems are great for youthful, high-touch brands, but their flexibility demands sophistication and a degree of attention not many organizations can pull off. In cases both big and small, a fixed system helps grow brand equity and is easier to do well.