A yellow M that makes you hungry for fast food. A cream that smells of security. Or five tones that are involuntarily associated with a telecommunications company: brand codes stand for a brand like hardly anything else and make it unmistakable.

By Gina Block, GMK Markenberatung.

They are the unmistakable brand DNA and, if they are really good, even give it its very own personality. But what exactly are brand codes and how do they have to be designed to stay in people’s minds? We are going to explore these questions:

Brand Codes done right

“For me, brand codes are successful when they are not perceived at first glance, but are part of a positive chain of experiences and a coherent overall impression. For me, this also includes service, for example,” says design and brand expert Raimond Radtke about a successful brand code.

Naturally, a brand code with little impact and integration into the brand experience does not lead to success. Classic brand code forms such as logo, colour, typography or imagery are already difficult to use today because they are part of every brand design and are no longer special in that sense. If one of these elements is nevertheless to become a brand code, extraordinary design must be used. A good example of this is IU International University (IU), which has chosen strong neon colours as its brand code. Based on the classic highlighter colours, they integrate into the IU experience chain and fit both the brand and the target group. Even now, shortly after the recent relaunch of the brand, they are perceived as a strong brand code:

What is a brand code?
A brand code is, ideally, the first thing users associate with a brand – the brand’s DNA, so to speak. The code can be visual, but also haptic or acoustic in nature. Optimally, the brand is recognised by its brand codes alone, without users seeing the brand name or similar. Well-known brand codes are, for example, the McDonalds M the Coca-Cola red or the unmistakable Nivea scent. Certain attitudes and claims can also be a brand code, such as Nike’s “just do it” mentality, the nu company’s consistent sustainability claim or SIXT’s cheeky, partly political communication mechanics..

Recognising IU International University in every environment by its Brand Code
The neon colours and the frame reminiscent of a folder make the IU International University recognisable by its brand code in any environment. © IU Internationale Hochschule; Screenshot: IU Internationale Hochschule LinkedIn (Collage: ndion.de)

Brand codes far from the standard

Those who want to break away from the standards in brand codes should rather look in the direction of communication. There are many ways to establish “fresh” brand codes. For example, through a cleverly thought-out social media campaign. A good example of this is the nu company (in German). The young company stands out with a strong attitude and a lot of commitment to climate protection, a better environment and healthier nutrition. The nu company implements all this with strong social media campaigns and clear communication, turning its own attitude and communication into a strong brand code. Statements like “We want every beep at the checkout to be a signal for a healthier and greener world” or social media campaigns like the following have become brand recognition factors:

The nu company is strongly and self-confidently committed to climate protection and also wants to support this itself with its own products and their production. Through strong social media communication and campaigns, the nu company have made this stance their brand code.

“Sound branding, olfactory perception and product design can also produce good brand codes that stand out,” explains Raimond Radtke. Probably the best-known sound branding example is Telekom, although there are many more possibilities in this area, such as sound branding.

Probably one of Germany’s most iconic sound brandings: Deutsche Telekom’s famous five tones.

But no matter which type of brand code is chosen, it is important to design a brand code in such a way that it is permanently applicable and fits into the brand construct. Freely according to the motto “Only an authentic brand code is a good brand code”.

Are brand codes set in stone?

Even if brand codes leave a learned pattern with users after a while, they can certainly be changed and adapted to the ravages of time. However, caution is advised. The core of the brand code should always be retained and only modified so as not to destroy the effect. Many well-known brands have already been able to successfully modify their brand codes without losing their basic elements, says Raimond Radtke: “Brand codes should remain true to their DNA, but must move with the times in order to remain relevant. Besides the classic examples of Coca-Cola, children’s chocolate or Brandt Zwieback, I would like to mention Betty Crocker at this point. The ‘American housewife’ maintains the learned brand codes (red costume, average type, patented hairstyle etc.) and has been adapting to fashion and contemporary tastes for over 80 years.” Nivea, for example, has also changed over time, but has never lost its brand essence in design:

The Evolution of the Nivea tin
© Beiersdorf AG

In individual cases, a complete redesign of brand codes can also work: “If it is communicated in a comprehensible way, the adaptation or exchange of a brand code can definitely work. McDonald’s, for example, is changing from red to green in the company sign in Europe to signal respect for the environment. In addition, the new colour combination fits better with the coffee segment,” says Raimond Radtke. However, the fact that the change of background worked so smoothly here is probably mainly due to the strong effect of the actual logo (golden M), which was not replaced:

The first McDonald's restaurant in Germany
From the classic burger joint in red and gold… © McDonald‘s
#imlovingit McDonald's
… to the modern franchise chain in green-gold. © McDonald‘s

What a brand code can become

There are a few brand codes that have established themselves so successfully that they have almost become their own sub-cult brand. First and foremost is the classic Nivea fragrance. For some the scent of childhood, for others the scent of holidays, this brand code is so popular that there are even perfumes, scented candles and room scents with this iconic brand code.

NIVEA Eau de Toilette
Nivea Sun scented candle

Nivea has made the brand code “fragrance” iconic. © Beiersdorf AG

Ford has done something similar and made the “scent of new cars” an extended brand code. Only recently, a special perfume was launched here as well. To come back to our now green and yellow fast food chain: McDonald’s has not only established design as a brand code, but also taste. For example, some of the McDonald’s sauces can be bought in the supermarket to bring the brand into the dining room at home. Others have managed to weave their brand codes into the brand in such a way that it becomes an event when they are adapted to the times. The best examples of this are Brandt Zwieback and Kinder chocolade, both of which have a child on the packaging. If this child changes, it is a real event for many users of the brand and is usually received positively, because the actual brand code, the child on the packaging, remains. Even the child models themselves become little icons and quite a few want to know what the “packaging children of yesteryear” look like today.

Brand Codes: an opportunity for brands and a playground for creatives

A brand code is so diverse and individual that it can become an opportunity for any brand and therefore deserves special attention. Creating one can become a colourful playground for designers, acousticians, copywriters and many more. Experiment, be bold and make your brand recognisable for all users at all points of contact.

About Raimond Radtke
Raimond Radtke is Creative Director at GMK Markenberatung. After graduating in communication design, the brand and design specialist gained more than 20 years of experience in various industries. He has lived in creative capitals such as Berlin and San Francisco. Raimond Radtke deals with the topic of brand codes on a daily basis and likes to consider them in their entirety and effect. His favourite brand codes:
“I admire companies that stay true to their brand codes without becoming monotonous. Burberry, for example, constantly reinterprets its distinctive check pattern, which has been known since the 1920s, for example also in rainbow colours, and yet is recognised directly. Apple, too, remains true to itself despite all the technical innovations and convinces again and again with its significant design and the communication that goes with it. In part, product innovations like the iPhone have even been thought out of these brand codes.” 

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