Sometimes brand design co-option is used as a shortcut to help a new brand fit into the consciousness of the consumer by positive association. Even if the consumer isn’t going to be fooled into thinking that the brand actually is the same, the design similarity can help bridge that gap and help us feel confident about our decision. Products that look like, for instance, an Apple product, are looking to co-opt some of the positive traits that have seen the brand become as dominant as it is. My far cheaper smartphone may or may not perform as well as an iPhone, but it has certainly taken (more than) a few design cues from the range.


Being able to fit a brand, product or service as closely as possible into an established (and successful) design culture, without being so close as to merit a lawsuit, is an artform in itself. Step into your local budget grocery store and you’ll likely see a whole raft of products that look a lot like more popular branded products from within the same industry…


St Etienne Beer
In other instances, established brands, confident enough in their own place in the minds of the consumer, decide to play loosely with their own branding in an effort to garner attention. One very recent example springs to mind here, in Budweiser’s co-opting of brand ‘America’. Until the November presidential election in America, the brand has decided to rebrand (and even rename) their core product. It’s no longer Budweiser Beer, but ‘America’, no longer the ‘King of Beers’, rather, using the space to quote one of the phrases on the seal of the US: ‘E pluribus unum.’


Budweiser America

They have made sure that the bottles and cans of Budweiser will still look like a Budweiser on supermarket shelves – but for marketing and PR purposes have decided to align themselves, through co-opted brand elements, with another ‘brand’.


Brands thinking about co-opting others, for whatever reason, need to think very hard before doing so. For one, it’s really not difficult to get into trouble with
aggressive and trigger happy brand infringement defence teams (it’s the role of the conscientious designer to make sure their work doesn’t transgress in this way). Further, co-opting can also cheapen the brand by not differentiating enough from others in the same marketplace. If your beer is entirely happy to look like another beer, what message is that sending out to the consumer? It certainly wouldn’t look good on a premium product.


There are times when brand design co-option makes some sense though. Focusing on how to make your brand look different isn’t always going to help it achieve it’s goals within the marketplace. Some brands, like Budweiser, are strong enough to positively co-opt. Loosening their brand apron strings because they are well known enough to make the possible reward greater than the risk.


And as is the case with the bottle of Stella Artois, it can also be beneficial to appear to be similar to others in the market when the brand in question is not as well known. That beer looks like another beer and in doing so is telling the consumer in the store what to expect. A facsimile of another brand and a safe option for that. It might not stand out as an original product (and would never become a wider success as a result) but not every piece of brand design has to be completely original to fulfil its remit.


By Oliver Brown


Image courtesy of Fast Company