Times new Roman
When Brand Lounge wanted to update its own visual identity, the Dubai-based agency had to reckon with the age-old question, quis custodiet ipsos custodes. Jack Cousins discovers who brands branding agencies
Sometimes the art of branding can touch on deeply philosophical matters. The Latin phrase quis custodiet ipsos custodes, accredited to the Roman poet Juvenal, literally asks, ‘Who will guard the guards themselves?’ Associated with political tyranny, the phrase has been popularised to mean ‘Who will keep those in power accountable?’
Juvenal’s question cuts so deep into the human spirit that it could be interpreted within modern contexts in ways that the poet, who died in the second century, could not possibly have conceived of. When a design agency which specialises in brand development wants to be rebranded itself, who does it turn to for honest advice, free from all the biases and self-deception humans naturally harbour? Contrary to the warnings of the Roman-era satirist, the agency will often rely on itself.
Within the rough and tumble of a competitive landscape, agencies are disincentivised to seek help from rivals, meaning the responsibility falls on the shoulders of those closest to the business itself. This has even been evidence in some of the largest rebranding exercises of brand agencies in history, none bigger than the 2018 formation of mega-agency Superunion from Brand Union, the Partners, Lambie-Nairn, Addison Group and VBAT.
With the decision to merge announced in September 2017, the five agencies left themselves around four months to complete the mammoth task of creating a cohesive brand which all parties could agree on. The new agency’s global chief creative officer, Greg Quinton, settled on a brand idea of unity, with much of Superunion’s visual identity revolving around the combination of two things to create one in an unexpected manner, much like the merger itself.
Now over four years on – and having retained the original agencies’ largest clients like Fifa and Ford – the question is not whether Superunion was a branding success, but how this was possible. Indeed, Socrates’ solution to this conundrum posed in Plato’s ‘The Republic’ was merely to trust the guardians (those in power) to act responsibly. For him, a branding agency not branding itself would be the absurdity.
That’s not to say doing this wouldn’t surprise some people in the industry. Mo Saad, head of design and creative impact at Dubai-based agency Brand Lounge, was questioned by designer friends when the agency opted to rebrand itself earlier this year. “They asked me, ‘Did you guys do your own work or did someone else do it for you?’” Saad says. “I said we did ourselves, and they told me that's tough; no one does their own thing because it becomes very biased.”
With the agency initially based in Dubai, Brand Lounge carved out a strong reputation in brand creation and activation, quickly adding a new office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Over 15 years on and the agency has a strong roster of global clients in both Gulf region and beyond, including P&G, Del Monte Foods and UAE health insurance specialist Daman.
Despite the growing success of the agency, its brand identity was in its third iteration and beginning to be perceived internally as outdated. Brand Lounge’s old marque was characterised by the use of an ampersand, representing the ideas of partnership, co-creation and cooperation, as well being a metaphor of where the eastern and western worlds meet. With international competitors beginning to utilise the ampersand, the global design agency knew it was time for a change.
Saad says, “We saw a lot of agencies going to the ampersand themselves. We realised we've been doing this for seven years and now there are new entrants into the market using the same story. It kind of defeats the purpose!”
Brand Lounge decided to devise a new story for itself, but was marred by a number of challenges in this unique project which Socrates’ proposition of placing faith in people did not account for.
“It was a constant process and very difficult,” Saad says. “A lot of times we got into debates and nitpicking, and there were times where we just completely disagreed with each other.”
The agency persevered. Rolling out the same tried and tested methodology it would use on clients, Brand Lounge started by asking questions like: “What do we contribute as a consultancy” and “How do we impact clients?” Saad realised that for all the successful work Brand Lounge had created over the past 15 years, the previous identity struggled to talk about impact. It was the maximisation of client’s brand value which stood them apart from the rest.
Appropriately, the agency created ‘the maximiser,’ an ownable and bold L-shaped graphic device found in the new marque and appearing throughout relevant channels. While the use of the ampersand was quite rigid, the flexibility of the maximiser allows Brand Lounge to tell a specific story at that moment. In one form it could be a baguette in a brand breakfast series launch or it could be an Allen key or a constellation of stars.
“When we thought about what we wanted for an identity, we said we wanted something that was very simple,” Saad says. “We did a very big audit of all the players in the market, whether they were global or local. The consultancies and agencies that really stood out were the ones that did not have an overpowering visual identity.”
“The majority of our culture and heritage in the office is Arab-driven, and most of our clients are in the region, for the region. So we also wanted to make sure that whatever typography we chose would also work in Arabic and English”
Further refinements included a new typography with a bilingual variable font called Okaso, designed by type design firm 29LT. The font was also attractive to Brand Lounge for its ability to expand and contract, like the maximiser. Saad says, “The majority of our culture and heritage in the office is Arab-driven, and most of our clients are in the region, for the region. So we also wanted to make sure that whatever typography we chose would also work in Arabic and English.”
The use of brighter colours across the brand and an evolution of internal culture also aim to maximise brand value. While recognising there will always be room for improvement, Saad says large improvements have been made which have allowed for a new Brand Lounge story to be told. He says, “I can certainly say we will continue to change this and there will continue to be evolutions to how the maximiser works and even the way we use typography on internal things like PowerPoint, keynote templates and all that.”
Saad adds, “I think this new identity is quite reflective of what we want to do and we're quite happy with the way it turned out.”
Yet this doesn’t fully explain how Brand Lounge was able to undertake such an honest and successful appraisal. The agency had a trick up its sleeve.
Hired in July 2021, this was Saad’s first project. Coming into the agency with a fresh pair of eyes, he spent the next six months formulating ideas on what did and did not work. With Saad dissecting every element of the business, a crucial ingredient was added: independent thinking.
While Juvenal’s warnings and Socrates’ advice should not be ignored by agencies who need a branding refresh, perhaps they should be refined. Sure, it can be hard to remain honest when assessing the company you work at, and who would say blindly trusting yourself is a virtue? But if you can add a new perspective into the mix without having to forgo control over your agency’s redesign, you might just stand a better chance of creating a rebranding success.