The Challenges of Brand Identity

By Chris Faylor, Mar 20, 2007 8:05am PDT A recent piece from Fast Company provides some insight into the challenges of maintaining and evolving a brand identity such as the Xbox. For its next generation offering Microsoft wanted "to reach a more mainstream gamer while staying true to its hard-core, hard-won audience," the "classic catch-22 of brand maintenance."

To achieve this goal, advertising-marketing-management firm JDK Design involved itself with nearly every aspect of the system, ranging from its concave design to the font. Take the extended crossbar of the B in Xbox 360, for example, which JDK creative director Michael Jager claims has the potential to "unleash a razor-quick assault" if animated. "Our approach was to transition Xbox from this hulk of escaping power into this quiet power that is lurking, something still incredibly dangerous but with more of an elegance and grace," he explained.

Jager and Microsoft executive J Allard went so far as to create "a 'codified language' based on a pattern of concentric circles linked to an alphanumeric system," which was used to express hidden messages on a television special and web sites leading up to the Xbox 360's release. "If you don't know what it is, it looks like this supermodernist pattern that was just sexy and cool," Jager noted. "But weeks before the release, we leaked hints on how to decode [it] to the core audience and created a subversive language."

Perhaps most enlightening of all is the tale of how JDK prevailed against fierce competition for the Xbox 360 account back in 2004, which included Landor, the firm credited with shaping Federal Express into its current FedEx inception, and Turner Duckworth, the company behind the Amazon.com identity and its smiling logo.

Led by Xbox's global brand director at the time, Don Hall, some 20 members of the gaming division gathered to hear the back-to-back-to-back presentations. First up was Michael Jager, JDK's creative director. Comparing the original Xbox with the Incredible Hulk, Jager used a razor to slash an X in a sheet of paper and then thrust his head through the hole. "X today is all AARGGHHH!" he bellowed. Pure aggressive power. He then withdrew his head, flipped the paper, and revealed how that X could become a doorway, "an invitation to an experience."

Relations between the two companies went so well, in fact, that JDK even converted some of Microsoft's own. "[JDK] is the only company in my 15 years at Microsoft I've collaborated with [that] I've wanted to work for," admitted Xbox co-founder Allard. "I've had offers--silly offers--but as amazing as some of the people I've met and worked with are, I've never been tempted to consider a career change until I met Michael and JDK."

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