Branding Consistency Be Damned: A Case Study

August 5, 2013

Give “branding consistency” a cursory Google search and the Internet will yield a multitude of hits from media consulting agencies and marketing blogs about the dire importance of brand consistency. The 5-brands-that-nailed-it lists top the search results, offering quip-happy guides on maintaining tonal and visual integrity for your outfit across all print and social platforms.

Certainly, there’s much to be said for brand consistency — and much has been said on the subject. Creating a uniform look and message for your brand gives your institution a cohesive identity — something consumers can identify with, something that distinguishes it from the competitors crowding your space. By now the point has been so belabored that it reads as an inviolable truth: your business card must match your brochure — at all costs!

But now, partially because I have a contrarian streak and partially because I reject absolutes in any guise, I’m going to grab my metaphoric chisel and chip away at the reverence with which we regard unswerving brand identity.

Thus, I submit for your consideration Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern—Dave Eggers’ quirky and well-received literary journal.

The first several volumes of McSweeney’s quarterly journal are branded by the book — white backdrops either covered in text and geometric symbols or featuring some mildly disconcerting image like a bird with wooden plank feet, or a horribly disfigured, yet serenely composed, human face. The 19th-century typeface logo consistently banners the top of the each issue, the volumes are all comparable in size and the pagination within is consistently styled between each volume.

Then comes the black sheep: Issue 6, the little orange book — wider, squatter, carrot-colored with green accents, a far cry in look and feel from the first several volumes. What ensues after this single deviation is utter chaos: standard palettes, book dimensions, cover art medium, style and content are all thrown out the window in consequent issues. Even the logo, the most sacred asset of any brand, is violated, reinvented and sometimes omitted altogether.

The result is this hodgepodge, Franken-brand of mismatched journals. Clustered together on a shelf they’re reminiscent of a school class picture of prepubescent middle-schoolers: some towering and gangly, others stubby, some loud and eye-catching, others stolid. Their disharmony flies in the face of the most basic tenets of brand coherence.

A (mostly) complete collection of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern

A (mostly) complete collection of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

What does McSweeney’s gain from this branding faux pas? Well, in a marketing landscape where most organizations adhere militantly to a Brand Bible, McSweeney’s sets itself apart from this mainstream, embracing an identity that is in flux and ever-evolving. It works for them, because as a literary magazine their disparate volumes harken back to high school and college literary journals — where oftentimes each issue is designed by a new crop of student editors and artists. Thus, each volume is stamped with a distinct voice. It also gives McSweeney’s the latitude to jump into the highly inventive fray of book art and play with new book forms (one of their volumes is encased in a cigar box!).

Joe Hagan writes in a Forbes article that McSweeney’s dogged “pursuit of the idiosyncratic” is a driving factor behind their success, attracting literary giants such as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates. And their quarterly branding is nothing if not idiosyncratic.

So what’s the takeaway? We don’t want to throw the brand out with the bathwater, here — creating a consistent and accessible message and visual tone for a brand is essential to fostering relationships with target audiences.  After all, McSweeney’s Quarterly does maintain a consistent tone — their key message is fresh and eccentric, and they communicate that through eclectic volumes that privilege artistic liberty over conventional branding strictures. Their image is not an all-out rejection of brand consistency, but rather an innovation on what brand consistency can look like.

For more insights into McSweeney’s attitude toward the branding process, take a gander at Frank Ferri’s piece: “Welcome To Our Branding House.”