The TikTok-ification of brands shows why the Gen Z consumer really is different

Carat Melbourne's head of strategy, Bethanie Blanchard, looks at the meaning of brand identity to a generation that delights in its deconstruction.

TikToker Emily Zugay has become the comic embodiment of an old internet joke that adds the phrase “graphic design is my passion” alongside the least aesthetic thing you’ve ever seen.

Deadpanning that she “graduated college with a degree in design”, Zugay has taken it upon herself to critique and rework some of the world’s most iconic brand logos which, she says, “we can all agree are ugly”. This includes Starbucks, taking issue with the legendary mermaid; H&R Block, which she turns into a circle; and Apple, which she critiques as having “no symmetry” and “not even any words indicating which brand this is, you just have to guess.” 

Her videos exist as comedy – if not outright trolls – but then something interesting happened, when the brands themselves started requesting her redesigns. Firstly Adobe, then McDonald’s petitioned for Zugay’s unique artistic touch. In the last few days, click on any major brand’s TikTok page, and if Zugay has featured it, you’re likely to see her absurd redesign as their official TikTok profile picture.  

It’s clever and fairly bold for these brands to adopt such farcical images but there are a few instructive things going on here: a unique example of brand code play, as well as a clear signaling that the Gen Z aesthetic is taking over the Millennial one.

TikTok-ification of brand code play

It is always interesting seeing brands play with their brand codes. As marketing stalwarts and educators Byron Sharp and Mark Ritson have described, these changes work only when companies have been distinctive and consistent for so long that the change simply re-emphasises and encodes the original in the minds of the audience. 

Yet the code play is usually led by the company itself: whether that is in missteps such as McDonald’s Brazil’s spaced arches campaign to promote social distancing at the start of the COVID pandemic, or more successful examples such as Cadbury’s removal of text from the Dairy Milk bars in their ‘Donate Your Words’ campaign.  

It is difficult to think of another time when brands have, even temporarily, let their distinctive assets be shaped in such a way by customers themselves. Changing brand identity for the sake of a joke is a significant escalation of the so-called ‘branter’ we have seen previously on platforms like Twitter.  

Due to the pace at which these memes rise and die, brands have more permission and confidence to act in culture without going through twenty rounds of approval. Social platforms are becoming playgrounds where brands can test bringing their personality to life. What do we sound like? What might we look like? It has meant brands have to act in quite a human way. 

In these spaces brands can be more like sponges, absorbing and reacting to culture. Indeed, Amazon demonstrated how much of culture it has seeped into, creating their own video with the logo re-design as well as a badly played recorder version of Bo Burnham’s “Bezos I” as a backing track. It’s an Escheresque meme-on-meme-on-meme that works perfectly on the platform.  

Whatever you think of the videos, it is interesting to consider the implications of code play through the lens of the platform. It seems to create a little bit of permission for bravery and a testing mindset that can pay off powerfully. 

TikTok-ification of design

Yet the spoof designs and commentary signal something else, that highlights the Gen Z demographic shift inherent in the rise of the platform.  

In an essay for The Cut, ‘Will the Millennial Aesthetic Ever End?’, Molly Fischer writes that in the 2010s “design was the product”.

“Whatever else you might be buying, you were buying design, and all the design looked the same.”  

The particular Millennial look – exemplified for branding mostly in skincare – has been primarily about refined bareness: plain, sans-serif and white or distinctively pink bottles. Think Glossier, Ouai et al.

It was an aesthetic made for the Millennial platform of choice, Instagram. As Fisher writes, “Instagrammable” is a term that does not mean ‘beautiful’ or even quite ‘photogenic’; it means something more like ‘readable’.  

While Zugay’s TikToks aren’t meant to be taken seriously, her NASA redesign isn’t in spirit all that far off Tiffany’s ‘Not Your Mother’s Tiffany’ attempt to appeal to younger demos: with a stripping away of distinctive assets like the iconic robin egg Tiffany blue, or the removal of the serif from the heritage font.  

What’s important to recognise is Zugay’s faux language of minimalism in her exposition of the redesigns. “I cleaned it up” or using fonts “that appeal to the youth” is a joke not just about misunderstanding design, but misunderstanding ‘the youth’ too. 

Because Gen Z brands are quite clearly moving on from the sparse Millennial aesthetic. Look at emerging cosmetic labels like “Topicals’ or ‘Youth Foria’ who are bright, colourful, maximalist. This is a reversion to oversaturated colour, unique fonts and eclectic design that hasn’t been present for years.  

The aesthetics are deliberately subversive. They ask brands to take a stand, whether that is on something as profound as their approach to social and environmental policies or in their packaging. It’s about being okay with not appealing to everyone.   

If you ever needed proof of the power of years of culturally imprinting brand colours, fonts, symbols or shapes, Zugay’s TikToks are an amusing way to demonstrate it. They unintentionally stand as absolute masterclasses on the power of distinctive assets by dismantling (if not desecrating) every single one of them. The Doritos ‘wow’ tagline might just be an appropriate reaction to both the aesthetic chaos seeping into Gen Z design, as well as the potential for brand play within and beyond the TikTok platform. Brands seeking to engage these younger audiences should take note of these shifts.  

Originally published on Mumbrella here.

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