R/GA Expands Into Branding Biz, Taking on Traditional Players

Agency Launches Division With the Idea That Digital Increasingly Influences How Consumers See Brands

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As more brands connect to consumers digitally, can traditional branding practices keep up? Nick Law, exec VP-chief creative officer at R/GA, North America, says a big gap exists between the theory and practice of creating a brand in Web 2.0. And his shop aims to fill that gap with the launch of R/GA Brand Design.
Uniqlock: Example of innovative branding in the digital space.
Uniqlock: Example of innovative branding in the digital space.

The division will be helmed by Marc Shillum, who has worked with Wieden & Kennedy, Studio Dunbar and Tibor Kallman. He was also a creative director at TBWA, London, on the Sony PlayStation account.

Branding is a logical progression for R/GA, an agency that focuses on digital design for clients -- for example, its Nike Plus work. It's also another example of R/GA's aggressive expansion into other marketing disciplines; the shop was originally known for its web work but has added TV production and media planning in the past few years.

A consumer's first contact with a brand is often in the digital space, Mr. Law said. "If you're buying a car, your first experience with the brand is after an internet search," he said. "Consumers look at a website, and that interface becomes part of the understanding of that brand."

Multidimensional brands
Retail sits squarely in the digital camp as well. Mr. Law cited R/GA's work for Nike Plus and Projector's Uniqlock as examples of innovative branding that work in the digital landscape. A brand has to be multidimensional, he said. Mere logos or even websites have evolved into all-encompassing systems that convey information by motion.

The Uniqlock, for clothing retailer Uniqlo, won both the cyber and titanium Grand Prix in Cannes this June. It functions simultaneously as choreography, fashion display, store locator and world clock. Users can also link their sites to its international blog-roll and add Uniqlock to their Facebook profiles.

"The motion and the clean graphics show the wit and playfulness of the brand," Mr. Law said. "Even if you've never been to a store, you feel like you would recognize it."

Nike Plus is part game, part social network and part database. Users track all aspects of their training programs on the site and compete with runners from all over the world. Stats on training, runs and athletic goals are displayed using interactive shapes instead of dull bar charts.

"The green lozenge shapes are very deliberate choices," Mr. Law said. "It's not the highest resolution but a way to show data. It's a fun thing to see where you are in relation to your friends." Those images are carried through at the store level.

Clever positioning
R/GA hopes its branding practice will compete with companies such as Landor and Interbrand. "It's a lot easier for us than for traditional firms to change their culture and do what we do," Mr. Law said.

Allen Adamson, who recently wrote about digital branding for Ad Age's CMO Strategy section, said this is clever positioning.

"Small, new firms say, 'We understand the new digital space,'" said Mr. Adamson, managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates. "If you are big and old, by definition you don't. That's how they are branding them vs. us."

He added: "At a gathering of branding firms, if you ask who is an expert, everyone's hand goes up, including the catering company. It's very confusing for clients. In the end the client has to decide what mix of partners they need."

Tom Agan, executive director at Interbrand, said there is tremendous interest in the digital space at his company. He said niche companies are the ones who usually push the boundaries in emerging areas. "There are fringe ideas they push forward until it reaches critical mass," he said. Interbrand is not conceding the digital sphere. Instead it is hiring and building its digital practice globally. Mr. Agan said the strength of companies such as Interbrand is that they have a broader perspective. "For some brands -- like Amazon -- the web is critical. For others, it's more selective."
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