[ note ]

design suspicion: plus ça change

paying no more attention than necessary to Pepsi and Peter Arnell

media & business
graphic design, word meanings
Thoughts? Questions? Contact me.

A tweet thread seeing some decent circulation in the past week has recalled to view the minor spectacle surrounding a couple of high-profile re-branding projects done for PepsiCo by the Arnell Group a decade and change ago. Peter Arnell’s public image, at that time rising a long while in the celebrity madman ad-man bracket — to the point that his identity as icon of sheer productive and self-transformative human capacity must have been itself emerging as an asset of some considerable valuation — , with this double-whammy Pepsi episode took a hit from which it appears never to have recovered. His firm shut down altogether a few years later (still bearing his name, though he’d had to leave it by then). It’s a story that fascinates from a variety of angles, by no means least where it touches the attention paid — with occasional renewals, as for the several thousand Twitter users diverted by it from their pandemic worries in the past few days — to a ‘design strategy’ document and its inflated, mildly trippy case for what’s at bottom a pretty straightforward logo update. (You can find the document in full in a few places on the web, e.g. here.)

It won’t be to my purpose to review the substance of criticisms and mockery heaped on that document. I’m not sure how possible it is to weigh it or them fairly, in any case. It seems to me not implausible that the thing (if this document was indeed something Arnell submitted to Pepsi and not hoax) always was a joke, albeit perhaps a sort of serious joke — the obviously overblown design-speak meant in some way to provoke discussion, say, in which the basic strengths of the work would be left the remaining salient thing when the froth had cleared. It seems to me to an equal degree, on the other hand, kind of a stretch to imagine top agency execs playing so flippantly with million-dollar accounts. I’d be doing as much guessing as assessing, in short, sifting this debris for whatever design-culture insights may lie there.

A close look at the Tropicana re-brand — the other, greater black eye Arnell took with PepsiCo in 2009 — would be more to my purpose here, possibly. But these PepsiCo properties are things about which I would say we ought to have the sense immediately to question for ourselves what it’s worth, in time and attention terms, to bother with judgments about their apparent success or failure as branding cases. Companies of this stature occupy their market space in our world by way of gross economic distortion, rooted in centuries-deep abuses of nature and humanity and thoroughly encoded, now, in global political structures. Can we penetrate to the mere ‘identity design’ aspect of a PepsiCo’s market strategies in very meaningful ways? We should certainly doubt it. The Arnell mess itself, with its certified branding genius at center, is useful an index as any of the matter’s intractability.

These cautions in mind, I am going to acknowledge here that I see no glaring defect in either project’s end product. None, at any rate, that might suffice to explain why the Tropicana rollout progressed so quickly to PR disaster while the Pepsi work landed, in the end, more or less squarely and has proven durable in its market context. Undoubtedly the turn PepsiCo attempted with Tropicana’s look was too abrupt; the launch could have been more thoughtfully staged. Much has been made of the redesign’s blandness, but a minimalist-ish Tropicana such as Arnell conceived would have done fine, I’m inclined to think, with a different sell.

Never mind the quality of Arnell’s work, that is: the reality is that even quite bad design will sell. It sells, and (by various measures) endures furthermore, all the damn time. (Ever heard of, say, Home Depot?) The reality is that even a certified branding genius can’t tell you with anything like the reliability you might want them to what’s right and what’s wrong in design product as it relates to a problem as complex as ‘identity’ in business. The reality — no great secret — is that a good understanding of identity in business and organizational relations doesn’t begin or end with design at all.

Design does obviously always have its place. One way I’ve wanted to explore that fact, here, is in address to our era’s long affair with the word that Arnell’s twenty-odd-page ‘strategy’ for Pepsi takes as its point of entry on page one — innovation — and to the hope of coming to a good working posture of ambivalence toward it. Helpfully, Arnell proposes for our consideration the tritest of dichotomies: ‘innovation’ in contrast with ‘convention.’ Convention in matters of business is bad, a drag, certain time-worn convention holds, and innovation good. (The ironic-intent theory of reading of the Arnell document starts to feel compelling for me already at this early juncture.) In truth, of course, abiding by convention and innovating are alike good and necessary things, and either or both can be over- or underdone in any sort of development process. You can have too much or too little of the one as well as you can of the other. The two things aren’t even opposites in any important sense. But what we might do well with, for present purposes, is a third term to help us think about them both. The term I’m going to take up is ‘cultivation.’ It’s a term prone to banality in its own right, of course, and there’s nothing novel about applying it to business-process questions and the like. I’m not suggesting we require it to function for some sort of paradigm-casting, though. I just want a word that’ll serve as an aid, a pointer. I’m going to look for opportunities to investigate its dimensions to that end in future posts.