Recently while scanning the pages of The New Yorker Fast Company or The Economist I’ve noticed a new series of advertisements for IBM’s “Conversations for a Smarter Planet” campaign. It’s a series of ads that tries to position IBM at the forefront of technological thinking, ironically by using some very retro design styling.
With the use of Swiss type styling, extensive white space and Paul Rand or Charlie Harper, inspired flat graphic illustrations, these ads look more like IBM circa 1964. The design thinking behind these is perhaps trying to evoke a memory of when IBM was thought of as a more progressive company than they are now. The fact is that the target audience they are selling these ideas to was probably born in the 1970’s, and has no relation to the referenced design style here.
The idea of a “Conversations for a smarter planet” green campaign is well intentioned, the execution is clean and the over all design well done. There is a great use of color and the icons themselves look fantastic. From a design perspective I love them. From a brand advertising perspective I’m not so sure they work. Ad images are meant to be relevant and engaging, they need to grab your attention and pull you in. They help set up the editorial, and hopefully cause you to take additional action like visiting a website, buying a product, bonding with a brand. These images, although eye-catching,seem to lack relevance and will probably be lost on the target audience. The question for IBM is will your viewers take the time to figure out the meaning of an abstract icon, and will they relate it to what you are trying to sell? Looking at these images, I wonder if most readers will venture further and read the copy heavy ads. The highly stylized visual IBM is gets in the way of the communication rather than leading to it.
Now lets compare the IBM campaign to Shell’s recent “Energy Future” Print campaign. Shell uses the same flat graphic stylistic look as IBM, but Shell hits the mark. The illustrations are bold and colorful. They offer a touch of humor that helps pull you in and invites you to read rest of the ad copy, and more over they are easy to understand. These ads succeed in communicating the complexity of Shell’s innovations and help build the Shell brand via straightforward communication and an honest feel.