On The xx and brand identity

By Flo Sayers

Press play and flashback to August 2009, aka the summer when the band ‘The xx’ shot to fame…

The indie darlings had exploded on to the music scene, all minimal guitar tunes, introverted lyrics and moody photo shoots. They were receiving huge critical and commercial acclaim, helped along by some killer tunes, yes, but also supported by the introduction of a strong, consistent brand strategy and identity.

Let me explain. Here’s their debut album cover:

It’s the epitomy of simple, clear design. As minimal as the hushed vocals and simple hooks that characterized their music. Black and white, just like their dark, brooding wardrobe, hairstyles and general attitude to life.

That ‘x’ is not a logo – it’s a brand identity, summing up exactly who The xx are, the things they stand for and the kind of music they make.

And it’s an identity that they have gone on to use in each of their album campaigns, varying it slightly each time to express how they have evolved as a band.

Here’s their second album cover, 2012’s ‘Coexist’:

Instead of getting to album number two and panicking that “PEOPLE ARE GOING TO GET BORED UNLESS WE DO SOMETHING RADICALLY DIFFERENT”, they’ve stuck with the same simple, and by now iconic, ‘x’. Changed it up a bit with a white background and introduced a tiny bit of rainbow colour (but not too much) – reflecting the gradual evolution of their minimal, understated sound. It takes a certain amount of confidence for a band/brand to go, this is what we’re good at and we’re sticking with it. But in the case of The xx, this paid off, as over time they’ve gradually been building more meaning and memorability into their consistent, on-brand identity.

Ok, so, in the meantime. Band member Jamie Smith is off working on his own ‘side-project’: solo tunes, inspired more by dance and electronica, which keep The xx’s love of a good hook and their clean, minimal production.

“Jamie Smith?” you say. “Never heard of the guy!”

It’s a pretty regular, fairly forgettable name, yes. So instead, Jamie Smith starts performing under the stage name of ‘Jamie xx’ – capitalizing on the equity earned from the original ‘xx’ brand, while using his first name to introduce an element of individuality. Think about it – he’s essentially operating like Apple, who name their products with one consistent branded element (an ‘i’) and one changing element that describes the specific product (e.g. a ‘Pod’, ‘Phone’ or ‘Pad’).

And this is where it gets really interesting. Look at the album cover for Jamie xx’s ‘In Colour’:

At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all that crazy colour was Jamie marking a radical departure from his past. But LOOK AT IT AGAIN next to the first ever cover:

   

He’s taken the left leg of the ‘x’ and used it on his own record! He’s not deserted The xx but has taken an element of what they are about and kept it in his own brand identity!

And, any singles by Jamie xx since have featured that little white mark on backgrounds of varying colour, keeping the ‘personal’ brand consistent while always hinting back to the original ‘parent’ brand. It’s brand architecture 101, but done in such a beautiful and simple way. Mmmmmmmm.

So. That brings us to today. The xx have just released their third album, ‘I See You’, and even though it’s 8 years on from their debut, they’re still using the original ‘x’, embossing it on to various metallic surfaces for the launch campaign. The album itself sees them experimenting with a more colourful but reflective mood… Hence the reflective surface, right?!

(Sword & Stone’s very own Flo and James in front of an outdoor advert for The xx, at Barbican station)

By this point, they don’t even need to make any more references to who they are or what they’re promoting. Like the Coca-Cola ‘swoosh’ or the Nike ‘tick’, the ‘x’ is simply recognizable enough to stand on its own.

This isn’t just clever stuff for the sake of it. The campaign has helped ‘I See You’ hit number one in the UK, gain another whole round of critical acclaim, and launch a sell-out tour for the band. Bands are brands too, and they benefit just as much as from having a clear, consistent identity that reflects what they stand for and that people want to associate with.

As strategists, sometimes I think we get too bogged down in what’s happening inside our industry. Checking in with stuff that’s happening in the outside world, from politics to pop culture, can be hugely useful, not just for making sure our strategies are relevant to people in the real world, but also for giving us creative inspiration from really great ideas (whatever industry they’re in).

Plus, the new stuff from The xx is amazing. Just listen to that intro! Mmmmmmm…

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Sword & Stone Social Impact Unit

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