Aaron Carlsson


The old rules of brand marketing are null and void. Consumers have evolved enormously, and they – not brands – now drive the market. As a result, a new paradigm is emerging: that of the shapeshifting brand. 

The power of a brand used to center on consistency, and strong brands lived or died by strict guidelines – a long list of dos and don’ts (but mostly don’ts) for logos, colors and usage that left little wiggle room for ingenuity. That mindset began to shift in the late 1990s, when brands realized that consistency no longer had the impact it once had. The concept of a chameleon brand was born:  a brand, like a chameleon, that could change color (brand messaging) but not shape (the core brand offering). 

Embracing the idea, brands started to diversify their messaging to reach a broader audience while still remaining true to their core competencies (as iconic brand Levi’s did when it evolved its messaging to speak to fashion, not just tough, long-lasting clothing, while still selling jeans).  Brand chameleons tested the flexibility of their brand’s voice to meet the needs of an evolving market, primarily through varied messaging targeting distinct regions, demographics and subcultures. 

But technology, education, access and opportunity have broken down the gates that once kept brands in control. Consumers no longer need brands to help craft and guide them; they are defining themselves as their own brands, quickly, and they are multifaceted. Consider a modern celebrity like Rihanna, who has developed a personal brand that far supersedes her roots in music to include fashion, lingerie, cosmetics, acting, philanthropy and business.  Consumers expect brands to understand them holistically, as dynamic individual entities, and to communicate more transparently than ever before. 

The opportunity for brands to fill that gap is vast. Yet it’s one that few but smart brands are starting to fill, shapeshifting in response to the modern consumer. Whereas brand chameleons could only change their color, shapeshifters have the opportunity to change the core offerings of the brand itself. Consider the case of Kith, which expanded from a business of streetwear and apparel into quick-serve snacks – Kith Treats.  Both segments of the business are enormously profitable, and the brand hasn’t wavered in integrity or popularity. It works because both businesses leverage the same passionate, high-income core customer base – low- to middle-income urban kids who grew up and now have money to spend; they see both Kiths as a new luxury that can be purchased or consumed as a status symbol. 

In the near future, shapeshifting brands will be able to adapt and change nearly everything, from their marketing and messaging to the products and services they offer. While chameleon brands were like flowing water that filled in the existing brand gaps with least resistance, shapeshifting brands are more like a mimetic polyalloy able to adapt to any form needed to survive. Is your brand made of mimetic polyalloy? 

Here’s how you can get creative with your brand’s identity while remaining true to its roots.

Take an honest look at your following.

Understand your brand and your consumers well enough to know how far they will follow you.  In the past, brands were able to diversify through six degrees of separation – a product line that was a little different but within the constraints of what people thought you offered. E.g., WeWork’s expansion from offering office space to designing spaces and now consulting with companies on how to maximize space. The authentic brand, however, can reach up to 100 degrees of separation now:  Supreme, for example, has maintained an image of authenticity since its inception as a skateboarding store 25 years ago; it’s able to sell streetwear and a branded brick with equal success due to the strength of its following. Get to know your fans beyond how they consume your brand. Where do they spend time when they’re not with you? Learn their diverse interests and passions. Get past the first date.

Stand for something.

Put a stake in the ground based on your morals, ability to innovate or support of a cause and develop a strong identity. Your identity is the authenticity of your brand, the culture that birthed it and continues to support it. It’s not a logo or a mark or a marketing campaign; those are secondary to the reason the brand has the ability to be a shapeshifter. You’re telling your base that you believe in something and are willing to fight for it – and asking them to fight with you (consider, for example, Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land” campaign).  By capturing hearts rather than minds, your consumer will care enough to follow you as your brand explores multiple messages and products, allowing you ultimately to become more competitive and insulated from fluctuations of the market. You’re also building a brand able to absorb the occasional misstep.

Don’t fake it for the ‘gram.

Consumers can see through an inauthentic brand in an instant. They’re better than ever at sniffing out a brand that’s following a trend or trying to piggyback on the cause of the moment. You’d better be authentic if you are trying to sell a product that’s anything beyond a consumable good. Nike, for example, was born of a desire to pursue perfection, innovation and athleticism through advancing products. Some of those performance products became staples of American culture fashion, though that was never the intention – the shapeshifting was authentic, something the brand could never have accomplished intentionally.

As consumers become more divergent, they’re creating an environment that allows brands themselves to be more divergent, and being a brand chameleon is no longer enough. By changing more than your color – changing the shape of your offering and how you communicate with consumers – your brand can remain nimble and culturally relevant, thus more resilient as consumer preferences continue to evolve.


— Nate Dickman