YouTube has a new face, but has it lost its voice?

In just over a decade, YouTube has gone from an idea three guys had to make it easier to search for video, to a key pillar in the product portfolio of the second most valuable brand on the planet. It’s the world’s leading video platform, with 400 hours of content uploaded each minute and one billion hours of content watched every day.

Last week YouTube announced a product refresh and rebrand which goes beyond the visual and instead looks to re-align how it is seen. It’s rebrand that ask questions of how platform brands need to perform in the last part of this decade in order to win that ever-precious thing, loyalty.

Not so new anymore

As with many products from the time, when it launched in 2005 YouTube was at first a novelty. Now you could search and share videos of literally anything that held your interest, be that beauty, music or cats. It was part of a big wave that broke down the last bricks in the media wall, a status quo that kept the media owners in control of what we could consume and when.

As we’ve delved deeper into our connected lives, so our relationship with video has morphed. Vine has come and gone and YouTube, once home of almost all video content, is now just one provider among many options. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all have their own video function (sometimes seamlessly) embedded into their product. We’re starting to see video not as a standalone component, but an integrated function, a given in many of our most frequently used apps and services. This asks questions of YouTube and if it now needs to stand out more to hold its position as a brand. Does it need more of a presence to elevate itself and in turn have value in the eyes of the viewers?

The most interesting part of the rebrand for me are the UX changes and how I believe they betray an underlying strategy of protection through visibility. After all, YouTube themselves state in their announcement that the logo refresh is just “The bright red cherry on top of this update sundae”. A little new logo on top of a much larger change.

The changing decade of video

In announcing the product updates, YouTube have listed the thinking behind each key change. New navigation tabs that are closer to your thumbs on mobile, fast forward and rewind delivered through double taps on the left and right hand side of the video. ‘Don’t like this piece of content? Try this’. A new feature that allows the viewer to swipe right to watch the next video, content Tinder for the distracted looking for a video match. Viewed in isolation these are clever interactions that make navigation more seamless and create a more pleasant experience to the seasoned browser. At times the UX is almost invisible as you get to the video and next video and next video.

We should applaud the intelligent and evolving product paradigm, that for all its steep learning curve for viewers not fluent in gesture-based UX, keeps video and its control and manipulation moving forward. It brings YouTube up to date with Google’s excellent Material design principles and a lot of Google’s benchmark apps that outperform many phone and tablet manufacturers’ own efforts. This is a new design that is stripped back, considered and well articulated.

But questions remain over the content and how it is served to you, which is still very fractured and often offputting. Watch one video you have searched out and enjoyed and often the next is unrelated rubbish. I searched for various genres on mobile, desktop and TV and in many cases the next video loaded was something I had zero interest in seeing.

But it is the ‘why’ behind all this that makes it such an interesting refresh. Scratch the surface and this work is seemingly a reaction to a common challenge, how do we keep people on our platform longer? And, in turn, keeping them off our rivals, to protect our ad dollars, to justify new content, to build a relationship. After all, the appetite is there, the average American spends 10 hours in front of their screens a day.

One small feature in the desktop update betrays a particular competitor at the door: YouTube have introduced a new Dark Theme for that switch to a more cinematic feel.

Image: Saffron

The platform as brand

YouTube describe their mission as “We’re here to give people a voice and show them the world – no matter what device they use.”

These are big values. They are global, accepting, open, for everyone and device-agnostic.

When it first came to prominence many content owners, like record labels, worked hard to keep their content off the platform. Losing the battle to keep their precious content under control, the leading three music labels pivoted and joined with their own brand, Vevo, which is predominately on YoTtube, later selling 7% of it to Google itself. A myriad of other content owners, from ESPN to the BBC to Hulu, now operate as brands within a brand, a platform of brands.

When YouTube works it levels the playing field allowing vlog stars such such as Casey Neistat and powerhouse brands like Vice to share equal prominence on the YouTube homepage. Balancing the need of the creator with the need of the corporation, it results at times in a meritocracy that lives up to those values. The bedroom user who wants to share their beauty vlog, versus sports companies needing to get younger viewers hooked on their high energy product and the path to subscription delivered with equal billing.

A lot of this content is supported by pre-roll adverts making sure the owners still get the financial reward from their investment in their stars, or supporting the bedroom blogger for the time it takes to film, edit and publish their content. And for those that don’t want adverts – those that want just the content – then there’s Youtube Red, a subscription package.

The journey of disruption is a fascinating one. Across the tech sphere, founders start by standing their new revolutionary ideas as far away as possible from the thing they are against. Early adopters flock, articles are written, tweets shared and investment dollars flow. Beyond these brave new souls on the path to revenue, lie many obstacles, chiefly mass adoption, participation and loyalty. This is most commonly achieved by offering new products, services and functions which ironically step-by-step move the product closer to that which it disrupted in the first place. This latest YouTube update betrays a number of these steps.

Under the categorisation ‘Best of YouTube’ the sports channel becomes an alternative version of ESPN, music channels the new MTV, TV shows become Saturday night TV. But only by behaving in a way that mimics on a certain level that which it disrupts. This is YouTube acknowledging the need for editing. To a majority of viewers 95% of that 400 hours of content uploaded daily is irrelevant crap, and the greatest rivals for our eyeballs, be that traditional media or disruptors like Netflix, pride themselves in editing and curation, to protect our precious time.

Image: Saffron

Less really is more

One of the most brilliant aspects of Netflix is its dual role as author and platform. Watched an episode of Chef’s Table? Enjoyed it? Great here’s the next before the credits have even started. Seen it all? Great try this. Netflix does less is more so well. It has a damned good guess at what you want and most importantly comes with a certain level of quality, relying on the model of there being just enough. They invest astronomical production dollars in key shows, correctly identifying that most people won’t delve too deep beyond these crown jewels, as they don’t have time. The Crown, House of Cards and Master of None become the water cooler content. Binged, discussed and enjoyed whilst building a really strong brand.

Amazon knew they had to follow suit with Prime and and it’s obvious YouTube wants and needs to be that loved, but its values as a brand are essentially the opposite of everything Netflix portray. Its content is free and democratic so it’s a tech platform and they are typically vulnerable things. Viewers pay for Netflix as they feel it delivers value. Would they pay for YouTube? Back in January, figures released showed that YouTube has 1.5million global Red customers, way behind Netflix’s 100million+.

So what can they do? There’s no doubt Netflix outwardly is predominately an adult brand and, as an uncle to two YouTube addicts, I have seen first-hand the engagement they have in endless rolling content. Who knew watching others build Lego is that interesting?  To capitalise on this and help build parents’ trust, YouTube has introduced a kids app to build its image as a respectable platform for all the family. The trouble is this kind of brand building is easily undone with the press criticism it regularly receives for questionable content from terrorists, gangs and political outliers, content it refuses to censor. For every innovation, or segmentation there’s a counter balance driven by YouTube’s open mission that trashes the value of the brand.

They also chip away in some regards with the breadth of ways YouTube is delivered. The integration of YouTube onto TV screens with the powerful GoogleTV apps coming as standard on many leading brands allows for mainstream viewers to consume YouTube in a domestic setting, away from the laptop. But does the viewer see YouTube along with the Disneys and Apples of this world? Or do they reflect their brand love to the vlog author or media owner of their choice, ignoring the platform that delivered it?

But what about the logo? 

When I think about YouTube’s logo historically, I am always drawn back to that iOS5 horrific skeuomorph 1950s TV. A travesty delivered to every iPhone in the days when Apple allowed Google real estate on their home screens, it perpetuated the novelty feeling about YouTube and always made it feel a little out of touch. This feeling continued with the lack of flex in the old logo, an old brand trying to be modern.

With the new update, they have finally identified their desperate need for a symbol. The previous word marque-only version limited the brand across screen sizes and made it feel old fashioned. Now, the clarity of the red lozenge with white play button means the brand can be present right down to tiny sizes on any screen, free from the constriction of a labouring word marque, with no loss of recognition over time. I would always advocate the need for a symbol and word marque logo for digital platform brands. From a crowded app screen, through to the multitude of UI needs, this is the only way for a truly modern platform to be branded. It is surprising it has taken them this long to make that key change.

A re-drawn logo, a new shorthand symbol and better kerning make a pleasant refresh, but I doubt they will really be noticed beyond our industry as shown in the launch blog comments which in classic YouTube comments style cry about UX issues and grind various axes.

The typeface has been met with criticism from some typographers. Nina Stössinger of Frere-Jones regarded it at launch with the dismissive “this illustrates why typeset is a skillset separate from graphic design…this is not pro quality design work”. Her criticism was part of a larger theme around typefaces designed by brand teams and not typographers. Too linked to clever ideas like angles in the logo, with too much personality. Putting the science of legibility and comprehension, especially at scale, as a lower consideration. This common criticism requires a whole article of its own.

Many current bespoke typefaces could be argued to be exercises in designer vanity, or an effort in regulation of excessive licensing, as type foundries gorge themselves on the immense viewing figures many apps and platforms have and the subsequent financial rewards. I have been on the end of eye-watering bills from license-owners dazzled by the brand’s status and audience. In this case I think Saffron’s case study is well considered and reasoned, but I can see both sides of this criticism. It’s also worth noting that, in YouTube’s announcement of the refresh, Saffron’s contribution was a little whitewashed in favour of an all powerful internal team. I find this trend a shame as I think the best tech brands are built in collaboration with agency and internal team.

YouTube’s old logo and thinking, whether by design or happenstance, created a greater link to the name and the idea of re-inventing TV, when in fact the founding story was about sharing videos online easily. For all the media powerhouse content this is what it still does best. Now it finds itself as a platform and a brand up against stiff competition who really are challenging what TV is and how we consume content. And unlike the old design language which looked backwards to semiotic signs to TVs of old, these rivals are doing it by looking forward, disrupting everything from content production to subscription models.

Just enough brand

YouTube is a brand which used to be unapologetic in its ‘as much as you can eat’ approach. This reflected the cable networks who served up endless options and re-runs on 100+ channels, hooking people into pricy contracts with movies and sports. Brands such as Sky built beautiful design around a breadth of options and YouTube, in a way, was the modern version. The rebrand and product refresh all adds up to something which, regardless of UI, UX or brand brilliance, feels like a cheap platform, bombarding you with content, with an effort to curate as a following thought.

In this project there’s a big thing missing, the voice of YouTube itself, telling the average viewer why they exist, in a clear way we can hear again and again. Beyond the open values, which are attractive to creators but not so for for viewers, what is the future of the brand? I feel it’s not valued as one of the best brands on the planet because for all its presence, for those of us who aren’t video junkies, or don’t have offbeat interests, it’s not making us love it, or use it daily. The bloggers could easily go to Facebook and the media providers such as Disney are building their own models. For all the rigid clever thinking in the design and UX, I find it hard to get excited about the future of this brand.

James Greenfield is founder and creative director of Koto. He tweets @gradiate. See studiokoto.co and @studiokoto

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