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When Is A Brand Big Enough To Go Small?

AMC has just released a new poster marketing the return of season five of their seminal show Mad Men – and it’s already got the design world lining up to take sides.

If you’ve never before seen it, Mad Men is a dramatic series set in the 1960s at a fictional advertising agency in New York. It deals with shifting social norms, especially as experienced through the show’s main character, Don Draper.

The minimalist poster depicts a black and white silhouette of a man in a suit falling headfirst through a white and grey negative space. At the bottom, red and black text simply reads “March 25.”

There are no other words or visual markers.

Compare this to the “unofficial” poster, reportedly done on spec, by a creative agency named Radio:


This poster, in comparison, not only includes the name of the show, the season number, and the name of the cable channel on which it airs, but it includes visual clues that tell a compelling back story about the show — a good point of introduction for those who have never seen it before. Unlike the minimalist poster, it provides context.

These two wildly different approaches to the same poster really got me thinking about branding. Once a company gets big enough, they generally go through a rebranding process in which their logo is simplified into an icon. Think: Target’s red and white target symbol, or Starbucks’ woodcut siren, or McDonald’s golden arches.

Icons say a lot about a brand. Consider Apple’s extremely well-known apple. That icon isn’t just a logo, it’s a legacy. That icon is the brand. Plain and simple. No further words are needed to explain who or what the company is, because consumers already know the story.


The fascinating thing about all of this is, Mad Men is not a well-known “brand.” It doesn’t have a particularly well-known story — at least not outside its small but fiercely dedicated devotees. The show brought in a mere 2.92 million1 viewers during its last season premiere compared to the 26.23 million2 viewers of the last premiere of superstar singing talent contest American Idol. And even then you don’t see the American Idol marketing team cranking out cryptic promotional materials featuring only, say, a microphone and nothing else.

With such a tiny audience, where did the Mad Men marketing team get the cojones to “iconize” their brand?

And that’s where the best criticism of the minimalist poster lies: only a fan would recognize the image of the falling silhouette that appears over the opening credits of the show, and the familiar type treatment of the text. That means those who aren’t yet fans are completely left out of the messaging.

How can AMC expect to attract any new viewers this way?

Then again, is that always the point? Does adjusting the message for a broader audience sometimes dilute the message? Sure.

The poster is likely the first in a very detailed marketing campaign that will span print, television, and social media advertising, of course. I’m guessing AMC won’t maintain this minimalist approach throughout the duration of the campaign, but this is certainly an interesting start.

The takeaway? Good design is important. Good branding is important. Good iconography is important.

But sometimes, getting people talking is important, too.

Do you think the poster is successful?


1 Source: Wikipedia:
2 Source: Wikipedia:


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