Successful brands evoke emotions and strong, loyal connections with their audience through a clear set of shared values. As Andrew Robinson explains, this is not designing logos, it is creating engaging and compelling experiences.
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes: “Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures”. Similarly, a brand is the result of these successful gestures, encompassing both what it does and how it does it. Brand Identity is the tool marketers use to articulate the rules for brand gestures. It explains how the brand will support the organisation’s overall mission and objectives, and forms a bridge to making decisions on anything from marketing to strategic brand management.
Successful companies use the brand as a filter for determining whom to hire, which businesses to participate in, what partnerships to pursue and more. As a result, creating a brand identity is one of the most important steps a company can take to ensure a consistent, enduring brand.
There are many different ideas about the best way to define a brand identity. After reviewing many of them, the conclusion is that there is no one right way.
One thing is for sure: somewhere along the line, the word branding got mixed up with the word logo. While it’s an established fact that brands are far more than logos, it seems that creating visual identities with rich emotional character and authentic connection still eludes many marketers. For many, the creation of visual identity has been reduced to mere decoration. At its basic level, corporate and brand identity programs are an expression and reflection of the brand’s culture, character, personality, and the products and services they offer, inspiring trust with consumers, customers, employees, suppliers and the investment community.
Since the mid 20th century, the development of visual identity systems has been the main course in almost all branding initiatives. It’s easy to find examples of visual identities for iconic brands that have stood the test of time – Coca-Cola, IBM, Mercedes, Ford, Levi’s and McDonald’s come to mind. Corporations realised their visual identities had to become the single most important emblem of their business through communication that was simple, powerful and easily reproduced and recalled by millions of people. Visibility and stability of industrial glory were the hallmarks of visual expression of the corporate values of the time.
“One thing is for sure: somewhere along the line, the word branding got mixed up with the word logo.”
But branding can be a curious process and without consideration of the ‘touchpoints’ of that brand, an agency and its client can come unstuck with its positioning, styling and assessment. One such example was the British Airways brand identity of 1997, which involved a rebrand of the airline with art based tailfins, which needed a dramatic turnaround by 2001.
The adoption of this aircraft livery was seen as a move away from the traditional British image of the airline. BA claimed that the previous scheme carried an air of arrogance and detachment, and insisted that the new tailfins were popular with international travellers. However, they were unpopular with many people in the UK, despite nine of the designs being inspired by either English, Scottish or Welsh art. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher showed her displeasure at the designs by covering one of the new tailfins on a model 747 with a handkerchief. She declared: “We fly the British flag, not these awful things.”
Virgin Atlantic took advantage of the controversy, applying a Union flag scheme to the front end of its planes. In their own 1999 relaunch, the flag was also applied to the vertical winglets of Virgin Atlantic’s aircraft, naming itself “Britain’s Flag Carrier”. Safety concerns were also raised that the lack of a consistent tail design could lead to BA aircraft being misidentified by controllers and other aircrew. Furthermore, many travellers expected a level of professionalism that was effectively distributed around the world through its world class pilots and aircrew. When they saw the local, or country based branding, they effectively assumed that the pilots and crew came form the respective countries and this caused them to lose confidence in the brand. Within 4 years the whole livery had to be replaced using the adapted Union Flag that had been created for Concorde. 13 years later, all BA planes still carry this same branding.
Fast forward to October 2013 and in the middle of the night, travel group Thomas Cook was secretly adorning its aeroplane tailfins with a new “sunny heart” logo. It was part of a major rebrand which would see all of Thomas Cook’s subsidiary companies use the heart logo and a new slogan, “Let’s Go”, as part of a group identity. The tagline “Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it”, first introduced in 1984, has been dropped, along with its longstanding globe logo. The logic is clear: in a global, inter-connected age, companies want simple, unified branding that works across languages and territories. Thomas Cook says research showed the old globe logo didn’t resonate emotionally with customers while “Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it” failed to translate well from English.
There is a school of thought that having a trusted parent company name can provide a halo for subsidiary brands within the group – and save on marketing costs. The UK owner of mobile firms Orange and T-Mobile has been investing in parent brand EE with some success. While Thomas Cook is bringing its subsidiary brands closer together, keeping them separate – a “house of brands” approach – also has benefits. When Royal Bank of Scotland collapsed in 2008, it moved subsidiary NatWest to the fore, showing it’s possible to rejuvenate a brand by mining its history. Thomas Cook’s rebrand has yet to impress or to resonate. The gold heart looks somewhat out of focus and the typography lacks any style while “Let’s Go” is about as generic as taglines get. There could even be confusion over travel guide publisher called Let’s Go or Ryanair’s in-house magazine also called Let’s Go.
Little wonder rebrands are often contentious. US clothing company Gap got such a bad reaction to a washed-out, sans-serif redesign of its logo in 2010 that it did an abrupt U-turn. It fronted the redesign as part of a crowdsourcing project where it was inviting ideas from any of its customers.
However, initial reactions are not always right. The logo for the 2012 Olympics, was called a “puerile mess” when it was unveiled in 2007, yet it became a memorable part of the Games. ITV came under fire when it rebranded with a colourful wavy logo. But it looked better than a previous yellow version and went on to win design awards. Arguably the logo has expressed – and accurately reflected – a renewed confidence in the broadcaster.
“ITV came under fire when it rebranded with a colourful wavy logo. But it looked better than a previous yellow version and went on to win design awards. Arguably the logo has expressed – and accurately reflected – a renewed confidence in the broadcaster.”
So the world has changed and the age of social media and the web is altering how brands express who they are and why they matter. The shift to the “individual” from the “organisation” has brought a new value system based upon the speed of change. The new generation of digital brands: Facebook, Google, Amazon and eBay occupy a world of disruptive innovation and the need for constant change. These brands have created their own visual language, culture and iconography from the energy of the digital environment they were born into.
Branding strategy now has a six-month horizon and brand identities are created in a much more informal structure than how corporate identity legends Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Walter Landor did things 40 years ago. When creating a corporate or product brand identity program today, designers are challenging 20th century corporate values and creating customer/consumer centric, multi-faceted user experiences that are flexible to the brand’s individual needs.
All brands require a competitive environment in which to work. The reason brands work best has to do with the values they are intended to create: to encourage loyalty; to drive preference; to lift margin; to underpin and align a commercial and competitive business model with those people who believe in that organisation. Brands have to work to help consumers to make choices. They need to stimulate recognition, preference and most importantly loyalty, based upon a clear sense of expectation and delivery.
Where brands don’t work is where people have no choice and no competition. You can’t brand treasury functions, welfare, public health, airport security, etc. And you can’t brand local government either.
Brands are driven by the need to create profit by delivering to customers, whereas non-brands are judged on their ability to frame, uphold and deliver on robust systems and processes. Those are completely different frameworks – and rightly so. You can, and must, give those organisations identities so that they can be recognised and contacted but that doesn’t make them brands. An identity is not a brand.
Enlightened business leaders realise that to create an emotionally powerful, highly valued brand, they must represent an emotionally based idea beyond the product or service. They’re not designing logos, they are creating engaging and compelling experiences.
But most importantly brand identity is meant for internal consumption. Once developed, the best practice is to get everybody in the organisation to believe in what it stands for.
We are often asked: “How do I sell it?”
And our answer is always the same:
“You don’t; you buy into it”.
Andrew Robinson has 28 years experience consulting on luxury brands, TV / film, media, government and sport. His London creative agency, Mind Corporation specialises in corporate identity, brand strategy, campaigns and digital projects.