Positivity in the pipeline?

BT is replacing its piper logo citing the figure was ‘not listening to customers’, but David Bernstein wonders if the design brief for its new marque fell on deaf ears

So the piper is to depart – but without a lament. At least not from the managing director of BT’s consumer division. The new design (DW 10 April), to be implemented over three years, will ‘reflect the reality of change at BT’.

Whether the managing director Angus Porter’s justification for the change reflects reality is another matter. ‘We want,’ he says, ‘to lose the negativity associated with the piper. It shows a figure not listening to customers.’

I hold no brief for the early 1990s design, one of the biggest and most expensive transformations ever. Come to that, I hold no brief for its replacement. However, I can’t understand Mr Porter’s argument. How many logos featuring characters show them listening to customers? You can probably count them on the lobe of one ear.

I wonder how Wolff Olins, the piper’s creator, reacted to the comment. Or whether it had heard anything like it before? Did its Prudential client complain that Prudence shows no evidence of listening? Indeed, examine the lady closely and you will find no aural appendage. Was the consultancy making a point? Unsurprisingly, Wolff Olins chose to incorporate in its 3i logo not an ear but an eye, which, they would argue, was an appropriate visual pun.

Cast your mind back to celebrated corporate characters and you’ll find but one active listener. Not the Michelin man: he bounces. The Dubonnet man drinks, the Bisto kids sniff and the Skegness (‘it’s so bracing’) lifeguard skips, while no doubt listening to the sea. No, it’s the HMV dog who, for the past hundred years, has been listening – not admittedly to customers, but to his master’s voice.

I’m all for listening to customers, but to proclaim that you do, in the 21st century, seems unnecessary. Protesting too much. ‘I’m listening’, the company shrieks. And there’s a danger of crying wolf (if not Olins) because customers will inevitably check you out. Which, of course, is no bad thing. ICI ran an ad campaign in the 1970s in which it branded itself ‘ICI – the pathfinders’. Do that and you just have to live up to the claim. If an ICI executive was late for a meeting, the client would say, ‘What’s the matter, couldn’t you find the path?’

It was around that time that listening was rediscovered: ‘3M hears you’. ‘We understand how important it is to listen’ – Sperry Corporation. And, more memorably, at least for some of us, Midland defined itself as ‘the listening bank’. Now that was a hostage to fortune since all that it took was one unanswered phone call for the claim to be blown clear out of the water. Saatchi and Saatchi, in an act of outrageous hubris, attempted to buy Midland, but the bank obviously wasn’t listening. Not long afterwards it had a makeover and a new slogan (I suggested ‘the glistening bank’, but nobody heard me) and eventually it morphed into HSBC, which, I like to think, is an acronym for how splendidly Bernstein communicates.

The word communication comes from the Latin ‘communicare’, to share, and denotes an exchange or intercourse. For a short period during the 18th century it actually meant the sexual variety. Unfortunately, too many so-called communicators regard communication as a one-way activity. Feedback is not invited, let alone welcomed. Information is only to be transmitted. Heaven forbid that feedback should allow it to be transformed. I call this the pea-shooter model of the communication process. A message is shot from one mind to another and action must follow.

I was addressing a seminar in Kuala Lumpur and about to explain this model when I stopped mid-sentence. Would the audience understand the reference? So I asked them ‘Do you have pea-shooters in Malaysia?’ A lone voice, quiet and polite, put me straight. ‘We call them blowpipes.’ Not far from where were sitting the blowpipe was used as a hunting weapon.

So I may after all share some of Porter’s hesitancy regarding the suitability of a communications empire adopting a pipe as its corporate identity. Nevertheless, can the problem be that pressing given BT’s implementation timescale? Moreover, the new design, rather than solving the problem, ignores it. So, is the explanation merely a rationalisation? If not, maybe I can help with an alternative solution. If he wants a figure who listens, how about Davy Crockett? After all, he had three ears – a left ear, a right ear and a wild front ear.

Please e-mail comments for publication in the Opinion section to lyndark@centaur.co.uk

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