Confederate statement

Last month the CBI announced that it is considering changing its name. David Bernstein questions both the necessity of the exercise and the ambiguity of the official press statement

If you can believe what you read in the press – and, in this case, you must since the press concerned is Design Week (DW 4 August) – the Confederation of British Industry is considering a name change. Why? You might ask. Only Design Week chose not to. (Why not? One might ask.) It did, however, elicit this intriguing fact: the CBI “has yet to make a final decision on whether the project will take place”.

Note the word “final”. Loyal readers will know of my preoccupation with the adjective – and with Voltaire who termed it “the enemy of the noun”. “Final” implies the CBI has already made an interim decision. Which is? We are not told. But we are also told that the CBI has not decided “who within the CBI will handle it”. Not surprising really if the project might never take place. And anyway “if a name change is approved, it will not happen till next year at the earliest”.

A pretty decisive lot the CBI. “We have”, the spokesman continues, “taken an internal decision…”. How about that? Another adjective qualifying decision. Aren’t all company decisions internal? What would you think of a corporation declaring “We have taken an external decision”? Or, since that is plainly impossible, “A decision has been taken for us”. By whom? A consultant perhaps. But, we read, “No design or branding consultant has yet been approached”.

Back to the internal decision: “… it may be time to take a look at our branding and how we use it”. Bully for them. We may all learn something about branding from this flagship of British enterprise. But the tone of that sentence doesn’t inspire confidence. “It may be time to look at…” That is not a decision – final or internal. “The CBI has decided to review its branding policy” would have reassured us the CBI means business and actually has a branding policy.

Alas, the CBI confirms this image of irresolution in the third and final paragraph. “While the CBI’s name might change it is equally likely that it won’t, he (the spokesman) adds.”

But let’s take Design Week’s headline on face value – “CBI looking to change name” – and again ask why? Why do companies and organisations change names? Given the time and cost involved, not to mention the potential confusion internally and externally, it is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Events may overtake a company. Metal Box hung on to its name long after it ceased fully to represent what it did, but added the slogan ” There’s more to Metal Box than metal boxes”. Bordeaux Direct, the successful direct marketing wine company, has re-named itself with its founder and chief executive’s name: Laithwaites. I am a satisfied customer and almost binned the latest mailing, not recognising the envelope. Bordeaux Direct no longer reflects the product range. On the other hand, Laithwaites does not reflect the distribution method. So a descriptor has been added: “From the vineyard to your door”.

Names are changed because they are no longer coherent with the activity and philosophy of the company. Does the CBI intend no longer to be the Confederation of British Industry? Whose interests will it then represent? Years ago it was the Federation of British Industry and you could see why the FBI had to change. Not the last time an identity change was a con job.

Does the CBI consider its name old-fashioned? Does that matter when it is known chiefly by its initials? Who refers to International Business Machines; Boase Massimi Pollitt; Tragos Bonange Weissandanger Airoldi?

Maybe it’s thinking of keeping the initials and changing what they stand for. There are notable precedents. The letters AGB in the research company name were the initials of the founders: Audley, Gapper, Brown. They prospered and became Audits of Great Britain. Confederation Beyond Industry perhaps? Commenting favourably in the Financial Times on BP’s makeover, Brian Boylan, chairman of Wolff Olins, said “The group has changed, it will change more and the look has to signal that”.

“Signal” implies future as well as present. Change of name and/ or corporate identity scheme must reflect a change of direction, otherwise it’s smoke and mirrors. Image fix. Windscale becomes Sellafield. Daniel Boorstin, in his seminal book “The Image” describes the image fix as a change of face rather than a change of heart. Is there a change of heart at the CBI? Maybe when Design Week next tackles its spokesman we shall learn more. It would be difficult not to.

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