Branding experts need to fly the flag for themselves

Emotions run high when it comes to identity and public outcry always accompanies any hint of change to what is instantly deemed to be a classic design.

It happened with BT in the 1990s when Wolff Olins introduced the controversial ‘prancing piper’ marque. More recently we witnessed the Consignia debacle, with identity creator Dragon managing to keep out of the fray, and subsequent reports that the UK postal service is to revert to one of its former titles. And now we have Lotto, Landor Associates’ rebranding of the UK’s National Lottery that aligns it with every other national gambling game.

All three have upset the public, largely because of the cost often wrongly attributed to the change of a name or marque, and met with criticism within design over their visual quality.

But these are nothing to the response elicited by European Commission president Romano Prodi’s bid to revamp the European Union’s image via its flag. Everyone has clamoured to proffer a view since The Independent newspaper ‘exclusively’ revealed designs by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas that it erroneously heralded as the ‘replacement’ for the gold star original.

Participants in this week’s Vox Pop show just how the design camp is split on the multicoloured ‘bar code’ identity, from total acclaim by an ecstatic Michael Johnson to dismissal as pastiche by an angry Alan Aboud.

It has since transpired the project is not real, with press reports that EC officials insist no change is planned. But the exercise has thrown up issues worth discussing.

First, why was Koolhaas ever involved? A celebrated architect he may be, but a branding specialist he is not. If the thought of architects encroaching into interiors territory prompted Callum Lumsden to set up the Interiors Forum last year as a way of fighting back, how are the all-powerful branding giants going to respond to Koolhaas’ move into their territory?

Second is the way such an important piece of design was ‘commissioned’. Had the project been real, would Prodi still have picked Koolhaas, would a Europe-wide pitch have ensued or would it have been a global contest open to all comers?

Third is that expertise has so easily been dismissed in favour of popular appeal. Following Prodi’s bid, for example, news website Guardian Unlimited has invited all visitors to the site to devise their own EU identity.

Branding experts need to boost their own branding as a group, identifying to opinion-leaders who they are and what they do. If they don’t, they have only themselves to blame for bids to popularise the creative process and dumb down their professional status.

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