Identity crises

As Abbey changes its corporate identity for the third time in five years, David Benady reflects on the design industry’s role in some of the great rebranding disasters of recent times

Some designers believe rebranding failures are not essentially a problem of design so much as a mistaken belief by managers that changing a corporate identity can in itself herald a shift in business practices and help recruit a new set of customers.

Of the Abbey redesign under Arnold, James Withey, a consultant at Landor, says, ‘It has has not been a great success, and a lot of heat is being turned on the visual aspects of the rebrand, but it may be more of a business issue rather than a case of bad design or branding.’

Companies tend to ‘put the cart before the horse’ in rebranding exercises, he says. They decide on a fantastic new visual identity before they have evidence to back up the story that the brand has changed. Abbey claimed it was turning banking on its head before providing the proof that this had happened. It broke with the ‘category cues’ of financial services design and ended up looking more like Tate Modern than having the trust-inspiring conservative image that banks usually foster.

‘Abbey has employed vibrant colours and logo, but it hasn’t had in place the things to justify breaking the conventions of the market,’ says Withey

There is a world of difference between a redesign and rebranding, he believes. While a redesign simply updates a logo and refreshes the colour-scheme and typography, rebranding seeks to alter the basic values of the business fundamentally.

According to Andy Knowles of design consultancy Jones Knowles Ritchie, rebranding usually fails. ‘It almost always fails to attract more new customers than it loses,’ he says. By contrast, Stella Artois has barely changed its design for more than 20 years and it remains the country’s number one selling premium lager. Knowles says the Abbey rebranding alienated traditional middle England customers and attempted to appeal more to younger, trendy, urban people. But it failed to attract enough of those to make it worthwhile. ‘If it had stuck to its knitting and evolved it would have delivered greater profits in the short term, which would have delivered a higher multiple and sale price,’ he says.

A key to the success of any rebranding lies in the way that it is communicated to the public and stakeholders. In the case of Consignia, many people thought it meant that post offices would also adopt the new name, and dropping the ‘Royal’ tag irked royalists. BA’s tail-fins were intended to demonstrate how the airline was becoming a more global brand, but it suggested that its core values of good service were being downgraded. Timing is also crucial – BA’s rebrand came at a time of poor staff relations and the airline was unsuccessful in getting pilots and cabin staff to embrace the new look.

BA’s previous rebrand as ‘the world’s favourite airline’ and use of an updated union flag logo was far more successful, says Richard Buchanan, head of specialism at Corporate Edge. He argues that this was because there was news accompanying the new proposition – wider seats and a shuttle-service between Manchester and London. ‘If you focus on a new logo, you need a lot of substance. If you don’t have stakes in the ground, you are in danger of exposing yourself,’ he says.

Cheryl Giovannoni, chief executive of Coley Porter Bell, believes the Abbey affair has damaged the standing of Wolff Olins. ‘The consultancy is big enough to live through it, but it does have an effect on the way people perceive the design industry,’ she says.

But she points to some redesigns that have been a success, such as BP’s green flower logo and Unilever’s recently introduced corporate logo. Others point to Andersen Consulting’s relaunch as Accenture as being well executed.

It is not usually the use of colour, shade or logo design that destroys a rebrand – it is business, rather than design issues. However, unless the wider issues are handled properly, the public will continue to blame design for money wasted on unnecessary rebranding.

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