David Bernstein : Hype serves its purpose

The RSA Journal recently sounded the death knell for corporate identity. David Bernstein thinks it might be exaggerating, but it could also shake things up a bit

The cover of the current Royal Society of Arts Journal displays the words Corporate Identity crossed (or, rather, paint-rollered) through in red. It flags a main article entitled: The end of corporate identity?

Ever since the Japanese historian Fukuyama, in what seemed an act of hari kiri, announced the end of history, there has been a rash of endings. To some, IT has heralded the end of literacy, though not presumably computer literacy. Text messaging is encouraging commentators to mourn the passing of language. BBC2 this month informed us that every week, somewhere in the world, a language dies – but not at the hands of text messaging.

I heard Anita Roddick inform an art college audience that “words are dead”. But what she used in telling us were, to my ears, words. She was, of course, given the audience and location, overstating the case for communicating by graphics. Visit any Body Shop store and the company’s philosophy confronts you at every turn.

“Brands are dead.” That’s not Naomi Klein talking, though she might hope to achieve that outcome one day. No – it’s the US marketing and business press some five years ago. The occasion was the sudden decision by Philip Morris to cut the price of Marlboro in a retaliatory strike against cheaper cigarettes.

Products are tangible. Brands are myths – they rely on a shared belief, faith even, in substantial images and attributes. What will happen when doubt becomes denial, when, stimulated by No Logo and other criticisms of corporate behaviour, the consumer, forced to choose, rejects the poetry of branding for the prose of performance? That might truly mark the end of brands – but in whose lifetime?

Brands, history, language, literacy civilisation as we know it the list is endless. Such intimations of mortality are common when a century closes. But it’s a bit late surely for fin de siècle musings.

Meanwhile, Hugh Aldersley-Williams in the RSA Journal “gives ten reasons for the death of corporate identity”. I should mention that he uses the term in the usual sense: the visual manifestation of a company’s identity, the logo and so on (what I call the identity scheme) rather than the identity itself. After all, every company has an identity even if it chooses not to articulate it or employ a designer to give it visual expression. Strictly speaking, therefore, there can be no death of corporate identity.

But my unease with the article doesn’t rest there. What the writer seems to be attacking is not corporate identity itself, but other factors, such as bad practice by companies or designers.

He asserts that designers can’t keep up with the sheer pace of change; that consultancies fire staff more frequently today and thus destroy team spirit; that Third World “artisans” ruin designs and the identity loses consistency; that in dealing with globalisation companies produce “anodyne, lowest common denominator” design solutions; that designers lack vision to respond to a “complex, multi-layered reality”; and that designers’ lack of creativity in the midst of mergers and product convergences means that they can’t produce designs which are “more arbitrary and generic” and therefore more likely to endure.

The remaining four “reasons” are also questionable. Brand loyalty doesn’t apply to petrol and milk. (There have always been exceptions.) The power of negative associations – for example, a tailfin in the sea – can undo all previous positive associations. Digital media means that “the old rules no longer apply”. (Even if that were true, designers will inevitably formulate new rules.) Finally, Aldersley-Williams says, rightly, “appearance tells us little about behaviour”. (But the designer’s job is to find the closest approximation.)

Far from killing off corporate identity, the writer has listed some of the problems faced by company and designer. As such, the article provides a service.

I wonder if he believed his headline. Surely anyone who can write “the new corporate image must find ways to communicate companies’ sense of their corporate identity” must assume that corporate identity has a future. Not so much an end as a crossroads. Not so dramatic a headline, of course.

I wonder also why this responsible body should have hyped the article with a shock-horror cover and over the top title, seemingly dismissing the discipline and those who engage in it.

Maybe it wanted to initiate debate. In which case it has succeeded.

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