David Bernstein: Clowning with make-up

A bright new name and logo are seen as a panacea for some corporations, but David Bernstein explains why the public are often sceptical of such image fixing

One 2 One becomes T-Mobile. The Today interviewer on Radio 4 asks the spokesman why they are rebranding. ‘This isn’t rebranding. It’s repositioning.’ So that’s all right then. Whatever, corporate naming is getting a bad name.

CGNU morphs into Aviva. Aviva, The Guardian informs us, is ‘the name of a flower shop just 300 yards up the road from the company’s Norwich headquarters’. The change cost £1m, about a third of the Consignia epic. The old names, Royal Mail and The Post Office, may resurface in an exercise we could call retrobranding (a new source of income for design consultancies?). The Consignia name the public never took to, and now won’t have time to. Marketing people thought they understood the thinking: it works in many languages, it detaches old associations, allows the company to enter new areas and, above all, it denotes change. Real, one hopes, rather than cosmetic.

A name change can act as a harbinger of future change in the company, but the catch-up time must be short. In Consignia’s case I recognised only the closing down of my local post office.

A name change may also reflect a change that has been taking place over many years and the exercise is a belated recognition of a new environment and the company’s place within it.

A name change may, in addition, act as an incentive to staff and a promise to customers and consumers, existing and potential. Aspirationalí but attainable.

And, of course, certain name changes are forced upon companies. They merge, are taken over, become global. They find they are confused with another with a similar name. (Accenture must be delighted it is no longer confused with Andersen.) It may expand its product offering beyond what its name suggests. I remember the Metal Box company running an ad with the baseline ‘Metal Box makes more than metal boxes’.

But to the public, unless the reasons for change are obvious or spelled out, most rebranding seems wasteful and unnecessary. They may indeed believe it cloaks some corporate failing or duplicity. As for the name itself, what does it mean? Corus, Consignia, Aviva, Diageo, mmO2 – obscure names are fashionable. Ironic when you think about it. Surely the purpose of corporate identity is to identify, to distinguish, not to announce that you too are a member of this elite club.

But there is a case for refreshing the corporate look, modifying the logo as Shell has done frequently over many decades without attracting the opprobrium met by BP in its two last make-overs.

Neither of the two oil giants has sought to change its name. BP is still BP, though it wishes us to think of it as Beyond Petroleum. Companies can re-invent themselves without rebranding. Tesco’s transformation has been accompanied by an adjustment to the logo and a public perception of considerable change to the product, but not the name which, by the way, is an abbreviation of that of the founding dynasty.

Similarly, Radio Times – with its anachronistic title. Almost as old as the BBC itself, it originally listed times of radio programmes. Now it covers all television channels, public and commercial, terrestrial and satellite, analogue and digital. The name remains. Why not? We all know what it is. Just as we know that Coca-Cola no longer owes anything to the coca plant.

Corporate identity exists with or without a corporate identity programme. Each company has an identity. A design consultancy doesn’t create it. What it can do is help the company articulate it, which means initially leading it through a process of self-analysis. Who are we? What do we do? What do we stand for? What is distinctive about us? What do we want to do differently? And so on.

Only at the end of this process does physical design begin – with another question: is the way we present ourselves coherent with the real us, as we are today and expect to be tomorrow?

Unfortunately, some companies believe that the process is unnecessary and that all they need is a bright new name and shiny new logo, as if painting the loo door will cure the plumbing. This is ‘image fix’, what American commentator Daniel Boorstin described as a change of face rather than a change of heart. Alas, there are designers who encourage corporate clients in this delusion.

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