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It’s no surprise that with as subject as intangible as corporate communications, so many people are at odds. Helen Jones and Richard Watson demystify it for both client and designer

THE MARKET

“It’s confused and, ironically for an area concerned with communication, nobody can agree on a definition. It includes: corporate identity – from a multi-million pound global programme such as BT to a letterhead for a local taxi firm; internal and external printed literature, corporate videos, exhibition design and new media,” explains Richard Watson of the European Design Register.

While the term corporate communications can cover many areas, one thing is certain; the amount of work is on the increase, whether it’s in the form of a traditional corporate identity or the creation of a Web site.

UK Clients

In terms of corporate identity, the massive BT- style identity programme and its worldwide implementation is more or less dead. Keith Wells of Dragon International says: “The days of the massive project have gone forever, but there is plenty of work to do with managing existing identities.”

This is partly due to economic factors – a new corporate identity can be very hard to justify to a worldwide board of directors, especially when its effectiveness is difficult to gauge. Corporate identity also has an image problem. The seemingly vast sums spent on “logos” are slated by the outraged tabloid press and are second only to “fat cat bosses” as an object of derision. But the main reason is that most multinationals now have an identity in place and realise the value of what they already have. The majority of identity projects, therefore, are evolutionary, or concern the management of existing identities.

Michael Slater, creative director of Fishburn Hedges, says: “A lot of corporate identity and communications work is with medium-sized companies – you can’t do a BT every week.” A particularly busy area is financial services due to deregulation and the merger of building societies. Utilities also provide a fair amount of work, and as Slater says: “If we get a new government, who knows what that might mean for privatised industries.” Professional outfits such as law firms are also realising the value of a good corporate communications strategy.

International clients

The UK, or to be more precise, London, is still arguably the world centre for corporate identity – rivalled only by the US. British design and strategic thinking is still highly regarded, and many companies abroad turn to the UK when they need a corporate solution. However, there is no room for complacency. UK design groups are facing increasing competition from design consultants on the ground, especially in France and Germany. The way to keep one step ahead, say a number of design groups, is to have the requisite language skills within the company or a relationship with an affiliate consultancy abroad and to ensure that your design and thinking is better than that available locally.

Who is commissioning corporate communications?

The answer is that it varies from company to company. Only the very largest have a design director. Others have a corporate affairs director and in some organisations responsibility for corporate communications lies with the marketing director or marketing manager. In smaller companies the managing director or chairman may oversee the process.

Who is offering corporate communications?

According to Richard Watson: “The world and his wife think they can do corporate communications.” Everyone from PR companies to the makers of exhibition stands count themselves as corporate communications specialists, but Watson says that while 10 000 companies claim to be in the business, “there are only around 50 serious players”.

Corporate print

Corporate literature – especially annual reports – is probably the most competitive sector of the market. One print specialist says: “The market is in a mess. Annual reports have such a low perception that they are often done in-house or by PR companies, with pretty appalling results. Free-pitching is rife, so consequently the fees are pathetic.”

Jeremy Sice of Stocks Austin Sice adds: “We are doing less and less annual report work because the budgets are so low. People will freepitch and often present ten covers for a report and tell the client to pick one. It’s a factory approach and the design looks the same for a lot of clients. The market is probably at the same low ebb as it was 15 years ago – there is still that lack of sophistication.”

Exhibitions

As the recession eases, companies are again spending money on exhibition design. Steve Hill, marketing manager of Academy Expo, confirms: “The market has picked up recently and we’re not just providing work for exhibitions, but also for event marketing programmes such as roadshows and seminars.

“Companies are seriously looking for cost-effective long-term strategies.”

New media

The introduction of new media is perhaps the biggest issue currently affecting corporate communications and encompasses a whole spectrum of disciplines, from corporate video through to manuals on CD-ROM. It’s an area that splits clients into two diametrically opposing camps – those who have rushed to embrace it and others who are treading warily because they don’t really understand what’s on offer.

British Gas is among those adopting new methods. Fishburn Hedges produced its financial and operating review for analysts entirely on CD-ROM. Slater says: “In hard copy it’s a huge report. Now that it’s on CD-ROM it allows analysts to dip into exactly the information they require.” He adds that while print is a fairly unforgiving medium, the design for a CD-ROM is crucial because of the time and expense involved.

Richard Gill of new media specialist Crown Business Communications agrees: “I think clients are increasingly demanding that their corporate communications incorporate new media. But they have to realise it must be used to add value, rather than just producing a digitised version of what could otherwise be produced in hard copy form.”

Problem areas

Richard Watson says that apart from new technology, much of the work available does not involve creating new identities but is about managing what companies already have.

“Unfortunately, according to many design consultancies, when a company has implemented a new identity it doesn’t always manage it well,” says one who prefers to remain anonymous. “It can spend a lot of money and start with great intentions but unless there is someone with good control, things can start to slip.”

Dragon International recently surveyed 150 company directors on the management of what it terms corporate style and found investment wasted because guidelines are introduced in a way that staff cannot readily understand and interpret. While 97 per cent of respondents believed it was important to manage the way the company is presented – and 85 per cent have a formal system – only 36 per cent think their employees understand the importance of managing the image. Food for thought for both clients and consultancies.

THE CLIENT’S VIEW

Consistency

The biggest issue for clients across all business sectors is the need to maintain and protect visual identities. Most now recognise that corporate communications reflect heavily on how a company is perceived and they are anxious to get it right.

Dominic Owens, who recently moved from the Prudential to become marketing services manager for Mercury Communications, says: “For want of a better term, part of my role is to play logocop.” Owens maintains that he has to make sure the visual image and Mercury’s trademark both remain consistent across all its corporate communications, “and ensure that the Mercury brand values – that we are younger, smarter and think harder than the opposition – get across”.

Kate Fishenden, head of brand expression for BT, says: “What we’re trying to do is work very hard on making the brand-positioning clear to everyone in BT so that the communication reflects the brand values. It’s not just about visual identity, but also about how our operators and customer service operates. It’s the whole look and feel of the thing.”

Paul Matthews, customer marketing manager at Royal Liver Assurance, which introduced a new identity by Spencer Landor in April, agrees. “The new identity has to spell out that we are a trusting organisation, that we are experienced, approachable and helpful,” he says. The new look has been introduced across a range of products and publications, as well as across general business stationery. Matthews says: “All our field operatives and head office are now using it.”

Royal Liver Assurance is “policing” the new identity through a technical manual to be used by printers and the in-house design team and through a shorter, abbreviated version which is used by field operatives to provide guidance on standard letters and faxes. If the identity guidelines have to be interpreted it is done by the in-house creative department.

Common gripes

Matthews is very happy with the new look and with his working relationship with Spencer Landor, but for some companies it’s not always such a happy situation.

“My biggest problem,” says one marketing manager for a medium-sized company, “is that as soon as I mention the word corporate communications, the financial director is down on me like a ton of bricks. The situation is compounded because in the past we used a consultancy that was very expensive and missed every single deadline.”

Another marketing manager adds: “When consultancies are touting for your business they’re all over you like a rash and can be a complete pest, but I find that once I have engaged someone on a corporate communications project I can never get them on the phone – I think they avoid me and what they obviously consider to be my outrageous demands!”

But perhaps the biggest problem for clients is a lack of internal support to maintain a consistent image. One head of corporate communications, who does not want to be named but reflects the views of a number of clients questioned, says: “I think it’s a problem that is replicated in lots of organisations, but I find that often different departments or areas of the company are not working towards a common goal. We haven’t got the right guidelines in place – which leads to confusion both internally and externally with the outside consultants that we use.”

It’s a feeling backed up by recent research from Dragon International, which claims that of the 150 people it surveyed, only 45 per cent believe that the internal system successfully manages the image of their organisation.

What clients want from consultancies

They want it all and they want it now. “Clarity of thought”, an “understanding of my company, how it works and where we are going”, and “the ability to help us explore what new technology and new media can do for us” are just some of the responses from clients.

How it works in practice

Mobile phone company Orange possesses what has to be agreed is one of the most distinct and consistent visual images and corporate communications programmes in the UK. Group marketing communications manager Rob Furness says that maintaining the image is a team effort involving Orange internal staff, its advertising agency and a below-the-line outfit. He says: “It’s a close, ongoing relationship. We have a regular brand workshop to revise work, explore the look and feel and see how we’re going to go forward.” Furness says that the company uses a set of guidelines, not set in stone, but intended to be used by designers as a springboard.

There is an internal style book, dubbed The Bible, which gives clear guidelines on the use of copy. “It has to be kept simple,” says Furness, “because we are trying to convey a lot of complex information and obviously there is some legal stuff in there to do with contracts.”

Orange is also proud of the images it uses in its communications. “We’re lucky to have a good source for photography, advertising brochures and direct mail,” says Furness. “We don’t use pictures of telephones. That would just be too obvious.”

Technology

More clients are taking advantage of advances in technology. While some are wary, many are tackling it head on. Kate Fishenden of BT says: “The Internet is at one with what we’re doing at BT. It’s a great opportunity and a lot of fun. We’re trying to get a feel of how to use it to its full advantage.”

Rob Furness adds that new media will be a great boon to corporate communications but adds: “At the moment one of the problems is that we can’t control typography on the Net – which is a big part of our communications. We can’t currently put the Orange logo on as text, it has to go on as a graphic which takes time to download. But that will improve with the next version of Netscape. With the technology that’s currently available, the site on the Web is the business as far as we’re concerned “

Waterstones case study

Bookselling is often regarded as a dusty, slightly old-fashioned business, but Waterstones, one of the UK’s fastest growing book chains, is moving into the digital era with a vengeance.

In 1994 the company unveiled a new corporate identity created by Newell and Sorrell. The intention was to guard the essence of the brand; differentiating it from rivals and emphasising that it offers special services, events, readings by authors and promotions not provided by other book shops. It was also felt that Waterstones should be a celebration of literature – a tangible pulse that beats through everything the company does. Newell and

Sorrell’s task was to show that sense of excitement visually without being hampered by a restrictive identity system. It also had to work around the slightly “snobby” overtones created by its previous identity.

The solution was a more focused identity concentrating on the W mark, isolated in its own right but also friendlier and in a warmer black tone than had been previously used.

The new identity was quickly implemented across all aspects of Waterstones’ business, from stationery to facias. Newell and Sorrell has subsequently been charged with the management and maintenance of Waterstones’ identity and communication programme.

However, Waterstones recognises that it has to move forward and address the issue of new media. Bookselling is no longer just about the printed word but also about books on tape, CD-ROMs and the Internet. In response it has introduced the multimedia showcase at its Leeds store which is rolling out to other stores. Waterstones new media specialist Sally Taplin says: “A lot of people are frightened of new media. We wanted to communicate to customers what is available in a familiar, reassuring and comfortable atmosphere.”

The resulting showcase allows customers of all ages to see demonstrations from some of the CD-ROMs available through the store and it has been designed to be user-friendly while emphasising that it’s a service specific to Waterstones.

John Simmons of Newell and Sorrell says an increasing number of clients are looking at new technology, and while some are slightly wary, it should not be an overly daunting task. “It requires the technical skills to carry it out, but in terms of the thinking required, it’s not a great deal different to working in print. Basically, the level of communication required is the same.”

Newell and Sorrell is also developing an Internet site for Waterstones which will allow users to order books direct. Again it has to be branded as that of Waterstones with a strong visual identity and has to carry information about the service and the books available. However, it’s constrained by the fact that it cannot be too text-heavy as that will turn readers off. Neither should it be graphics-heavy as that will take users too long to download.

IBM case study

IBM is in good company. The buttoned down, pinstriped logo designed by Paul Rand is, along with those of Coca-Cola and McDonalds, one of the most recognised visual identities in the world. Although it may not be as funky as Apple’s colourful logo, consumers from Bombay to Basingstoke understand the logo and can apparently relate to its company values.

But managing the corporate communications output of such a monolith is no easy task. It takes teams of people in offices dotted around the globe to oversee the visual identity, with major decisions being made by IBM’s headquarters in the US.

As a result, every aspect of IBM’s identity is tightly controlled by a stringent set of guidelines to which the multitude of its suppliers around the world have to adhere.

In the UK, aside from Ogilvy & Mather, which is responsible for the company’s advertising and below-the-line activity, IBM has a roster of eight design-oriented consultancies. The roster concept was first initiated in 1992 as part of a move to decentralise IBM’s management structure. The development of close, stable relationships with rostered consultancies obviously suits IBM because it has stuck to the principle for the past four years. Mary Vivian of IBM’s marketing communications department says: “It is a roster and very strictly controlled so there is no point anyone calling up who isn’t on the list !”

The rostered agencies deal with a number of prescribed tasks, but the more mundane day-to-day business of churning out pieces of corporate communication such as press releases is handled in-house with software templates to ensure a consistent style.

Vivian describes her task as maintaining and ensuring the consistency of the identity and protecting the brand values of IBM.

Recently the company has cracked down on a proliferation of images in order to ensure an uncluttered presence so as not to confuse consumers. As a result, all its individual product logos such as AS/400 and HelpWare have been withdrawn. The only exceptions are PowerPC and its software operating system OS/2 Warp, probably because both have received substantial marketing spend behind the brand names around the world.

IBM also has strict guidelines on how its name may be used in copy. For example, the logo cannot be used as part of a sentence such as “sponsored by IBM”, but copy can state “sponsored by IBM United Kingdom Limited”, followed by the logo. Petty? IBM thinks not, and is fiercely protective of what it considers to be one of its greatest assets.

And companies which may want to bask in IBM’s reflected glory had better beware. A company statement says that IBM logos must not generally be used with other company logos. Joint logo’d items should never be produced except in very exceptional cases which require approval from Corporate Branding in the US. This is not just a branding issue – it is also a legal issue because it must be absolutely clear who is the actual owner of any published information.

A spokeswoman concedes that it’s a tough policy, but “it’s one that works.”

How to commission corporate design

The brief

Ask yourself why the brief is necessary.

What is the key issue?

How can design provide the solution?

Specific design objectives.

Internal resources available.

Agree the brief with all internal decision makers.

Finding your designer

Agree the search brief internally.

Shortlist a maximum of three to four companies.

Select on the basis of skills, track record and people.

Ask for a written fee proposal.

Don’t ask for creative work as part of the pitch.

Budget

What is the budget?

How have you arrived at this figure?

Agree costs up front.

Never use cost as the prime selection criteria.

Timing schedule

What are the key dates?

Are these dates realistic given the objectives?

Don’t underestimate demands on your own time.

Project management

Nominate a key project co-ordinator.

Involve everyone from the start.

Approvals

Allow enough time for internal approvals, then double it.

Ensure that everyone with the power to has signed off the initial brief.

Allow the consultancy to present its own work internally.

If in doubt, ask the consultancy.

Evaluation

Judge the work against the original objectives.

Client and consultancy should evaluate each other.

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