One size will never fit all

Rigid corporate guidelines will never appeal to every target market, says David Bernstein. Personality, on the other hand, can be adapted for different palettes

In advertising and design the creative task is to distinguish the brand. Distinguish has two related meanings: ‘to differentiate from’ and ‘to recognise by characteristic qualities’. The brand must be distinctive and seen always to act in character. Alas, too often the brand is extinguished. For brand read bland. Who’s to blame?

Paul Belford, a senior art director at AMV BBDO, interviewed by Adrian Shaughnessy (DW 15 January), put brand guidelines in the dock, or rather the bad ones, plus the good ones misinterpreted by clients. It’s not the suits that bother him so much as their straitjackets – when tools become rules. Strict imposition of a corporate look, he asserts, results in press ads resembling ‘the business card or invoice slip’. Belford urges design groups to convince clients of the case for flexibility.

However, it should be possible to be flexible within the guidelines, by making each item of communication not identical but coherent, for example, recognisably emanating from the same source. A company can speak to several publics and retain its identity even though those publics’ needs are different. The potential recruit needs to be reassured that the company will still be in business in five years’ time. The security analyst needs affirmation of future performance. The politician in the host country needs to sense that the company is a good corporate citizen. The customer needs to know the name behind the brand.

It’s about disparate needs of disparate audiences in disparate media. But the way those needs are satisfied – call it manner, style, tone of voice – should be recognisably the same. Those audiences are not discrete. The security analyst in his local drug store should recognise the brand as a product of the company he knows from the annual report. The consumer with a complaint should receive the sort of treatment from the sort of people the TV commercial or pack or website has led her to expect. The customer in Singapore should recognise the ad in Time and the foyer of the bank in Orchard Road as manifestations of the same personality.

All communications from the company or brand, to all audiences, can be coherent provided they have something to be coherent to. The guidelines must provide this.

The corporate brand must reflect the corporate culture, at the heart of which is the ethos, usually expressed in a mission statement. Colum Lowe (DW 5 February) takes these to task, calling most ‘bunkum’ and ‘full of meaningless pleasantries’. He is right in pointing out that there are limited options, just as there are, in his analogy, limited plot lines for novels, and that the language is usually predictable and generalised.

I would be the last person to encourage language that is not distinctive, but I am less worried than Lowe about the similarity of the expressed beliefs which allegedly uphold corporate action. After all, there is a finite roster of human virtues. And it seems perverse for a company, seeking to be distinctive, to choose not to proclaim a value (for instance, care for the community) because it sounds like a ‘motherhood’, even though it believes in it and practises it and, instead, selects another which it feels less strongly about. Moreover, distinctiveness rarely lies in the philosophy: a mission statement is only half the picture.

Lowe cites four limited options for a mission statement. I have no quarrel with his first three ‘plot lines’ – price, quality and service – but the fourth, personality, is, in my book, limitless, an opinion which he seems to endorse when he says ‘what makes literature great is style not plot… the depth of the characters’. Completing the picture is the personality statement.

Most brands have them – but very few companies in my experience. Style is something they recognise, live, take for granted, begin to appreciate by its absence, but rarely articulate. Yet how much time and effort could be saved if, for example, a design team were given a pen picture of the company at the briefing, rather than being told at the presentation that ‘it’s good, but it’s just not us’. What is ‘us’?

Personality is the sum total of characteristics which distinguish each of us. A personality statement ensures that in each of its communications the brand or company is being true to itself. That’s what matters – not the rigid imposition of a rubber stamp look.

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