Chains of command

As the nature of corporate design work changes, how will the relationship between clients and designers evolve? Vicky Sargent gets the client’s point of view

SBHD: As the nature of corporate design work changes, how will the relationship between clients and designers evolve? Vicky Sargent gets the client’s point of view

Many people in the design industry would prefer to forget the caricature that once appeared in one of the quality Sundays – a grinning shyster proffering a business card bearing the legend “Buck Greenback & Buck: corporate images for the exce$$ively wealthy” – and alongside the explanation: “Plans were revealed last week for BT’s new look, which it claims is crucial for future success: sceptics say all it will change is the designers’ bank balances…”

It was January 1991, and the corporate identity business was at rock bottom in the public consciousness. There were glum faces in the design industry as many believed that, despite their private protestations of faith, business leaders would react to the British Telecom PR fiasco by disengaging from identity issues – and turn to things their shareholders could link more directly to the bottom line.

And yet, three years on, although the nature, scale and context of identity work has undoubtedly changed, the overall impression is that people are remarkably bullish about the outlook for the identity business.

Rune Gustafson of the European Design Register is picking up signs of increased activity in the identity field throughout Europe, and believes most clients are now well enough informed about the power of visual assets to be convinced of their importance – and that means they are prepared to spend. But the way they are spending has changed: “There is plenty of corporate identity and related work about,” he says, “but the trend is definitely moving away from the `big bang’ identity programme, and towards more effective exploitation of what you’ve already got.”

David Griffiths, identity manager at Royal Mail, agrees. “The scale of activity is just as great as in the past,” he explains, “but nowadays it’s more likely to be about the nurturing of an existing identity than the major revamps we’ve seen in the past.”

Such comments describe the effects of two key developments which are having a profound influence on the nature of contemporary identity work. Both developments pre-date, and should not therefore be regarded as consequences of, the PR crisis corporate identity suffered at the end of the Eighties.

The first of these developments is the trend towards evolutionary – as opposed to revolutionary – change in the visual representation of an organisation’s identity. It could be argued that this is due to some extent to a lull in the corporate traumas such as merger and acquisitions, or privatisation, which tend to stimulate radical identity programmes, but there is a more fundamental reason. This is that greater recognition is being given today to the value of an established identity in the marketplace. It is now more widely appreciated that it may be easier, more cost-effective, and possibly more politically correct to re-invest old icons with new values rather than create and establish entirely new ones. Although organisations with a large and ubiquitous presence – like BT, with its telephone boxes and vans – can gain overnight recognition for their new identity, this doesn’t apply to the vast majority.

Steve Braidwood, whose consultancy Compton undertakes corporate identity research for some of the UK’s top companies, believes that the majority of corporate identity work today is necessarily going to be evolutionary.

Making the connection between corporate identity and corporate marketing, he says: “Corporate marketing is like traditional product marketing, in that 90 per cent of it is about the development of existing brands, and only 10 per cent about new ones – although it is true that corporate entities do tend to change more than some brands do.”

The second development that is changing the nature of corporate identity work comes from the increasing awareness within organisations of the role that an actively managed identity plays in building up an organisation’s corporate brands – corporate brands that are being used more and more in the marketing of an organisation’s products and services.

For service industries in particular, says Griffiths, identity is now recognised as a key marketing issue, because of its ability to reflect and communicate the values which drive the behaviour, or essence, of a service organisation’s offer. But the same thing is now happening for manufacturing industries, since, as products become increasingly similar in terms of features and price, it is the service package built round the products which becomes a key source of differentiation and therefore provides the marketing edge.

Corporate brands, however, take more to create than new visual identities. An example many commentators use is that of British Airways, which implemented its new identity in the early 1980s, but could not be said to have developed this into a brand until much later, when a whole raft of communications activities, including customer care programmes, marketing initiatives, and extensive advertising, had produced the necessary effect.

The implication is that the proper exploitation of corporate identity (a term which may be interchanged with the term corporate brand, depending on the nature of the organisation being referred to) requires identity management to be active rather than passive. It also needs to be properly integrated with corporate communications strategies, and, depending on the nature of the organisation, with marketing communications as well. This is producing an intriguing set of questions about the way identity management is evolving within client organisations.

The first question is who is taking charge of the identity issue – and why?

Braidwood’s view is clear: corporate design should be driven by corporate marketing imperatives which define an organisation’s key audiences and how it should be positioned in relation to its competitors. In the ideal organisation, the custodian of the corporate brand should be a single person, probably a corporate communications director, who has the authority to determine – or at least strongly influence – the way the identity is exploited through the whole range of communications disciplines.

In the real world, of course, these powerful custodians are rare, and responsibility for corporate design can still be found variously under marketing, PR, advertising, or communications functions – hostage to the “robber barons” running different parts of the business.

Where identity management isn’t likely to be found is under a design management function, says Steve Howell, formerly a design manager at British Airports Authority. “Although design managers may manage the design contribution to corporate identity,” he explains, “it is very rare that the design function actually manages the identity.”

But regardless of where the corporate identity is formally controlled within the organisation, it is the marketing people who are playing an increasingly important role in its application and development. This is an inescapable consequence of the the fact that as identity becomes more and more of a differentiating factor, it is the marketers who are spending large budgets every day using the corporate brand in advertising, direct mail, sales promotion, packaging, literature and all other forms of marketing communications.

The fact that some of these marketers will be operating in business units physically remote from the corporate centre, and enjoying a great deal of independence thanks to the fashion for devolved and decentralised management structures, raises questions about both the practicality and desirability of traditional identity management, in which a design or identity manager, located at the corporate centre, controls and polices the application of the identity according to a set of rules enshrined in an exhaustive design manual. It raises questions about practicality simply because of the sheer quantity of identity applications being made every day within a large business, and the timescales within which they need to be made, given the speed with which today’s markets are changing and developing.

It raises questions about desirability because the rigidity implied in the “logocop” approach is incompatible with the overriding requirement of the market to be responsive, while a system based on central control runs counter to the trend for corporate decision-making to be devolved to business units.

So, whereas old-style design management was about policing and control, new-style management, says Gustafson, is about “coaching people to become their own design manager”.

Castrol provides a classic example of this sort of approach. The multinational’s corporate centre in the UK has developed an updated identity system for application worldwide. But the identity will be implemented by local marketing managers working with their own advertising and design agencies to exploit the Castrol brand in ways appropriate to local needs.

In order to achieve international continuity while providing scope for local exploitation, Castrol has developed a communications programme run from the centre to link its network of marketing managers worldwide. What is significant is that this is a two-way communications programme.

The company has started to produce a quarterly magazine called Brand Matters, which, according to corporate publicity manager Peter Ball, keeps managers around the world “up to date with identity and branding issues, and encourages them to send in comments and examples of how they are using the new identity so that each issue passes on ideas from one unit to another, playing a key role in the ongoing communication of the Castrol brand”.

The Automobile Association is another example of an organisation which is developing identity management methods which empower managers but achieve consistency of message at the same time. According to Anthony Peagam, group PR director, compulsion is simply not an option for achieving greater consistency in the use of the AA signature across four increasingly autonomous business groupings. Nor did a corporate identity manual prove to be an effective control tool: its existence did not prevent individual managers in the past from allowing design groups to produce work that bastardised the AA mark – all in the happy belief that the AA identity was being honoured.

In contrast, persuasion has proved remarkably effective in getting the AA businesses to accept the importance of following the guidelines introduced in 1990 for the use of the AA signature.

“We produced a booklet which illustrated seven well-known AA products and demonstrated the inconsistencies. We then showed how standardised signatures could be used, keeping it very simple,” says Peagam. “It is remarkable how successful this has been, and it demonstrates increased understanding of the importance of branding and identity issues. There is strong demand from the business units for the small library of guideline documents that we have subsequently produced.”

Meanwhile, it continues to be the responsibility of the individual business groups to commission and manage their own design work. And although Peagam says he is available to give advice, and is prepared to step in if the AA signature is abused, he is now busy off-loading responsibility for the identity on to the AA’s constituent businesses.

These examples would appear to follow Griffiths’ dictum that what modern identity management requires is “not more design managers, but rather, more `managers of design’.”

Royal Mail is seeking to achieve this (as are other large corporates) through extensive communications programmes on identity issues, involving the provision of printed information, training, and access to expert advice to line managers across the organisation.

Some 500 managers from marketing, communications, property, fleet management, facilities management and purchasing have, over the past year, attended training seminars covering identity issues both general and specific to Royal Mail. The intention, says Griffiths, is to “create, through dialogue, an environment in which staff get things right”. At the same time, he says, “you have to recognise that it may still be necessary to take the gloves off if managers are getting something seriously wrong, and that means having the authority of their boss behind you when you make the challenge.”

BT design director Tony Key says having this authority is critical. “Too much empowerment can lead to poor results,” he says, and he cautions that attempting to train line managers in design management skills can be a mixed blessing, since it may encourage them in the idea that they know it all – and that’s when they are likely to come up with something really awful. “The ideal is when you get a call from a colleague saying `I’m thinking of doing this – what do you think?’ The problem is when you get presented with a fait accompli which has to be rejected, because then design management becomes regarded as unhelpfully obstructive.”

Modern identity management then, is a complex and difficult affair, requiring its practitioners to exhibit sensitivity, responsiveness, flexibility and excellent communication skills, rather than slavish adherence to a set of rules and standards.

For Braidwood, this can only be an improvement: “Design management as it has been traditionally practised, with manuals and rulebooks, can become a mechanistic process, producing `quality’ design which nevertheless loses touch with its purpose and inhibits the potential to improve performance.” While he believes it is right for design managers to be concerned about quality, corporate design should not be judged by how closely it conforms to rules of consistency: “It should be judged in terms of how well it performs.”

What are the implications of these developments for design consultancies?

First of all, the increased involvement of marketers and other non-specialists in the application of identity means that design consultancies need to become, like internal design managers, more concerned with practicality and performance, rather than perfection. “Designers tend to want to guard what they’ve created,” says Griffiths, “but there needs to be a balance struck between flexibility and control, so that the identity can develop and not become a handicap.”

Connected to this issue is the role of electronics as a practical tool for identity management, especially within large and dispersed organisations. Although design groups are now literate in the basics of electronic technology, it was generally agreed among our panel that very few are demonstrating the commitment to explore and exploit fully the undoubted potential of this technology to transform the way things are done in the communications field.

Second, the possibility of identity becoming better integrated with corporate communications, perhaps under the direction of a powerful communications supremo, raises the question of where design and identity consultancies fit into the spectrum of advisers that organisations will choose to consult in this area.

Gustafson points out that all the marketing services – advertising and PR, as well as design – are trying to spread their wings and seize the intellectual high ground in communications consultancy. Although design consultancies have an important advantage, in that they alone can create and apply the visual elements around which the communications activity is constructed, they have failed to overcome perceptions of design consultancy which limit the scope of the work they are invited to do. It is this that has encouraged some of the leading identity specialists to seek to distance themselves from the rest of the design sector.

It should be said that our panel shared the perception that the vast majority of design consultants did not actually have the skills – skills they nevertheless often claim – to research and analyse strategic issues connected with identity and communications. Asked to say how many consultancies did, in their opinion, have these skills, our panel’s responses ranged from around twenty to just three.

Third, the devolution of identity application to business units and line managers does mean that there should be more opportunities opening up for smaller consultancies in the corporate communications field – although these opportunities may be harder to identify than in the days of centralised control through a design or identity unit. Although some large organisations are moving to establish rosters, the practice is far from widespread.

Despite all the other developments taking place in the identity field, one aspect of identity in which little has changed is the failure of consultancies and clients to adequately explain the commercial benefits of corporate identity work. “Changes need to be supported by hard arguments about markets, customers, positioning and so on, but this rarely happens – people

didn’t understand, for example, why the BP identity was changed, when there were very good reasons which should have been explained at the launch,” says Braidwood.

And yet, ever since the media critics heaped scorn on the “spot the difference” BP and ICI identity changes, clients’ response has tended to be to play down what they are doing, in the hope that troublemakers won’t notice, rather than try harder to justify their investment in terms of the benefits which will accrue.

Why should this be? Is it because clients believe that the sceptics are just not going to play fair with the arguments, or do they just become so convinced by an identity programme they overlook the fact that others need convincing too?

Part of the solution may lie in what Rune Gustafson believes to be the key to the future: the demystification of the identity process. “Nobody is interested in mystique anymore,” he says. “Design groups need to open up the process and make it transparent. They need to become more confident in the service they’re providing, just as the client needs to become more confident in what the group is doing.”

Steve Braidwood


Compton Research & Consultancy

David Griffiths

Masterbrand and

Identity Manager

Royal Mail

Rune Gustafson


European Design


Steve Howell

Former Design



Tony Key

Corporate Head of Design

British Telecom

Dick Petersen

Independent consultant and lecturer on design management

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