Brand Identity, Criticism & the Electronic Lynch Mob

More than ever, criticising brand identity has become something of an undemanding sport, but with a greater number of participants. For brands, the advent of the Internet and the consequential rise of blog posts and sector specific forums, the Internet has created a new type of headache.

In the past, critiques generally came from newspapers. Virtually all newspapers at some time or another have ran negative stories about a brand identity, generally with political and financial overtones. By and large these stories only demonstrated a lack of understanding of brand identity by media editors.

Articles generally highlighted the wasteful adventures of ambitious tax fueled organisations, claiming instead that good money aught to be spent on social services.

This makes the assumption that brand identity was simply bad money spent, and that brand identity and well targeted communication doesn’t help a cause.

It didn’t stop there, of course. Corporate changes to identity were also under the spotlight and the opinions of the editor were supported with derisory articles that usually ran with the obligatory question straight to the general public – “could you do better”? With the focus always negative and always on cost, brand identity was being mocked, used and dragged through the public for the sake of sending a political ideology to a newspaper’s accepting reader.

We now, however, are witnessing a great shift in direction. Instead of uninformed editors running stories, today we see more informed designers willing to step in and criticise identity. It has added a new, but rather ironic dimension to that of the old mainstream press.

The danger now is that designers are effectively weakening the story of identity design, assuming control from the newspapers and taking it onto ‘their’ forums instead.

In essence, designers are reinforcing a narrow view that identity design is purely cosmetic, behind which lies a hollow room, empty of history, psychology, semiotics, marketing, communication theory, intuition and design.

For the negative soothsayers of old outside of the design practice, this is pure justification. It adds to the well held assumption that the crucially thorough, time consuming process of understanding, fact finding, audit, client/design relationship, history, marketplace and design intuition doesn’t exist.

Designing brand identity is all about this process and brands throughout history have always considered it whilst designing. From the choices of colour, materials and imagery of Europe’s heraldry, to the new livery adorning aircraft, strategists, advisers and artists have always defined, created and reworked visual languages and vocabularies based on a similar, and often uniquely flexible process.

As history will have it, on June 4 2007, London’s Olympic Identity was launched. Unprecedented criticism was to leap off the printed page and animate television screens across living rooms unlike no other time. After weeks of bombardment, hardly a single person would be unaware of this new, brave, differentiated and authentic identity.

As the client, politicians were quite rightly drawn into the firing line to defend the identity from the press, but perhaps now uniquely, design gurus were the new comfortable combatants and all too happy to take aim.

Unaffiliated with the press, many would add themselves to the fight, leaping from their new electronic blogs and into the printed mainstream press to attack the supposed puerile mess, artistic flop and commercial scandal of the new Olympic Logo.

Other designers, some hidden behind anonymous avatars, remained online, pouring in by their thousands into the electronic assault. Visual display Units would churn out a surge of asinine lists normally expected of newspapers and their ignorant claims of exorbitant costs and more capable toddlers.

In the excitement of attack, a petition reached over ten thousand names. For the first time in history, logo and its cost really had overshot the event by a mile and designers were largely driving it. Online.

Naturally I’m not suggesting that we can’t hold opinions of the brands we love, as consumers this is part and parcel of decision, engagement and trust; as for client and designer, this is surely how we are eventually judged to have succeeded in our work? Neither am I suggesting that the outcome of the identity process is always correct, but the focus here should be for constructive, intelligent criticism centered on strategic, fact based responses or none at all.

Very little feedback is ever based on this and where the general public may be forgiven for this naivety, for designers this must be denied. It is nothing short of reckless bullying on a populist bandwagon. For some it’s purely self promotion.

But of course, the design/client relationship doesn’t always get it right and in some cases, intelligent, constructive criticism can often prove necessary.

In 1997, two years after the Internet was commercialised, roughly one year before Google launched and before the term blog was coined, former UK Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, demonstrated her dislike for change by draping a handkerchief over the tail-fin of a 1/72 scale model of a British Airways Boeing 747, during the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool.

In front of the World’s whirring and flashing media she proclaimed  – “We fly the British flag, not those awful things you’re putting on planes”. After carefully applying the handkerchief, she turned, paused to stare out the nervous BA official, and walked off.

She was of course referring to BA’s new ethnic livery designs. It wasn’t the design itself that was the problem, though, it was clearly the strategy of moving away from the Union Flag.

Whilst Thatcher wasn’t the catalyst for the change of airline’s direction two years later, she was ultimately one of them, becoming a powerful but unelected spokesperson for the consumer and, to be fair, she was right on the nail because contrary to BA’s research stating that the new identity called for and portrayed a modern, fresh and dynamic Britain, public objection and confusion surrounding the new tail fins showed the direct opposite and by 2001 the decision was reversed.

With 35 different tail fins, confusion would also come from Air Traffic Control towers. By all accounts, the fin was failing in its duty to send a clear visual picture back. This type of visual communication was critically important and perhaps it remained buried in the process.

As a result of criticism and new strategic thinking, aircraft were ordered to be re-painted with the Chatham Dockyard Union Flag. Virgin of course, with their own relaunch, were partly the strategic reason. The market place had changed and for any British airline, the Union Flag would always have provided clear authenticity and total differentiation on the tarmac and in the air. If BA didn’t use it, would Virgin?

So, what we are learning from the past and the present can help us to consider the future. Constructive criticism will always be helpful, ideally unearthed and taken on board during the process. But with destructive criticism coming now from newer quarters, for client and design team, creating brand and brand identity is clearly fraught with far greater risk.

In an attempt to appease the consumer and the questionable one-dimensional critics, we’re now slipping into a new consequence of the internet. Crowdsourcing.

To be continued next week…