DESIGN AND BRANDING: How does corporate identity work?

Jim Davies discovers that a strong corporate identity can offset the impact of a company’s slip-ups as well as consolidate its successes

Jim Davies discovers that a strong corporate identity can offset the

impact of a company’s slip-ups as well as consolidate its successes

The managing director of a leading British design consultancy was in

full flow. He was presenting the results of months of painstaking market

research to a large international client who had commissioned a new

corporate identity. He was using words like ‘strategy’, ‘communication’

and ‘multi-cultural marketplace’ with gay abandon. He had charts and

graphs and percentages to back up his well-rehearsed argument. But just

as he was reaching a crescendo, the client interjected impatiently: ‘Cut

the crap and show us the logo.’

This true story demonstrates the general level of ignorance and

confusion about corporate identity and its role as a strategic marketing

tool. Although most European business people would be able to muster up

a rough-and-ready definition of the term, the chances are that most of

these would be different; it’s one of those woolly phrases that can mean

all things to all men.

It’s in the interests of design consultancies such as Wolff Olins, Coley

Porter Bell, Sampson Tyrell, Landor, and Henrion Ludlow and Schmidt to

increase the profile and understanding of the discipline; they are in

the business of persuading large multinationals that a comprehensive,

watertight identity is just what they need to become world-beaters. The

logo, they insist, is the merest glace cherry on the cake; the real

ingredients of corporate identity include research and development,

planning and strategy, and the effective communication of the client’s

brand proposition both inside its own company and to the outside world.

In his influential book, Corporate Identity, Wally Olins, the co-founder

and chairman of the design consultancy, Wolff Olins, draws comparisons

between names, symbols and logos and ‘religious symbolism, chivalric

heraldry or national flags and symbols: they encapsulate and make vivid

a collective sense of belonging and purpose. At another level, they

represent consistent standards of quality and, therefore, encourage

consumer loyalty.’

But scepticism abounds. As high-profile corporate identity revamps make

the news, the tabloid newspapers are fond of sticking an old logo next

to a new one, captioning it ‘before’ and ‘after’, while informing a

bemused public that this simple exercise cost pounds 35 million - oh,

and they were quite fond of the old one anyhow. Clearly, the corporate

identity specialists need to be spin-doctors too. But before they can

challenge public - and, to an extent, corporate - opinion, they need to

be able to assess the situation accurately.

Which is why, back in 1989, Henrion Ludlow and Schmidt instituted the

first of its pan-European studies into ‘the importance of corporate

identity in multi-cultural market conditions’.

Carried out by MORI, the research has been repeated at two-yearly

intervals, and the results of the 1995 survey have recently been

revealed. MORI interviewed 166 ‘senior persons responsible for corporate

identity’, aiming to discover how corporate identity was understood,

perceived and communicated across Europe and which companies were deemed

to have the strongest corporate identities.

‘We wanted to find out, among our client base of top European companies,

what the feelings are on corporate identity and what benefits it might

bring them,’ Chris Ludlow, senior partner at Henrion Ludlow and Schmidt,


‘We also wanted to explore some of the relevant matters around the edges

of the subject. We used it to formulate and construct our current offer.

Will we carry out similar research in the future? That depends on

whether we can afford it - it is very expensive.’

In the research, MORI threw up interesting national differences in

attitudes and perceptions. In Britain, for instance, corporate identity

is seen primarily as a matter of public profile, whereas in Germany it’s

seen as a totality of internal and external dimensions.

‘There were definite national characteristics,’ Ludlow confirms. ‘The

British attitude is quite superficial, with an emphasis on logo types.

People are after a quick fix, but on the other hand, they tend to be

more flexible than in other places in Europe.

‘In Germany, as you might expect, they are more thorough, they like

planning. There’s a single-mindedness about the identities of Mercedes

and BMW.’ This is reflected in the chart (left) displaying the responses

to the question: ‘Which companies come to mind when you think of an

exemplary and successful corporate identity?’

Mercedes features at number four with 11 per cent and BMW at number

eight with 5 per cent. The top British entry is British Airways, with

just 4 per cent. The chart as a whole is totally dominated by the

Americans. Between them, Coca-Cola, IBM and McDonald’s account for 73

per cent of votes cast.

What conclusions does Ludlow draw from these figures? ‘Of course, the

sheer mass of these companies means they’re extremely visible,’ he says.

‘But all companies start from seeds. What the Americans are very good at

is sticking with an identity. It’s the cult of the idea - they have

founding principles which they adhere to rigidly. The Coca-Cola identity

is incredibly consistent. Wherever you go in the world it’s the same;

even in places where it’s in non-Roman script, it has been made to look

as close to the original as possible.’

Not everyone is so convinced of the merits of such powerful global

identities. ‘Many of them are just visual pollution,’ says Adrian

Shaughnessy, the creative director of Intro, a creative-led design

company which specialises in design for the music industry and new

media. ‘The urban environment is choked with crass identities. I blame

the big consultancies. In pandering to big business they have relegated

the designer to a minor support role and allowed the brand managers, the

corporate strategists, the researchers, to take over. The consequence of

this is dismal visual identities lacking any aesthetic dimension.’

Michael Johnson, of the design company, Johnson Banks, is with

Shaughnessy: ‘The top-ten list is really worrying,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t

reflect the quality of the corporate identity as much as exposure. If

you see the things the whole damn time of course you remember them. It’s

a blunderbuss approach -shoot them out often enough and you’re bound to

hit someone.’

Johnson believes corporate identity is a fascinating area of design

that, to date, has been unimaginatively served. He points to MTV’s ever-

mutating on-screen animated logo as a progressive way of treating an

identity. ‘I don’t like the logo itself,’ he admits, ‘but I do like the

principles behind it - that it’s rotating the whole time.’

It must be one of the few American identities Johnson does have time

for. ‘The dominance of the Coca-Cola and McDonald’s logos reflects the

mass Americanisation of the world,’ he argues. ‘I just wish Holly-

wouldn’t. I want them to stop trying to control my life.’ And one of his

major bugbears is purely aesthetic: ‘Two of the top ten logos use red

and yellow, which is one of the most gruesome colour combinations.’

This gripe would surely be dismissed as trivial by Charles Trevail,

deputy chief executive of Sampson Tyrell, which is part of the WPP group

and has worked on identities for the likes of Shell, Castrol and Avis.

‘We’re here to help our clients, not create pretty pictures,’ he says.

‘One of the sayings at Sampson Tyrell is that you can’t put lipstick on

a gorilla. Corporate identity has to be genetic rather than cosmetic.’

Over at Landor - another of the big-name consultancies, once most famous

for its British Airways revamp during the 70s and now for its more

recent work in turning Pepsi blue - the director of communications,

David Redhill, is of a similar opinion. ‘A paint job will never be

effective,’ he says. ‘Corporate identity is not a panacea to a company’s

problems; its main function is to reflect and facilitate change.’

Another area where a robust corporate identity really comes into its

own, Redhill adds, is when a company gets itself into a scrape (see

table, above right). Union Carbide is still on the blunder list more

than a decade after the Bophal disaster - in some respects, that is what

it’s best remembered for. But the Body Shop and ICI, both of which have

suffered adverse publicity much more recently, have emerged relatively

unscathed. Thanks to strong identities, they’ve generated only one

mention each in the chart.

When you consider that Pizza in 30 Minutes also registered one vote

(presumably for not living up to its name), this puts the figures into

some perspective. ‘If you’ve known someone for four or five years and

they do something terrible, you’re prepared to say it’s out of character

and forgive them,’ Redhill explains. ‘If it’s someone you’ve met for the

first time, a strong corporate identity is like a bank of goodwill which

will stand you in good stead during a crisis.’ But are we prepared to

forgive McDonald’s and the rest for ‘cultural pollution’?

‘There is an argument raging about well-designed identities versus well-

managed identities,’ Sampson Tyrell’s Trevail says. ‘A lot of what we do

is about helping organisations to uncover their unique characteristics

and articulate them in an appropriate way. OK, McDonald’s’ huge great

‘M’ isn’t exactly pretty. But I’m sure it will come to be seen as an

icon of its time.’


Successful corporate identities


Which companies come to mind when you think of an exemplary and

successful international corporate identity? (Top answers only)

                              Trends (per cent)

                    1991    1993    1995    Change 93/95

Coca-Cola             31      36      39         +3

IBM                   38      28      22         -6

McDonald’s             4      10      12         +2

Mercedes              16      12      11         -1

Microsoft              -       -       8         -

Shell                  8      11       7         -4

Sony                   8       9       5         -4

BMW                    8       4       5         +1

British Airways        2       6       4         -2

BP                     7      10       4         -6

Ford                   2       7       4         -3

Nestle                 3       4       3         -1

ICI                   10       6       2         -4

No other company mentioned by more than 2 per cent. MORI research for

Henrion Ludlow and Schmidt



The effect of corporate errors on a corporate idenity


Which specific corporate error or blunder of recent years had the most

effect on a company’s identity? (Number of mentions, not percentages)

Shell                30

Perrier              12

Esso/Exxon            8

British Gas           5

Deutsche Bank         4

IBM                   4

Mercedes              4

Ratners               4

AEG                   3

BP                    3

Benetton              3

Hoover                3

Barings               2

BT                    2

Credit Lyonnais       2

Hoechst               2

Konsum                2

Pepsi                 2

Unilever              2

Union Carbide         2

One mention each: Agfa, Alcatel, Beiersdorf, Body Shop, British Rail,

Citroen, Daewoo, Fidelity, Fischer Ski, ICI, Interfina, Knorr, Midland

Bank, Mobil, Nokia, Pizza in 30 Minutes, Porsche, Renault, SNCF, Spa

Banken, Vauxhall, Yorkshire Water

MORI research for Henrion Ludlow and Schmidt



Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus