THE END OF IDENTITY

08 November 2006
Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Hugh Aldersey-Williams

The Corporate Identity Consultant: Ayn Rand should have made him the hero of one of her novels. He may surely be counted among the iconic professional types of the latter half of the last century - the architect, the stock trader, the media mogul. These were men (always men) who could distill the essence of a great corporation into a single memorable symbol. But suddenly, their day is done. Corporate identity simply doesn't matter any more. Here's why.

1. The Sheer Pace of Change
Corporate identities are usually designed to last 10 or 15 years. Yet the mortality rate of companies is increasing so rapidly that this timespan now often greatly exceeds the company's longevity. In many sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, financial services and utilities, companies now seem to only last a few years between mergers. Not long ago, Glaxo and the Wellcome Laboratories formed an untidy merger to become GlaxoWellcome; recently it has been in talks with the equally felicitously named SmithKline Beecham. And there are many similar examples. Yet identity consultants have shovvn no sign of adapting to this new high-speed world. Often there is not the time nor the inclination to tidy up a name, never mind develop a new identity. Meanwhile, the companies prosper regardless. And what of the inevitable merger itself? If a company's identity is important at all, then surely it should be important at this most crucial moment in a company's existence. But all the heraldic finery counts for nothing in the battle as accountants weigh up each company's worth. This should worry identity experts.

2. The Power of Negative Association
Call it the tailfin-in-the-sea syndrome. The effectiveness of an identity depends not simply upon how often we see it, but how often we see it in a positive context. The familiar symbols of banks and shops on main streets reinforce our feeling that we are where we belong and that those companies belong there too. But our changing habits of news consumption - grazing on graphics rather than digesting a proper meal of words - now mean that one negative image has the power to undo in an instant all the quiet work of building a positive association. The media's instinct for the familiar symbol amid the wreckage is unerring, even if the wreckage is no more than metaphorical: who can forget Baroness Margaret Thatcher wrapping a handkerchief around the tail of a model plane done up in the new British Airways livery, effectively signaling her disdain for the new folk art and her desire to see the British flag returned there?

3. Team Spirit
Identity consultants riposte that consumers are only one constituency for their work. An important secondary purpose of corporate identity is to provide a banner for the company's employees. Yet just as companies come and go more rapidly, so do their employees. Staff turnover has risen. More people work part-time. More work from home. All these people have less reason than ever to 'identify' with a national employer.

4. Consistency
Practical matters conspire to limit the effectiveness of traditional corporate identity. Despite efforts to pursue consistency at all costs, things often fall apart away from the center. The carefully drawn "FedEx" logo incorporates an urgent forward arrow subliminally between the "E" and the "x" - a nuance that entirely escaped the artisans who hand-painted the company's delivery vans in third-world countries.

5. New Media
But the internet is where control really goes to pieces. Companies that have spent decades nurturing and controlling their identity have rushed to do e-commerce as they know they must, only to find out that the old rules no longer apply. They cannot control the way a computer user chooses to view their site, and decorating it with corporate artwork merely slows down the experience for the user - and the potentially money-making hit rate for the company. So CEO's: forget consistency, lose control. Learn to relax and enjoy the messy, fluid reality of the commercial world.

6. Lack of Vision
Corporate identity has traditionally been about presenting a single face for what is in fact a multi-faceted organization. Ayn Rand may not have lionized the guru of the symbol, but Paul Rand exemplified the role. This worked while corporations did most of their business in domestic markets and could afford to treat foreign markets as colonies. But no longer. It's a heresy to say so, but designers appear to lack the vision to respond to this complex, multilayered reality. Designers talk strategy but like pretty shapes and colors yet these days can't come up with anything bold and memorable. And if what they do is not memorable, then it might as well be forgotten. What hope is there for the new identity - identity that must follow the biological metaphors so fashionable in corporate jargon to adapt, mutate and evolve according to rapidly changing circumstances like a chameleon? Not much, to judge by British Airways, which tried a unity-in-diversity livery but simultaneously showed the cosmopolitan message to be hopelessly at odds with its true corporate culture. As soon as companies and their consultants are ready for it, corporate identity will become a lot more interesting. The world is ready now.



About this article
The above article is reprinted from Graphis magazine 332, with permission.

About the Author
Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a writer and journalist based in London. He writes regularly on design and architecture and was for five years the design critic for the New Statesman as well as being a contributing editor to Graphis and a contributor to other design publications in Britain and America. His recent book projects, however, have been concerned with science and its cultural context. He is the author of "The Most Beautiful Molecule: the discovery of the buckyball" (Wiley, 1995), and is presently working on books which examine the literature of science and nationalism in science.

About Graphis
For over fifty years GRAPHIS Magazine has been the authority on design and visual communication. A lavish showcase of excellent work from the world's foremost creative professionals, it is revered for its artistic presentation, exemplary production qualities, and insightful editorial content. Graphis magazine features an international collection of brilliant examples of graphic design, photography, advertising, architecture, product design, and related areas of creative endeavor.