Why corporate identity doesn't matter any more

Among the heroic types of the latter half of the last century—the computer whizzkid, the stock trader, the media mogul—should also be counted the corporate identity consultant. These were 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. Why? Here are ten reasons ...

Corporate identities are usually designed to last 10 or 15 years. Yet the mortality of companies is increasing so rapidly that this timespan now often greatly exceeds the company’s longevity. According to the current issue of Register, published by Companies House, around three per cent of companies were delisted annually in the 1960s; by the 1990s the figure had risen to 11 per cent.

In many sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, financial services and utilities, companies now seem to last only a few years between mergers. Yet identity consultants have shown no sign of adapting to this new high-speed world. Often there is not the time or inclination to tidy up a name, never mind develop a new identity. It took two years before designers finally put in place a new look for the merged Lloyds TSB. Meanwhile, the company prospered regardless.

And what of the 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. The fact that it obviously isn’t should worry identity experts.

Such companies and their consultants will tell you that it’s the brands that matter. The current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Brand.New, starts from the premise that consumers react positively to brands. This is true for segments of the population and some ‘cult’ brands, but it is no longer the truism it once was.

We may covet a pair of Nikes or an Audi, but could you care whose milk or petrol you bought and where? As the chairman of John Lewis, Stuart Hampson, argues, banal but material factors such as convenience count more.

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 high streets throughout the land 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 Thatcher wrapping a handkerchief round the tail of a model plane done up in the new British Airways livery?

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 ever faster, so do their employees. Although there is evidence from the latest Labour Force Survey that the length of time people stay with their employer has stabilized during the 1990s, the long-term trend has been for staff turnover to rise. More people work part-time. More work from home. All these people have less reason than ever to ‘identify’ with a notional employer.

Practical matters that conspire to limit the effectiveness of traditional corporate identity. Despite efforts to pursue consistency at all costs, things often fall apart away from the centre. The new identity for Federal Express has drawn admiration. The carefully drawn “FedEx” incorporates an urgent forward arrow subliminally between the E and the x—a nuance that entirely escaped the artisans hand-painting the company’s delivery vans in third-world countries.

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 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. It’s hard to do, but companies have to learn to let go.

Appearances tell us little about behaviour, and increasingly it is how companies behave—with respect to us, with respect to their suppliers, at home and abroad, and with respect to the environment—that concerns their customers. The new corporate image must find ways to communicate companies’ sense of their corporate responsibility.

Corporate identity has traditionally been about presenting a single face for what is in fact a multi-faceted organization. This worked while corporations did most of their business in domestic markets and could afford to treat foreign markets as colonies. But no longer. An anodyne lowest common denominator researched so as to offend nobody is the usual answer.

The alternative is to declare that diversity is the new consistency. British Airways tried to make cosmopolitanism part of its identity, expressing the diversity of routes and communities it serves. Interesting solution, wrong client. British Airways obviously didn’t live the touchy-feely, eclectic, multicultural ethos communicated in the designs. But another company will take this path, and it will work.

It’s a heresy to say so, but designers appear to lack the vision to respond this complex, multi-layered reality. Designers talk strategy but like pretty shapes and colours. It's one reason why corporate identity, for all their protestations, is still about logos.

With ever increasing numbers of mergers, and convergence in terms of products and prices in ever more competitive global markets, one would expect corporate identities to become more arbitrary and generic. This will ensure their longevity—since they mean nothing, they can rise to all occasions. This scenario has no use for heroic designers.

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