Occasionally, someone designs something that is so ground-breaking, so leftfield, so far ahead of it’s time, that it is misunderstood, ridiculed or even discarded before it’s given a chance to shine. This is true in every creative discipline; in architecture, fashion, art, product design, the performing arts, music, car design, hair styling, cake decorating… and it’s true in branding.
Twenty years ago when British Airways made the undoubtedly audacious decision to move away from their quintessentially British tailfins to a series of striking, but seemingly unconnected ethnic patterns, reactions were polarised. In what was to become one of the most divisive and controversial rebrands of modern times, BA eventually bowed to pressure, turned tail on it’s unique World Image, and undertook an embarrassing and costly climb-down. But was it simply a case of an iconic piece of branding that was well ahead of it’s time, or was it a taste of the ‘connected’ world to come, one where ill-informed opinions can spread like wildfire and derail a great piece of design? Would BA’s vision of Utopia fly today?
In 1997 I was a young(ish) designer working in a small London studio. Most of our work came from a single client, a big international tech company, for whom we designed ads, brochures, point-of-sale and exhibition materials. We had a six-inch-thick ring-bound Corporate Identity Manual which gave all the information we needed to deliver everything in a pre-defined and consistent way. On an A4 brochure the logo had to appear 14mm from the left edge, 18mm from the top and to a width of exactly 36mm. Maybe it still does. When I first saw Newell and Sorrell’s bold, expressive and multifarious designs for our national carrier it was a real lightbulb moment. Here was a corporate identity with less emphasis on the ‘corporate’ and more on the ‘identity’. It flexed and morphed and represented Britain as a creative force on the global stage. It felt liberating and empowering. We were proud to be a part of the same British design community and we saluted the vision of both the agency and client. As it transpired, we were in the minority.
The new graphic identity that BA adopted was conceived to give them a more international, cosmopolitan look (perfectly understandable given a global customer base) and was seen as a break from the copycat model of the airline industry. It was British Airways reaching out to travellers in each of the dozens of countries that they served. “To be global is to be sensitive,” one BA executive remarked. “It’s a new thinking; a new behaviour.” Fifty designs from artists around the world were emblazoned on a fleet of over 300 planes, ground vehicles, luggage tags and ticket envelopes. They had themes like Delftblue Daybreak (a representation of Dutch pottery design), Ndebele Martha (geometric South African patterns) and Whale Rider (an interpretation of Canadian wood carving in the whaling tradition).
But as planes were painted and the £60m identity rolled out across the fleet, there was a growing rumble of discontent, whipped up by the conservative media and aimed squarely at traditional, Union Jack waving middle-England. Evidently BA, in expressing it’s global vision, had alienated it’s most important customers. You can only imagine the ensuing storm if social media had been around at the time. When CEO, Bob Ayling said “Perhaps we need to lose some of our old-fashioned Britishness and take on board some of the new British traits,” he only served to stoke the controversy. In a highly public event, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher covered a model of one of the new designs with a handkerchief, declaring: “We fly the British flag, not these awful things.” And so the first death knell was sounded. Within four years replacement chief executive Rod Eddington had returned the fleet to a monolithic Union flag design that, he said, ‘reflected Britishness in a more modern and less formal way.’ It was, of course, a retrogressive move, blandly uniform and overtly nationalistic. For those of us in the design industry it was a sad day. The BBC even ran an obituary.
But twenty years on, what lessons can we in branding take from the BA fiasco? Have things really changed?
Brands need to evolve and move with the times. We should be appraising our brands periodically; looking for ways to refresh them and giving them relevance to new audiences. Even so-called heritage brands like Coca Cola and Levi Strauss, that pride themselves on the legacy of their name and deep-rooted nostalgic associations, successfully freshen their look over time to appeal to new generations.
The challenge today (as it was with BA) is not about whether or not to rebrand – the timing of that usually becomes apparent – it’s more around how best to communicate the benefits a new identity and then launch it successfully. Relaunching a brand shouldn’t be an exercise in crisis management, it should be a proud and confident ta-dah!
You only have to look at some recent high profile examples to see the considerable challenge that we face. From Airbnb to Uber, The Metropolitan Museum to The Premier League, each branding project (regardless of it’s apparent merits) is met with a knee-jerk reaction; a cacophony of derision and parody, spawned on social media, and perpetuated by bandwagon-jumping journalists. Commenting on Wolff Olins’ much derided designs for New York’s Metropolitan Museum (now officially The Met), Margaret Rhodes (wired.com) concludes that “the true value of a new graphic identity only becomes apparent over time.” How true.
Our role as designers and innovators is to shake things up, to challenge the norm and to strive for novelty. In general people don’t like change. If BA had been able to ride the storm with it’s World Image, taken steps to address issues around national pride and fully embraced the democratised design approach that they had embarked upon, I’m certain that they would have continued to deliver a rich and rewarding experience to travellers for many years.
So we designers must continue to take risks; to be bold, confident and visionary. We must present our visions of the future eloquently and with conviction. And we must hope that our designs are just given that time to fly.