For the users of products or services, clarity is the important aspect of corporate identity, says James Woudhuysen.
I found them in an old file. There, in one place, were all the papers on my membership of six airline "frequent flyer" clubs. How many miles had I amassed? Could I carry my miles over from one year to the next? What would happen if and when Pan Am was taken over? Was there anybody I could call apart from toll-free numbers in the United States? It was impossible to say. The bumf made no sense.
Now airlines, as everyone knows, are very keen on their corporate identity - on the liveries that cover their planes and refuelling trucks, on the trays of food that they bring you, on their lounges and their check-in desks and on the way that their staff look and behave. When an airline unveils a new corporate identity the occasion tends to mark, as Alan Brew rightly observes, a fundamental turning point in strategy, structure, internal culture and external communications. He should know: his company, Landor Associates, was responsible for the identity of British Airways.
Yet more is at issue here even than fundamental turning points. As Brew notes, what now matters is whether large, often arrogant companies want to be truly transparent to their varied audiences. For as my yellowed boarding passes now attest, to be transparent is, as far as users are concerned, all that corporate identity is really about.
You would not think so from January's media furore over British Telecom's new identity. Some said that what was leaked was bad, some said that it was too costly, and others confused these things with their feelings about BT's standard of service. There were questions about the durability of the logotype over passing years - and questions, too, over whether it properly expressed BT's international ambitions. Here Tim King, of consultant Siegel and Gale (3M, Citicorp), had a special fear: BT's pipes-of-Pan motif was, for him, somehow too British. Graphically, it lacked what King calls the "world class" of IBM, Apple Computer, Ford, Sony and Shell.
As it happens, I agree with the need to debate these points. In particular, the international projection of nationally headquartered firms' corporate identity is a vexed issue: Siegel and Gale's new survey of 50 leading Hungarian companies, for example, found that if all of them believed that a company's image was important to building sales, most would also rather do business with Germany's sharply etched Volkswagen than with fuzzy French concerns. At Wolff Olins, creator of the BT look, chairman Wally Olins (Bovis, Prudential) is equally convinced that even long-standing identity specialists still have lots to learn about how to make users - and employees - feel that they "belong" to, say, Mobil in Malawi.
All that is fair enough. But from where I stand it is the wider issue of transparency which really counts. We can, for instance, endlessly discuss the need to maintain and reinforce brands, now that the service promise bound up with them has become so important. We can also talk about identity as a preface to acquisition, diversification and the hiring of high-value recruits (1980s themes), or as a signal of social responsibility and reliability in a crisis (1990s stuff).
But my Mum, a reasonable representative of that vital retiree market that we all hear about, cares little for brands: she worries about her tax form being opaque. And my employer, Fitch (Groupe Bull, Southern Electric), lost more sleep over whether the colours in our new letterhead would allow it to make any sense coming off a client's monochrome fax machine than it ever did about the evocation of caring values.
Recent research by McGill University's Henry Mintzberg and the London Business School's Angela Dumas has shown that a lot of people in any large company are active in design, even if they do not know it. Therefore the problem for us is not necessarily to get clients to install a new identity but rather to find out which "corporate communications" are unintelligible, and then to ask - in today's cost-conscious times - whether it is worth putting them out at all. In short: identity may be more a province of information design than the other way round.
If your frequent flyer brochures would outwit a genius, fix them ... and worry about the logo that you put on your tailfins at a later date.
(James Woudhuysen is managing director of the Exploratory Design Laboratory at Fitch-RS.)