corporate identity

Why colour is so important for brand and corporate identities.

Of all the elements of an identity, logo, symbols, typography, colour etc., it is colour which has perhaps the most fundamental impact.

One of the principle functions of an identity is to unite people of a common purpose. It creates a coherent banner for people within an organisation to gather. It identifies the entity to others and distinguishes it. It may separate or recruit.

The reason colour performs such a powerful role is that it is so deeply, culturally embedded in human society.

In a primitive society, our basic unit was the family – this perhaps extended to the clan or tribe.  When meeting a strange individual it was vital to know if they were a member of your tribe – it could be a matter of life or death.

As groups became bigger – from coalitions of tribes up to the first stirrings of nations – recognition of identity became increasingly vital.

The first manifestations involved security, combat and military recognition. You wanted your comrades to know who they were fighting, to express to your enemies and friends who you were before decisions on conflict were made.

Changing_of_the_Guard,_Buckingham_PalaceLong before literacy had spread, colour was a simple indicator – warpaint, bands of coloured material, even coloured plants or flowers, all became group symbols.  As societies became more complex it was till colour that was a primary differentiator. Coloured flags and primitive uniforms were adopted and developed throughout military organisations as demonstrations of national and group identity.

We had ‘redcoats’, the ‘blue and grey’; these terms still pervade our language to identify organisations, the ‘boys in blue’, ‘red devils’, the ‘red army’, ‘green party’, etc.

Sports teams were quick to adopt ‘team colours’ as were street gangs.

Colour is so engrained in our cultural narrative that it’s hardly surprising that it’s so powerful a component of commercial, organisational and brand identities. If I mention a major brand, it is fairly certain that you will be able to visualise its corporate colours even if you may have to think hard about its logo or symbol – Coca Cola, Virgin, Caterpillar, McDonalds, Pepsi, Starbucks, Facebook etc.

Once we understand the vital role colour plays, that is almost hard-wired into our societies, then we can appreciate the importance of brand and corporate colours, and why we change and tamper with that element at our peril.


Brand quirks are good for you.

A brand quirk is a feature or attribute that does nothing to enhance the performance of the product or service, but provides a unique point of differentiation.

QQIn areas where the delivery may be considered a commodity, differentiation is at a premium. This is where the value or a ‘quirk’ may be really telling  – it ups the ‘Quirk Quotient’.

Some of the most notable examples appear in the confectionery or countline sectors. There are very few real differentiators between chocolate bars, few notable differences you can make. The most we can manipulate are marginal variations around a few popular themes.

Consider the shape of the ‘Toblerone’ bar. It has no effect on the taste of the product, provides no enhancement in itself – but it is a quirk or huge value in brand identity and differentiation.

The round Smarties tube is another quirk. It provides no tangible benefit. In fact, I heard a well-reasoned argument from a packaging specialist that a rectangular tube makes far more sense, providing better space occupancy in transit. I understand it was even tried once, but for the public, the round tube is part of the Smartie offer.

The hole in a Polo mint or a Lifesaver has no flavour enhancing property – it is a quirk – but of inestimable brand value.

Quirks are as important as brand assets as are brand names, logos, colour schemes and all the other identity collateral.

Though we understand their value, quirks are among the most difficult things to create successfully. They are often serendipitous, springing from creative irrelevancies and often coming from unlikely quarters within the organisation.

Consciously creating a valuable quirk is as difficult as creating a video that is ‘guaranteed’ to go viral.

If you have a brand that is clearly differentiated in terms of the benefits it delivers, you should concentrate on communicating them. If not, a quirk may help. There is no handbook to creating a killer quirk, but I suspect that the necessary conditions include an organisation that loves and believes in its product or service, that creates a truly innovative environment and has people with a sense of fun and playfulness.

If you want to understand emotional attachment with brand identity, look at the regiment.

For most of us, the emotional power of a brand identity is crucial – for the armed forces it is a matter of life and death.

I was watching the Trooping of the Colour recently, and was struck by how army regiments display the ultimate object lesson in brand identity. At its most basic level, a brand or corporate identity unites people of a common purpose and a common set of values. The simplest manifestation of this are the colours, the flag or standard. Recognition on the battlefield was vital to even the earliest warlords, so they displayed their distinctive colours to their tribe or army.

Going a step further, it made a lot of sense to be able to recognise your comrades: consistent identity across uniforms was a sensible consideration. Soon all the trappings of identity symbols, badges, colours, tunes – found their way into military life.

Telling the story.

Identity is about far more than recognition, however, as any brand manager will tell you. It is about communications and values. Every regiment develops its own set of values. These are of necessity militaristic – courage, efficiency, fierceness, mutual support, etc. – values that are critical to the performance of the regiment. They also bolster the sense of common purpose, pride and loyalty. It is about emotional attachment.

As with all brands, external communication is also key. Items of uniform, music and colours were often as much about demonstrating to the enemy that you were bigger, stronger, smarter or more fierce than they were. More, it is not just the enemy, but a regiment wants to express its values to its competitors – other regiments. Again, we are building and eliciting an emotional response.

Take a look around any regimental mess – you will see colours with battle honours, regimental silver and trophies. Walls carry pictures of past events, letters from important personages and paintings of previous colonels and heroes. Medals sit in glass cases and obsolete weapons hang in memory of times past. There are rituals and procedures unique to the members. What the sum of these items represent is a story, and on-going narrative.

What can we learn to enhance our brand in civvy street?

  • Make sure your own people are on board – communicate with them, give them a sense of purpose and belonging. They are your brand ambassadors.
  • Get your values right  – the trappings of identity are only as good as the values they stand for.
  • Don’t undervalue your story – the brand narrative continues, for you, your people and those you wish to influence.

Will visual networking mean a return to strong visual branding?

All the hype at the moment seems to be about visual networking. Pinterest, Tumblr and others seem to be the current hot properties. The attraction is clear: brand owners can quickly throw images of their brand assets and products onto the web and in front of their communities and networks. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words may be open to discussion, but from a content producer’s viewpoint, it is certainly faster and less resource consuming.

This new emphasis on the visual may have some important implications for brands. Brand communication may turn back to considering the visual assets. Brand identities, logos, colour schemes and corporate signatures may become important once again.

I was fortunate to cut my branding teeth in the heady days of corporate and brand identity design. Consultancies such as Wolff Olins and Landor were the idols we held in high esteem. Graphic designers who could make powerful and unequivocal visual statements were the gurus of the time. We may well be looking towards a renaissance.

Pinterest for example, is addictive. For anyone who is visually inclined (I plead guilty) it is a fascinating medium. But it does not take long to appreciate the critical importance of being visually distinctive. It is great for brand owners to ‘Pin’ images of their products and other collateral, but without clear visual differentiation they are pulling some critical punches.

In the semiotics of branding I have long argued for the importance of ensuring that the signified delivers, but that does not mean ignoring the signifier.

If w. look back to the earliest history of brands, they pre-date the universality of written language. The first brand differentiators were visual marks made by craftsmen and artisans, most of whom had no writing skills. It seems paradoxical that as we move into increasingly sophisticated technological times, we may have to revisit the days of powerful, simple marks and devices.


To understand how brands perform we must better understand people.

In 1959, Erving Goffman published his influential book, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”. I have long been an advocate of the ‘Brand as Person’ model as a way for us to understand brand interactions in a social context, and Goffman’s perceptive and challenging work can help us apply some deeper insights and underline the importance of brand leadership within organisations.

As social animals, we all perform in ways that will enhance the desired response from others, both consciously and subconsciously. If we go into a meeting, the way we dress, act, speak and move is a presentation of the ‘self’ we want others to perceive. This is not to be critical; it is not (usually) a conscious act, it is part of a learned process of how we are expected to behave to convey complex social messages. But as social animals, we have also learned how to read and interpret such performances and see beyond the overt presentation – though even this interpretation we may not do at a fully conscious level. Goffman gives an example of a Shetland housewife, preparing a distinctive local dish for a tourist guest. She asks if he likes it to which he smiles and says he does – it is how respond if we wish to be seen as polite, adventurous and culturally sensitive. But covertly, she probably observes the speed with which he eats and the gaps between forkfuls to determine his real feelings. Nobody is being duplicitous – we are all always performers.

Like all performers we also use props and costumes to help convey the ‘reality’ of our characters – clothes, cars, houses, even food and drink.

The same performances we can see of brands: brands wish to be presented in certain ways – a brand may want to be seen as a caring brand, an efficient brand, a green brand or a powerful brand. And just as we may want our employer to see the our diligent but ambitious persona, our family to see the caring, loving self, and our friends to see the fun-loving one,  so brands try to convey different characters to their various audiences.  But again, like our Shetland housewife, our audiences have become very adept at interpreting both the overt and covert signals a brand puts out.

As we noted above, this creates issues for brand leadership within organisations. For example, I did some work with a financial institution, the senior executives of which were very clear that they were a customer-focused organisation. It was the personality the organisation wanted to present above all others. But when I did some analysis within the organisation – especially with the customer-facing staff, a very different personality appeared. On the one hand they had the corporate mantra, but they also had internal structures that conflicted. There were incentive structures in place that militated against being too understanding to customers. Discourse analysis revealed that to be part of the internal tribe or secret society, they had to share a very critical view of customers – they were the ‘in-group’ and customers were the ‘out-group’. The failing was one of brand leadership, not understanding the dynamics within the organisation which were at odds with the corporate desired brand persona.

How geographically contextual are brands?

When I work with companies on their business offer to international markets, I ask them to consider how important Englishness, or Britishness is as a differentiator for their brand in target markets. The same I am sure is asked by my counterparts all over the world. But recent events have brought this to the forefront of my mind once more. Firstly there was the announcement that the very English Twinings Tea packing plant in North Shields is to close and a portion of the business will move to China and a New facility in Poland. The second was the news that Cadbury is to be taken over by US food giant, Kraft. Does it matter?

Perhaps for differing brands it matters to greater or lesser extents, but I think it is important to look at the geographic context in two dimensions.

Culturally defining

Some brands’ values are important in defining the nation and the people from whence they originate. Twinings tea and Burberry coats etc. help define Britain. As Volvo and Ikea define Sweden.

Culturally defined

By this I mean brands that are intrinsically tied up with the culture of their nations – by the characteristics we associate with their people – German engineering, Italian fashion etc.

There is no simple dichotomy of course: far from it. It is often the major brands that help define the culture that we then attribute to other brands.

In an increasingly global culture brand origins, place of manufacture and ownership are increasingly confused. We see the iconic British ‘Mini’ brand now under German ownership, manufactured in the UK and benefitting from the Issiagonis heritage and German build standards. Does it matter that Knightsbridge store Harrods is owned by an Egyptian? Hmmm… well…..

Santander paints the town red

I was looking to write a post on the Santander re-branding, and came across this post in Jonathan Gabay’s excellent blog – ‘Santander brand turns UK high street red’.

My interest in this is how the arena acts as a system. This is 80% a brand communications exercise and poses some very interesting questions, firstly for the UK consumer who will be building their own narrative about the brand values of what is still a new player to them. Existing customers of Abbey and the others will carry forward some brand value perceptions. In the high street, three small brands have been replaced with one large one, which could lead to more ‘room’ for new entrants. And the one big brand will be taking a bigger share of voice from the major players.

Branding in a digital world

For somebody who works most of the time on digital brands, it is still easy to overlook how pervasive is the influence of the internet culture.

Yesterday I had a meeting with client who is starting on a new business venture and he informed me he has started working on brand names: so what was his starting point? The domain name – he began by pumping possible names into a domain name search page.

Now, while the URL is a vital part of the brand identity, especially for a business based upon the web, it is not the only determinant. I would strongly recommend developing the right name first – bearing in mind all the communications criteria – brand values, cultural sensitivities, language limitations and competitive positioning etc. across all media – then look at domain name implications. Remember the domain name does not HAVE to be the same as the brand name – in fact, for many key brands, their websites have URLs that reflect and compliment the brand name.