Flying the flag for effective branding

Graphic identity is one of the concepts that designers juggle as part of their daily work; using them, misusing them, and sometimes creating them from scratch – although that’s not as frequent as most would like. Just about every organisation in existence has some kind of visual identity, some graphic branding that helps to distinguish one thing from another. ‘Brand’ is a big concept, but it is intrinsically tied up with some kind of visual mark. After all, branding was originally a way of putting a visible owner’s stamp on cattle, not the marketing and design mantra that we normally think of today. But today it is an intrinsic part of establishing an organisation’s credentials in the minds of others.

Logo design is a core part of this. It really came into its own during the 20th century. 19th century efforts were usually over-intricate, illustrative affairs, too wedded to the idea of story-telling and art to be effective. True, there are exceptions to these rules; the red triangle of the Bass beer logo (incidentally the first trademark ever registered) is uncommonly clear and could be far fresher than its 135 years, and Apple’s first corporate identity in 1977 was a cringe-worthy, faux-engraved illustration of Isaac Newton beneath an apple tree, with scroll and lettering providing the glacé cherry on the icing. Fortunately, the company moved on, first to the seven-colour model that ruled through the 1980s and into the ’90’s and eventually to the one-colour slash-cut model that’s used today.

Colour is important in branding and identity. Take, for example, ‘Coca-Cola red’, the colour that runs behind the iconic white script-lettered typography. Just a hint of the white curves over this particular shade of red is enough to trigger strong product associations; a truly masterful bit of branding. It is even powerful enough to have its own mythology. You know the thing about how Coca-Cola changed the colour of Santa Claus to be red and white as part of its advertising campaigns? A good story, but false. The first Christmas-themed Coke adverts appeared back in the early 1930s, but there are examples of red/white Santa dress code in magazine covers and illustrations more than two decades earlier. The Coke ads did help to cement this look, but they didn’t create it. Today, Coca-Cola Red is a phrase that defines a brand as much as a colour.

Curiously, the company doesn’t specify a Pantone colour reference for the corporate red, saying that ‘all major paint stores should have Coca-Cola Red computerised’. If you’re as frustrated as me at this corporate vagueness don’t worry; until the mid-1990s it was simply 100% Magenta and 100% Yellow, and since then it also has 10% Cyan which swings it subtly away from orange. It isn’t possible to copyright a colour as such, but when used along with the white script in conjunction with soft drinks it is certainly part of the company’s protected branding. There, rich red equals Coke.

And this is why I did such a double-take in Slovakia this May when I saw the white Coca-Cola branding, complete with graphic bubbles, on a mid-pink backdrop. I’m assuming sun-bleaching is the culprit rather than this being an official East-European variation, but this small change (just a lightness shift, really) made a big difference to the graphic identity’s impact.

Enough of corporate identities; turn your attention to countries instead. Graphic identity at the national level has been around for rather longer. I always found it rather curious that two of the most powerful examples of national graphic identity ever made are America’s Stars and Stripes and the Soviet Hammer and Sickle. The two most powerful countries of the 20th century had two of the most graphically powerful flag designs. The Russian Federation’s flag is nowhere near as dramatic or memorable, speaking purely from a graphic design point of view.

Britain’s flag is a slightly strange one. The Union Flag (not Jack, musn’t forget) is an amalgamation of a number of different crosses. As cross-breed design compromises go it is surprisingly successful; if I ever have to blend a set of different logos together as an identity redesign after a company merger I hope I manage something as effective. But it still has flaws that should have been worked out before the final design proposal. How many of you can tell if it is flying upside down? Especially when it is flapping in a breeze? No, I can’t either. A cynic might conclude that those thick and thin bits are nothing more than a printer’s registration slip that’s been formalised into tradition.

Flags are the most obvious examples, but banknotes are even more fascinating examples which are normally completely overlooked and, sometimes, changed without thought. When we had pound notes they were green (apart from the really grubby ones) but it has been quite a while since Hollywood Beyond’s song “What’s The Color of Money?” or even our own Paul Weller’s “Pretty Green” made literal sense over here. Old fivers – I’m talking old money, 1960s and before – were curiously large things with large areas of white. Or so I’m told; I’m not old enough to remember them first-hand. But whatever their colours, our current blue fivers, tan tenners, purple twenties and red fifties are still forms of a British graphic identity. I am neither a Europhile nor a Euroskeptic, and the euro is a major boon when I travel, but I do find it a little sad that so many individual national currencies have disappeared from Europe over the last ten years. Take a look at some of the banknote designs that different countries used before the switch. Without fail each one reflected aspects of that country’s culture and psyche. Holland’s guilders championed modern graphics, as befitted the home of Dutch design and typography. French francs proudly proclaimed ‘liberty, egalité’ and so on, with illustration combinations that harked back to the 18th century and also showed Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. (As one of the best-selling books ever, The Little Prince’s image was well worth using.) I don’t want to go back to multiple currencies in Europe, but it is still a shame that there’s no place for this celebration of national individualism now. I heard that Slovakia switched to the euro in January 2009; I’ll have to search out some examples of this ousted currency to add to my collection of defunct national graphic designs.

America’s banknote designs have some interesting history, although there’s myth here too. The biggest is the supposition that the unfinished pyramid and floating eye on the one-dollar bill is a secret reference to the Illuminati. In fact, these are meant to symbolise continual growth and ‘divine provenance’. The first use of the pyramid (the Great Seal) wasn’t until 1935, and the current design appeared in 1969.

I’ve read recently that new portraits are being proposed for some of the dollar denominations. I think it would be rather amazing to have Martin Luther King Jr. replace the controversial Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill (see putkingonthe20.com), but from a design stance the change I’d really like to see is to the size and shape and perhaps colour of all US notes. There’s nothing to differentiate today’s different dollar bills from each other other than the actual printed detail, just illustration detail, whose face and what number. Compared to pretty much any other country’s currency this is a quick-recognition point of failure. Of course it won’t happen; not only would it irk the traditionalists, it would make banknote-reading vending machines obsolete at a stroke. And in a country the size of the US that’s a really big deal. Sometimes there’s just too much baggage involved in a graphic identity for all its flaws to be fixed, at least in one go. But it is still important to recognise them, wherever and whatever they might be. And make sure things like the pink Coca-Cola Red don’t happen.

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