“The Man” Needs a Facelift

Institutions are made to be toppled. From governments to fast fashion brands, the more “establishment” you are perceived, the more untenable your position in a cultural climate in which two-thirds of the world have less than 50% trust in “the system.”

If you’re a part of “the system,” or a large organization that has been in business for decades, what does that mean for you?

55% of the general population say that individuals are more believable than institutions. Most people would rather ask their neighbor to tell them what exactly is happening with this Russia thing than read about it in the New York Times. They’d rather drink activated charcoal margaritas than go to the doctor.

Rather than adopt millennial parlance, consider your visual identity. Now more than ever, your constituents expect accountability, responsiveness, and humanity from the institutions that they interact with.

For most large organizations with a complicated history, it is impossible – and to be honest very boring – to reveal their process. This might be the result of decades of stultified communication strategy. It might be the byproduct of a series of mergers that have left your organization bloated and directionless. It might be the natural result of the bureaucracy that you’ve accumulated over time. Or your want to keep your machinations secret. But that’s another topic for discussion.

The most effective way to show your constituents exactly what you do and how you do it is through design. This starts with taking a 10,000-foot view of your organization. What does it look like from above? Is it a Russian nesting doll? A mutating virus?

It’s a family. And not a family in the bullshit way that large organizations refer to themselves to confuse their employees. There are three basic kinds of brand families: branded house, house of brands, and hybrid.

Branding and Visual Identity Architecture: Brand Family, House of Brands, and Hybrid

SC Johnson is a recognizable house of brands. It takes a backseat to its sub-companies’ brand identities. And it generally exists as a lower mark or a tag or a button. Presented in this way, SC Johnson can buy as many brands as it wants, and as long as they stick that “SC Johnson, A Family Company” at the end of their ads, we’ll understand that our empowering women’s deodorant is related to our dog’s shampoo. And even if we don’t – the connection stands. It’s comforting and it’s safe.

Increasingly, large organizations are moving to the branded house model. Think Google. That’s a branded house in its most simplified form. The primary brand is what you’re buying; its service arms get the Google stamp of approval. They’re positioned as a platform for the democratic dissemination of information. Their clarity renders them accessible. And because of this they can act as shadily as they want. At this time, Google generally earns more trust than Unilever. That starts with their clearly designed brand family.

Branding and Visual Identity Architecture: Fedex Logo Update

Federal Express hired Landor in 1994 to redesign their mark, with an overall charge to ensure that the Federal Express truck five blocks away was visible and recognizable. Landor pushed the words together, and FedEx was born. The redesign mark is clean typographically and uses color effectively to maintain legibility from a distance. You will always recognize FedEx. But you may not have noticed the FedEx brand family.

Branding and Visual Identity Architecture: Fedex Brand Family

This is a branded house, using the basic FedEx mark paired with a direct service arm reference in the subscript. As in: Under the logo, they write the name of the department using no buzzwords. Nothing twee or obscure. In this way, FedEx’s brand architecture is laid bare. As consumers, we can see how broad the organization is. We can read exactly what they do. This is transparent. The result is trust and efficiency rendered through design.

But uncovering how FedEx handles the acquisition of new companies is a clear demonstration of their brand architecture’s flexibility and focus.

Branding and Visual Identity Architecture: Fedex buys Kinkos

Remember Kinko’s? FedEx bought this company in 2004. Rather than subsume it into their existing brand architecture immediately, FedEx leveraged Kinko’s brand equity and included it in a new mark that combined FedEx with Kinko’s. But notice the subtle shift here. Kinko’s is treated with new typography consistent with FedEx. They’re not just jamming two logos together. They’re also including a descriptor line in the subscript, showing you exactly what this new organization does. And they finish it off with an asterisk. This asterisk combines FedEx’s family of colors into one symbol, showing the confluence between this property and their existing sub-companies. It calls attention to this change. It does not hide the transition at work here.

Design speaks clearly. After four years, they shifted to a transitional mark that showed exactly what was happening. Instead of referring to Kinko’s as such, they referred to it as FedEx Kinko’s in the subscript, cluing you to their ownership of the brand. Today, Kinko’s has been dropped completely from the mark. We recognize FedEx Office as its own brand. This is a business acquisition that was clearly telegraphed using smart, simple design.

Don’t overthink it.

Louisville Public Media engaged us to redesign their brand family with an eye toward cohesion and legibility in an effort to prepare their terrestrial radio organization for a digital age. After going through several concepts with their leadership, we realized that we didn’t need to burn the whole house down. We just needed to simplify what they already had. In this way, Louisville Public Media can build on existing brand equity with their loyal listeners.

Branding and Visual Identity Architecture: Louisville Public Media Brand Family

The new branded house clearly telegraphs the interrelationship between properties through design and cohesive language. In this way, a larger exchange among their properties is possible. Fans of one station will become fans of another. And, as they grow, Louisville Public Media will have a flexible branding system to ensure each acquisition or innovation is received with open arms by their public.

Your visual identity’s architecture translates the character of your organization. If your identity is a mess, with flailing off-brand sub-companies hanging off like so many alien appendages, your constituents will naturally assume that you are a mess. You’re old. You’re bloated. Worse – You are poorly managed and headed for the junkyard.

The good news is that out of the major institutions (government, media, and NGOs included), business has experienced the slimmest downturn in trust. People are more likely to believe what a CEO says than a politician. The bad news is that this is a unstable position. Edelman’s executive summary puts it this way: “No longer is it effective for organizations to operate autonomously, using a traditional top-down approach.” The first step to including your consumers in your business’s exchange is to simplify and clarify your identity design.

Deliver your purpose by showing people how you work, not telling them. Design matters. And being establishment doesn’t have to be a bad thing. After all, you provide a strong foundation.