It’s great. But did it work?

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One of the problems of ‘˜branding’ as a day job it that it’s an imprecise science.

However many processes, diagrams and formulas we hide behind, even the projects that we hold up as ‘˜successes’ are rarely dependent on just a change of visual identity alone. For example, most would deem the Tate’s rebrand a positive change, but would it have seen that way without Herzog & de Meuron’s seminal makeover of that power station? Perhaps not.

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Away from the blue-chip’s who treat on-going tracking and awareness as givens, it gets very difficult to prove, definitively, that a designer’s part of a project was the critical element, rather than just one part of a bundle of changes. You can offer up examples and indicators, but hard, irrefutable facts are sometimes hard to come by.

I’m reminded of this by several painful and ultimately unsuccessful tender applications and Mark Sinclair’s thoughtful piece for May’s Creative Review. Whilst Sinclair’s emphasis is upon the Olympics (and rightly queries whether that is ever going to be a happy process) my thoughts have turned to more general tenders.

I’m quoted in Sinclair’s piece as not having received much feedback as to why our applications might have failed, but since giving that comment we did actually receive a longish email in return. It explained that a couple of the case studies we’d presented lacked enough provable, evidence of success.

The hard facts are sometimes there. Save the Children is big enough to employ ongoing tracking, so we now know that since our work on the UK brand, unprompted awareness has nearly doubled.

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We also know that Royal and SunAlliance’s attempts at ‘˜direct’ insurance (ie phone and web) left them floundering at 13th in the charts until the change to More Th>n at the turn of the century. This led to a huge turn in fortunes (they’re now one of the UK’s biggest).

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But our work for the BFI and the Art Fund is trickier to measure. To us, and to the client, the introduction of their new identity for the BFI has helped re-establish them as the UK’s guardian of film, coupled with the opening of their BFI Southbank site.

It’s much clearer that they run the London Film Festival and the Imax at Waterloo. But they didn’t carry out extensive awareness research pre and post re-brand – it was simply obvious to everyone that something drastic was needed, and was done. But ‘˜obvious’ is a qualitative term, not quantitative. One’s man’s obvious is another’s subtle.

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Our Art Fund project has helped stem the decline in membership and now a revitalised organisation partners regularly with the Crafts Council and Tate, and has taken over The Museum Prize from the Gulbenkian.

Their increased self-confidence, and realisation that they truly can be an art charity, in every sense, has helped them lobby publicly for ideas they believe in (like Steve McQueen’s stamps series) or raise money for works like Turner’s Blue Rigi in a matter of days. Now, how much of this can be ascribed to identity change? It’s difficult to know. Did the new brand help them change or did the internal changes hasten the visual shift?

Put that in a one-page case study and it sounds a little fluffy (whereas present it with 25 slides of applications and things are completely different).

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Both The Art Fund and BFI changed character and direction, and their brands needed to react accordingly. Significant corporate shifts often go hand in hand with identity change – Wally Olins once said, ‘˜identity is change made visible’ – and he’s right.

The vast majority of these projects, whether trackable or not, coincide with significant changes in the boardroom and market forces compelling organisations to act. In some ways discussing whether Tate’s re-brand ‘˜worked’ or not is irrelevant – the arrival of the new building forced Serota, his team and Wolff Olins to deal with the family of Tate galleries as a whole. Without the new building, Pentagram‘s unassuming typographic predecessor might easily have continued.

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But this doesn’t solve the conundrum of proof. Every year effectiveness awards are stuffed with examples that many of us react to with horror – but they have the stats to prove that their new pack, that flash on their pizza box, that revamped beer can all had the desired effect in terms of sales. It’s simple really, all things remained the same EXCEPT the packs. If the sales go up, packs win prizes, however much they offend our design sensibilities.

Sometimes this is galling for those of us cradling an inbox full of notes of thanks and appreciation, but not many hard, physical stats. Luckily there are still clients around who will look at some of these projects and make reasoned and rounded decisions, without the need for KPI’s, effectiveness charts and hard-nosed ‘˜quant’.

But maybe, just maybe, we might start persuading a few of them to research how bad things are, before we start making good. Maybe.

By Michael Johnson