Media: The British flag, not waving but drowning

British Airways' decision to swap the Union Jack for folk art was innovative, but mistaken. So what makes a brand work?
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NEVER SINCE time began has a nation heard so much about branding as we have in the past two years. And so little use has come of it.

In the world of graphic devices, there's nothing stronger than the Union flag: universally recognisable, unambiguous, articulate, neat and capable of indefinite development. It would cost millions to achieve as much, but in a fit of commercially opportunistic, politically-correct and misconstrued modernism, British Airways gave it away. Yesterday, Virgin showed what it was going to do with this remarkable free gift. After a disastrous communications blunder, British Airways now has to play catch-up.

The daft Demos report about Rebranding Britain was commissioned by the Design Council under the chairmanship of John Sorrell, an individual steeped in the craft: his own business, Newell and Sorrell, was recently sold to Interbrand plc, the consultancy that gave the world the Hobnob. It was the same Newell & Sorrell who created the British Airways identity, now on its way to the plans chest of history. An earlier attempt to salvage something for the company from what has turned-out to be the most misconceived re-design in history was known as "the recovery programme". The reputation of good modern design as a restorative agent in business has taken a knocking from this melancholy, but instructive, affair.

There's an old definition of advertising and PR : "organised lying". It is true to say that British Airways excels in its promotional activity. Experienced travellers certainly take comfort in BA's professionalism and reliability, but the "world's favourite airline" is a trope that plays better in agency presentations than it does in seat 27E and it's 50 minutes into an hour and a half's flight in a troubling bit of light chop and you still can't hear the comforting clink of the drinks cart. But the bitter truth is that all airlines are the same, except that most are much, much worse than British.

Two years ago, BA had it all. A huge route network, a modern fleet united by a very strong image that contributed powerfully to positive corporate karma. The feelgood factor was tangible, the company confidence sufficiently strong to bear aloft a fully loaded 747 without recourse to jet thrust or high-lift aerodynamic devices. And then someone did something unforgivably stupid. They did some research.

They found that 60 per cent of BA's business originated outside the UK and inferred that a patriotic identity was not necessarily appropriate. Moreover, the existing graphics, which made great play on the Union Jack (the 1983 work of a San Francisco design consultancy called Landor Associates), had so many different applications that the identity was being stretched to the point of being strained.

Fair enough, but it was at this stage that Satan joined the conversation and the responsible individual at the airline was taken to the top of the mountain and told, all this can be yours. BA could become more than a mere airline, it could become a world brand.

The BA research was applied top to bottom. It suggested that with increasing deregulation and new strategic alliances, the number of ethnically British passengers would inevitably drop below 40 per cent. The argument therefore developed that, since British Airways is a global "brand", there is no good reason to have the Union flag, or a version of it, on the tailfin of the aircraft.

Sorrell's team had a brilliant perception: to express the new globalised, politically correct vigour of the airline, they needed folk art. So, from around the world they started commissioning and collecting vernacular art expressive of the hundreds of destinations served by BA's fleet.

Never mind that these colourful devices and conceits rarely fitted the trapezoid fins of Boeings, the solution was accepted. Supporters believed it was an ingenious expression of the airline as a modern business concept, which is to say a franchise. The opposing view was that a dignified and well-known identity that had accumulated genuine respect over the years by consistent application and its association with good service was now dissipated in an unco-ordinated jumble of meaningless primitivism and a token sort of globalism.

The problem was, while the Newell & Sorrell rebranding of British Airways was exciting and unconventional, at 35,000ft, most people crave reassurance with the familiar. Never in all consumer experience have there been stronger arguments for a service provider being deeply conservative and orthodox. Newell & Sorrell has given the impression that British Airways, with its taste in primitive art, is run by Stone Age nomads. In addition, ground controllers complained that they had difficulty distinguishing British Airways craft when manoeuvring around the taxiways so they got ignored and stuck at the back of the queue with the rest of the Third World.

The Union flag is a communications solution so effective that it was madness to reject it, a diagnosis confirmed by Virgin's rapid commitment to adopt it as soon as BA abandoned it. The value of the image of airlines, depends on the sense of authenticity which goes all the way back to the central proposition. It's a mixture of associations and expectations.

Landor Associates' identity for British Airways was also controversial in its day : almost the whole of the local design community wagged its felt tips threateningly at an airline which dared to go abroad for its creative direction. But from the distance of their studios on that San Francisco ferry boat, Landor Associates saw something much more clearly than those closer to home: when it comes to associations and expectations useful to an airline, the Union flag has them in spades: probity, honesty, integrity, democracy, service and honour. You don't get those with an Eskimo rug.

The recent British Airways graphic experiment was brave, professional, cleverly executed and quite wrong. The British flag has now reached a condition of timeless perfection. If, as they say, it is not broken, you need not trouble to fix it.