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By their tailfins shall we know them?

Inside business: BA's designers turned 'no brand' into a brand in itself
Two Things afflict corporate identities as they mature: failing consistency of appearance and, if the original work was successful, a growing number of imitators. When it unveiled its new identity last week, British Airways solved both problems at a stroke. Its strategy is to use designs created by dozens of artists and craftspeople from around the world for the tails of its fleet of 300 aircraft, as well as passenger printed material such as ticket wallets and luggage tags.

The character and variety of selected artwork, rather than a single symbol and fixed colours, becomes the distinguishing feature. Diversity is the new consistency.

"We were looking for a degree of difficulty to make it hard or impossible to copy," says John Sorrell of Newell and Sorrell, the design consultants responsible for the new identity. "British Airways can own and evolve this idea for a very long time if it's done with integrity."

The launch has been accompanied by the usual tabloid furore about the cost of the new look, rumoured to be upwards of pounds 60m. But because aspects of the new style have been known for some time, it has been possible to prepare many aircraft for the makeover during routine maintenance. The designers claim to have saved pounds 2m in this way.

Newell and Sorrell also took precautionary measures to reduce negative publicity both within British Airways and among people generally. Key staff attended secret briefings and, as the launch drew near, most employees had been shown the new look. In an unusual move in the week before the launch, leading design gurus were summoned to a briefing so that they would have the full story if asked to comment by journalists.

Art on aircraft is not new. Airport aprons these days are littered with planes decorated for special promotions. But it has rarely been used as a theme for an everyday corporate identity. The most notable example is probably the Iberia carrier, Viva Air, which uses graphics by the Spanish artist, Joan Mir.

The departure here is to use a range of artists. The result is that British Airways is seen in an attractive new light, as a billboard for cultural expression of local communities around the globe. Its Britishness is less obvious than before, restricted to the name and the restyled "speedwing" motif.

The novel strategy presents new management challenges. By the year 2000, there will be 50 designs with additions from time to time. Since there must be some consistency in order to function as an identity - images chosen to date are generally brightly coloured and in bold abstract patterns - the success of the programme will depend on the continuity of taste among those responsible for commissioning the artists. There will undoubtedly be local pressures to use particular artists for small projects which risks undermining the overall strategy.

Authenticity is also crucial. This is understood now - each plane tail even carries its artist's signature. But there is a danger that marketing managers several years down the road will want to take short cuts (just as Viva Air's recent advertising uses illustrations that are a poor imitation of Miro's style and no longer the real thing).

To work as an identity, people must now learn to associate British Airways with this complex appearance rather than a single brand symbol. But Sorrell is confident. These days, he says, "recognition is less important than diversity and being liked".

The diversity is set to extend to other aspects of the company's service. Training programmes are underway to encourage British Airways staff to express more of their own personalities in their dealings with customers. The designers hope that the same principle will in time extend to flight attendants' uniforms and in-flight meals.

It is all very different from 1984, when British Airways went to San Francisco-based identity consultants, Landor Associates, an airline livery specialist. Its concern at that time was to appear British in a way that American customers would appreciate rather than authentically British to domestic flyers. The decision raised a storm of protest among snubbed local designers and led to a heritage-themed identity focused on part of the Union flag and fake crest.

In a sense, that identity was rendered obsolete upon privatisation in 1987. But it persisted despite shortcomings identified as early as 1992, maintaining the appearance of British Airways as a traditional "national carrier" long after it had become something else.

This time around, British Airways was determined not to relive the controversy and looked to local expertise. In 1995, it made the surprising choice of Newell & Sorrell, a design company with a good record in corporate identity (clients include Royal Mail and WH Smith) but no completed projects for airlines. "It was the only one of four groups we saw that really understood what we wanted," says Bob Ayling, chief executive of British Airways.

What the company wanted was an identity that would prepare it for its next transformation into an "undisputed leader in world travel". Ayling explains: "Our challenge is, how do we relate to the rest of the world if over half our customers come from outside Britain. How do you represent the best of Britishness and be part of the wider world?"

A further objective was to reverse impressions that the airline had become uncaring during its successful first decade, an impression that was ironically reinforced on the day of the launch by the threat of strike action by 8,000 of the airline's 55,000 staff.

British Airways has done well across the Atlantic by communicating its Britishness. To Asian destinations, however, this is felt to be a hindrance. The use of artwork created in a variety of communities worldwide is an attempt to adapt and appear more caring in a global context. It is not cultural imperialism - only a quarter of the artists signed so far are British. Nor is it destination marketing as planes will not generally be routed to the places that their tail designs suggest, and in any case it is not always easy to identify the place or origin of the artworks.

The principal exception is Concorde, which has continued value as a national symbol. For its tail, specialists at Chatham naval dockyard have created a special variation on the Union flag.