Quiet sign of the times

Marketing: the key to a bright future could be to tone down a garish co rporate identity
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The Independent Online
Companies and their brands traditionally compete by shouting their wares loudly from the nearest rooftop. The result is a visual clutter of garish and banal shop-fronts on our high streets, and petrol-station and superstore signs on our highways.

Up and down the land, a garish uniformity is the result.

Sue Clifford of Common Ground, a charity that lobbies for authenticity in the environment, complains: "What they have done is really shout at us, as if there's no other way of persuading us or seducing us. But human beings are able to pick out extraordinary detail."

Even if company bosses recognise the argument, changing things is another matter, according to corporate identity consultant Wally Olins of Wolff Olins. "Many organisations understand at the highest level about visual pollution in principle," he says. "But the operational requirements are in the hands of middle managers, who are very macho about it."

There are tentative signs that companies are beginning to appreciate this subtle truth. Retailers have always been capable of fitting into the localities which they serve, but they generally do so only when morally or legally obliged. Boots shop frontages are adapted to the proportions of their buildings when these are deemed to be of architectural note, but seldom otherwise. Only with the greatest reluctance did McDonalds sacrifice its trademark red and yellow for the privilege of an outlet in Hampstead.

Now, some high-street names are choosing to make their presence felt more quietly. Recent corporate identity revamps for Waterstone's bookstores and National Westminster Bank illustrate the trend.

The Waterstone's redesign is the work of corporate identity consultants Newell and Sorrell and architect Peter Leonard and Company. The company's 90 bookstores are run largely autonomously. "There is rarely a very strong central directive. We were in thehands of individual managers," says John Simmons of Newell and Sorrell. The result of the project could be stores that respond more to local circumstances than to corporate diktat.

"Waterstone's are about culture and learning, but they weren't using the information contained in their own architecture sections," says Mr Leonard. "We felt that it was inappropriate to slap the same Victorian facade on all the shops. Their estate straddles everything from Tudorbethan in Stratford to Sixties Modernism in Notting Hill Gate. We suggested that all exterior treatment should take its cue from the architecture."

The Notting Hill Gate store unveiled last month is the pilot. The company is monitoring customer traffic through the store. The varied approach is clearly more costly than applying the same frontages willy-nilly nationwide, so Waterstone's will be hopingits sensitivity to the local environment will be reflected at the tills. Assuming the results are positive, the new look will appear in six more stores from Derby to Southampton by the summer.

Common elements required for customer recognition must be balanced with elements drawn from the local context. The logo and type-style of shop-fronts will be constant, but the backboards upon which the lettering appears are variable. Additional features - a mural in the Modernist style at Notting Hill Gate - will complement exteriors.

National Westminster Bank had no such altruistic objective. Nevertheless, the result of the redesign by Wolff Olins and Design House is a distinct improvement, with matt black, stainless steel, and halogen lighting in place of the plastic facias and fluorescent strips of old, and abolishing the brown-and-orange Servicetill cash machine signs in the process.

Tim May of Design House says: "It is extraordinary how much brand owners in all sectors rely on the colours and seem to prefer noisy ones. NatWest believed that because black and white were their colours they didn't have colours of any value."

The bank has clearly been persuaded otherwise. Now Olins is struggling to persuade other clients, which range from BT to petrol companies, to tone it down. Smaller signs are a possibility. Another is to change the corporate palette. In place of the unvarying use of two or three colours, for example, Olins forecasts companies might draw two or three for a given context from a corporate palette of six or so.

Olins expects it will be at least three years before the new discretion becomes fashionable. "I haven't the slightest doubt that it will happen," he says. "But nobody wants to be the first to do it."

Any improvement would bring environmental benefits. It might also boost business. "Places become less interesting as they become more uniform. People gravitate to places that have meaning." And people, of course, are shoppers.