Firms spend a fortune to make their faces fit

Changing images, changing times: BBC justifies re-working its logo as Castlemaine gives a XXXX for a brand new look
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It is not exactly a major alteration. The BBC yesterday confirmed that it is looking at ways to make its corporate logo "easier and cheaper to use". The favoured option would make the three letters "BBC" appear on square rather than sloping backgrounds. Oh, and the design gurus may take away the coloured lines beneath.

It is not John Birt's most radical initiative to date. Yet these discreet adjustments could cost between pounds 5 and 15 million of licence-payers' money.

Repackaging corporate imagery has never been cheap or uncontentious. Ever since the unpopular nuclear power station at Windscale changed its name to Sellafield in the Seventies, there has been something disquieting about the process.

And it proceeds apace. The Marriage Guidance Council was transmuted into Relate. Saatchi & Saatchi became Cordiant. The National Council for Civil Liberties became Liberty. Ratners became Signet. The Spastics Society became Scope. Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC. And the finger-lickin' public sector unions Nalgo, Nupe and Cohse became Unison.

Corporate identity is the name of the game. That is what turned Pepsi blue (at a cost of $500 million, including that of painting an Air France Concorde that colour). It even changed the typeface of Tony Blair's party from the round, elegant, old-fashioned, curlicued Goudy extra bold of old Labour to the solid, neat, clean, unsentimental, no-nonsense Helvetica font of New Labour.

Privatisation has been one of the chief culprits. British Rail's InterCity introduced a swallow logo, repainted trains and summoned up dapper new uniforms as part of its more consumer-friendly image.

Suddenly the British Airports Authority had to be made sexy. And British Gas, at a cost of more than pounds 2m, abandoned its "old-fashioned flame" for a "more modern one with a little ball underneath it", as a spokesman put it yesterday.

Just pounds 2 million was cheap. British Telecom spent pounds 50 million in 1991 as part of its transmutation from a boring old nationalised industry into the dynamic international communications giant, BT

"It is often hard to measure the success of all this," says Paul Buckley, an applied business psychologist at the Bristol Business School. "When you brand products you have sales to monitor the success of the repackaging. But when you are dealing with corporate image it's more slippery."

Compare, for example, the success of repackaging Sellotape's unglamorous, strong, grey waterproof fabric tape imported from America - since it was renamed Elephant Tape sales have rocketed - with the staggering pounds 171m BP spent on its international corporate redesign after buying the Gulf and Mobil petrol station chains.

Was the latter worth it? "It's very difficult to isolate factors," says Dave Nicholas of BP, "but we were very pleased with the result ... When someone is approaching a petrol station at speed, colours, design and image are crucial."

Doubtless the insurance giant Guardian Royal Exchange would say something similar. Their image consultants presented a bill for pounds 250,000 for recommending: Drop the last two words of your name. "I could have thought that up over a pint in the pub," lamented one employee after the firm made 270 colleagues redundant.

But we mock at our peril, warns Mary Spillane, head of the Color Me Beautiful image consultancy, who has advised, inter alia, the former US president, Jimmy Carter, the LibDem leader Paddy Ashdown, and the privatised London Tilbury and Southend railway.

"These things are very subtle but very powerful," she says. "As an organisation [the BBC] has been moving and developing. Now it is time to represent itself."

The psychologist Paul Buckley half agrees, pointing out that digital and Internet technology mean that the BBC will need a simpler, bolder logo which will resolve more swiftly on TV monitors' screens. "The present italics would produce 'jaggies' [jagged edges to the diagonal on-screen lines]," he said.