New torch, new Tories?

The Conservatives' excitement with their new logo may be misplaced. Simon Nicolas reports

The Conservative Party has revamped its logo in time for conference: the flamed torch now includes a strong forearm holding it aloft.

The change has not met with universal approval. To some, the new design is more reminiscent of the Stalinist era of workers' freedom than a modern, democratic political party. New Labour borrowed much of the Conservatives' language to become electable, so perhaps it is should not be such a surprise that the Conservatives should choose imagery that one might associate with old Labour. But with the Conservatives struggling to unite behind Michael Howard, is now really the time to tweak a logo?

The Conservative party co-chairman Liam Fox obviously thinks so. He says: "When we looked at the issue of brands, we were reassured to find that people's reactions to the party's existing torch were positive. So the new design retains the torch, but includes some modest changes which signify clarity, strength and unity."

Yet can a logo design reinvigorate a brand or political party so easily? Shaun McIlrath, the creative director of the advertising agency Heresy, thinks not. He says: "A ship does not go faster if you repaint it. And an image change for a company or political party can only be truly effective if it is immediately supported by actions - in both culture and policy - that reflect that new image. The consumer or electorate, in this instance, needs to identify and experience the changes, not just see a new colour scheme. A redesign may be an indication of change but the proof is in the delivery."

A change in logo design could therefore be an indication that a shift in policy may be afoot. Mr Fox says: "Our aim at Bournemouth this year is to do two things: to set out clearly to people what a Conservative government will do... and to explain to them precisely how it will get things done."

Henry Becket, the director of advertising agency WAA, warns against change of imagery just for the sake of it. "If a logo is demonstrably out of synch with consumers' brand perceptions... or is obviously out of date... or no longer sits well with the brand mission, then there's every reason to change," he says. "The worst possible reason is to change just because the new marketing team doesn't like what their predecessors have done."

Janet Street-Porter, asked on the satirical TV programme Room 101 to list her pet hates, rounded on the brand industry, citing the repetitive redesign of the BBC logo as an example of design over substance.

However, David Benady, contributing editor to Marketing Week, is more circumspect. "If a company is failing, then a complete overhaul of its structure can be wise, and included would be logo redesign," he says.

Indeed, New Labour arose from the ashes of a failing political party, one so unelectable the only option was a radical shake-up. A new name and a new logo were just two of the elements that signified change and modernisation.

Benady says: "Political parties, by their very nature, have to be fluid, adapt to social trends and shifting national and global order. Thus it is only right that their brand values, which encompass logo design, can also modify to reflect these changes."

The Conservative logo, through all its manifestations, is perhaps trying too hard to reflect the ever-changing environment and should concentrate on satisfying its target audience's desires and needs, suggests Ian Hutchieson of ICLP, a relationship and loyalty marketing agency. He says: "Too often, companies rely on their overt, outward appearance to determine their image, yet consumers judge companies by the way they are treated and the consistency of the product and service that they receive. For instance, a hotel chain relies on the uniformity of its offering. Thus each meal in its restaurants should be of comparable standard, staff at the front desk consistently friendly and efficient, and the quality of the bedrooms similar. The amalgam of these brand values can then be addressed in the logo and then the logo symbol begins to have resonance with the consumer."

There are many logos that have stood the test of time, with minimal tweaking. Coca-Cola is perhaps the ultimate example. Its brand heritage - the beliefs the consumer attributes to the brand - is its strongest asset and is so entrenched in the subconscious of the target audience that any alteration of the design could be commercial suicide. Other brands such as Virgin and the EasyGroup both enjoy significant recognition and inherent consumer confidence.

The EasyGroup now has companies such as EasyCar, EasyValue and EasyCinemas, which have extended the brand way beyond its original boundaries of offering low-cost airfares. Similarly, Virgin has its bridal shop, health clubs and mobile-phone company, all spawned from the serial entrepreneur's record business. Threshers, the vintners, is about to extend its offering, under the new brand Threshers+ food, an extension it could only countenance because of its strong and respected image and ability to deliver on its brand promises.

McIlrath believes that one of the reasons for the success of entrepreneurial brands like Easy and Virgin is more down to what he terms the "super-consumer".

He says: "A super-consumer acts just like the man in the street. The difference is he has 'super powers' - he has the ability to change things that consumers dislike. Branson does this very well. Blair did it, until he encountered his Kryptonite in Iraq.

"But there is little point in Michael Howard donning a cape and lycra suit emblazoned with a brave new logo, unless he genuinely understands what the electorate dislikes and is prepared to act innovatively on their behalf."

THE IMAGE GAME: IN SEARCH OF CONSISTENCY

Consistency is one of the main challenges for parties seeking brand recognition. Perhaps the best exponent of this is the Liberal Democrats who have been nothing if not consistent in using the Bird of Liberty. This yellow bird, which hovers next to the party's name, has been there for 16 years and has slowly, steadily, become synonymous with the party and its aspirations. Labour may have changed to New Labour and back again but it kept its red rose. First introduced 18 years ago, it is maybe more emotive and symbolic than the name of the brand it represents. For a really iconic logo, the SNP's saltire and thistle is hard to beat. Its worth is so high that an attempted rebrand nine years ago, including a single yellow star - to represent the Party's ties with Europe - was a disaster. The redesign was dropped.

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