Would you give this man a job?

Jonathan Margolis always thought logos were for losers - he's never had so much as a business card. Even so, he couldn't resist a £20,000 personal rebranding that promised to transform his fortunes. He was delighted with the results. Not everyone else agreed...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

" I want to be more famous than Persil Automatic," Victoria Beckham is reputed to have said in her teens. And Brand Beckham is now, indeed, as well known as any supermarket product. But should all of us living on our wits - from plumbers to farmers to solicitors - be thinking about adopting a brand identity with a memorable logo? Would a spot of branding add a certain heft and solidity to the average self-employed Joe trying to do better than his rivals?

" I want to be more famous than Persil Automatic," Victoria Beckham is reputed to have said in her teens. And Brand Beckham is now, indeed, as well known as any supermarket product. But should all of us living on our wits - from plumbers to farmers to solicitors - be thinking about adopting a brand identity with a memorable logo? Would a spot of branding add a certain heft and solidity to the average self-employed Joe trying to do better than his rivals?

I have to say I am suspicious of people such as plumbers driving around in smart vans with a smooth corporate identity on the side. It feels like I'm paying for their image. And I have always thought that a brand would be similarly counterproductive for somebody in my line of work - jobbing journalist, author, broadcaster, whatever.

I've never even had a business card, and if I did, I fear I'd be tempted to go the disastrously "amusing" route and describe myself as a hunter-gatherer. I certainly would have thought that the most apt logo for my style of foraging around for a living would be a suitably stylised truffle-pig.

The leading brand guru Sue Turner wants to persuade me otherwise. Turner, who is a branding and corporate-design consultant, has written to me on the smart letterhead of her company, The Fine White Line, in response to a rant I wrote in the Daily Mirror on some corporate rebranding fiasco involving millions spent on another vague "swirl" logo and a pathetic new lower-case name.

Turner is best known for the iconic "Tate by Tube" poster, with the Tube lines in different coloured oil-paints, which she worked on. She's also a trenchant critic of the swirly logo school of rebranding, and has written a pamphlet called "Brand Bollocks", a polemic against the cretinous excesses of her industry.

We meet for a drink a few days later. I'm intrigued to encounter such an iconoclastic character; Turner is in her forties, with interesting glasses and a new Aston Martin Vanquish on order. Need I - or she - say more to establish her brand identity?

"I have a real problem with what is going on within our industry," she says. "I feel that we do something quite valuable, because there isn't an area of your life that design and brands don't touch, and most people today are more brand-savvy than ever. But most people in my business are, I believe, intellectual pygmies and creatively bereft."

It's hard not to admire Turner's venom for those behind such legendary cock-ups as the "Consignia" débâcle or the Zyklon disaster (when Umbro brilliantly named a new trainer after the gas used to murder millions in concentration camps).

She is especially splendid in her assessment of the brand consultants ("fucking dim fuckers", in Turner-speak) who, on 1 April, renamed train services from Liverpool Street under the brilliant brand "one" - unaware, apparently, of the potential for chaos in station announcements such as: "The fourteen twenty-two one service to Ipswich from platform one will leave at fourteen thirty-two."

So we get on fine, Sue Turner and me - until she asks for my card. "Sorry, I don't really have one," I say. "Always think they're a bit naff for life's freelancers, don't you?"

Turner is shocked. "But what about letterhead, invoices, comp slips?" she asks. I explain that for the first two, I use the standard templates that come with Microsoft Word, while for "compliments slips", I normally attach a Post-it note to whatever I am complimenting somebody with.

"I'll tell you what; it's all very well me putting the boot into people who I think do branding very badly, but I believe in it passionately and I want to show you that, if you get the right people doing the job, it is a joyous experience. Why don't I take you through the process and design a Jonathan Margolis brand?"

Ethical as I try to be, I find it difficult to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when the gift of branding being offered by Turner would cost a regular business client upwards of £20,000.

She e-mails me later to ask me what I regard as my key attributes. "I want you to tell me what you are about and what you aspire to be. Those are your brand values; words that describe what you are and what you strive to be."

What can I say? What I am is insolvent and unknown; what I strive to be is solvent and known, but only in a cherished way. I can hardly tell Turner that. So, with maximum embarrassment, I come up with: "Versatile, idiosyncratic, try to be amusing, informal, bold and direct, different, quirky and colloquial" - and then go off ashamed of having even thought of such labels, let alone written them down. It can't be long, surely, before I turn into David Brent. But Turner is unfazed by my descent into such guff. Identifying these values will apparently help to give my business and my individuality "direction and consistency".

We meet again the following week. "Now, before I asked you for your list of attributes," Turner starts, "I formed my own opinions of you based on our encounter, and on what I have heard. Then I put the list of values you gave me against those, and - happily on this occasion, Jonathan - they matched." Not knowing quite whether to glow or throw, I await the results of her branding exercise in some fear.

When Turner's twin-concept package arrives, as immaculately and expensively presented as if I were the board of BP, I have to confess that I am suddenly in love - with myself. That alone - the ability to sell someone to himself - must confirm Turner as a genius. I suspect that my "Aren't I cute?" moment is a mini-version of the kind of corporate vanity-rush that big businesses get when they first see a proposed new brand identity.

Turner's first concept - "Man of letters" - is a witty twist on the word "letterhead". Based on the face of a mad-looking bald man clearly not me (at least I hope it's clearly not me), the logo uses the device of a pretend Post-it note apparently stuck to the man's forehead. (Letter... head - geddit?)

These Post-its, in several colours, carry a variety of messages - "Letter" for letters, "Hello" for business cards, "Ta!" for comp slips, plus "moo" for "humorous" letters (Turner has somehow divined from our conversation that I sometimes find cows amusing). There is also a special mad green head with no Post-it but a red clown's nose for the humorous letters I'm prone to sending to the Inland Revenue and VAT people.

The second concept, "Press", is based on the vintage "newsman" icon of the Stetson hat. In the hat band, which Turner had artfully cut with a slit, can be placed any one of a number of miniature "press cards". These state anything from my name to a swatch of the pink that signifies the Financial Times (I write for one of its magazines), to a slice of bread (meaning that the letter is about money) and a referee's whistle, signifying a letter in which I might be blowing the whistle on something.

It all seems marvellously clever. So how did Turner arrive at such brand images? "It struck me that you are someone who wears many hats - you write for different people, you do different things, you write books, you take photos, you are a bit of a flibbertigibbet - but everything you do has a very serious intent, a traditional 'I know my stuff, I know what I am doing' bedrock," she explains.

"Now, I know that one of the things you write about is technology, but the worst thing for you would be a brand identity that says that, because it would be boring and trite. You see, the happiest brand identities are foils. So, since you are someone whose brand changes, you are mercurial, you have many moods, plus you are greedy for facts and information, so I thought it would be nice to have an iconic press image, the hat, with the classic card in the hat band that can be changed according to your message."

She continues: "'Letter head' is an alternative identity that would work because you would be delighting people every time you sent it out. What struck me most about you was your playfulness. Of course, you do it partly because you are trying to get people into a situation where they are going to tell you more than they intended. But this is like you in its directness, its literalness. And everybody will love it because it's so simple."

Turner concludes: "I can guarantee that if you used either of these brand identities, the reception you get would be just fantastic." She has won me over. How did I ever exist without my own brand? This is surely the beginning of a new career.

Proudly, I take my £20,000 worth of branding home. No man is a hero to his 15-year-old daughter, but I just know that she will give this the ultimate "cool" accolade.

So, what does Ellie think of the new logo? She flicks through the artwork. "It makes you look a complete tosser. In fact, you're not my father any more. Please promise you won't send that to anyone, especially my school. You are going to destroy me."


Jonny Geller, literary agent

"This, I'm afraid, is an agent's nightmare; someone who is branding themselves, rather than their work doing it for them. Brand, in book terms, is product-linked, not author-linked. You can brand Bridget Jones, you can't brand Helen Fielding. Would I be impressed by a man with this stationery? No. I'm afraid I'd think: "Trying too hard and in the hardest area; being funny." I probably wouldn't open your manuscript."

Gillian de Bono, editor of the Financial Times "How To Spend It" magazine

"If you had paid for this, I'd think you were going through a mid-life crisis. I hate branded stationery, and I have never seen any that isn't detrimental to the sender. The genre smacks of two things: desperation ('I need a gimmick in order to sell my skills') and ego/irritating personality ('I'm a really interesting/wacky guy, just look at my letterhead'); and I don't find either quality desirable in a contributor. In your 'Man of letters' concept, there are two other words that spring to mind: the use of the words 'Ta!', 'Hello' and 'Letter' is puerile and downmarket, neither of which is you. On the 'Press' concept, I'd add that anyone who has the time to slip tiny messages into paper hats every time he writes a letter clearly isn't getting enough paid work."

Hamish Thompson, head of press and PR, Dixons Group

"This really isn't doing it for me. It's unsettling. It doesn't suit the rules of the game. The rules are that I spend my days persuading you and your colleagues to write that Dixons, Currys, PC World and The Link offer the freshest, newest, biggest, brightest, most cost-effective consumer technology in our market. Your job is to play the sceptic, strike out unnecessary brand mentions and apply your critical faculties. I tell, you edit. So, if you're now trying to coax me with some glitzy rebranding exercise, I just don't geddit. It's like the wolf-in-bed scene in Little Red Riding Hood. Those Post-it notes on your forehead are screaming 'Like me!' and 'Be my friend!' - but that doesn't make sense. I'm the one who is supposed to make you like me."

Linda Christmas, course director, newspaper journalism, City University

"I dislike the 'Man of letters' concept. The wild eyes make you look at best frivolous, at worst mad. A journalist wanting to be taken seriously would never use this. Comic red noses are naff. So is 'Ta!' Is Sue Turner trying to destroy your career? Or am I having a sense-of-humour failure?

There is a certain 'style' and 'wit' to the 'Press' concept. If you were working for the Financial Times, the hat with the pink blob would amuse me (and the FT could use the humour!), but the others leave me cold. But you do need a business card. I find them very useful. Keep it plain. A hack using the back of a fag packet is almost as naff as this second concept."

Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4

"Your notepaper identifies you as a person of green hue who wears a red plastic nose and a Post-it note on his head. While Channel 4 embraces diversity, much of our work involves operating undercover, and I think your appearance would be likely to draw undesired attention. But I will keep your details on file in case we should ever need someone to pass as a paedophile children's entertainer."

Mark Borkowski, PR chief

"This is a typical example of a clever designer over-designing. The worst is when designers don't focus on the character and personality of the person. They focus on the aesthetic. They try to re-groom you through a design. If you were a news agency or ad company, these would be very smart designs. But there's an edge and personality to you that is unique, and I don't think it captures that."

Audrey Wener, unemployed mother-in-law, 78

"Ooh, very smart."

Sue Turner, inventor of the 'Jonathan Margolis' brand

"I have a rhino-hide and couldn't give a rat's arse what anyone else thinks. I please only myself... errm, you know what I mean."