Marketing: Creating the right impression: Does your company have an image problem? Corporate identity consultants can help, they tell Paul Gosling

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The privatisations of the 1980s created lucrative business for corporate identity consultants. It was time to change the image of nationalised industries, promoting the sale of shares, create a profit culture and greater customer awareness. That message of change had to be delivered to potential shareholders, purchasers of services and to employees.

'We worked with the British Airports Authority, starting from before privatisation, to change the culture away from a brown army of civil servants, to a more profit- centred, customer-focused organisation,' says John Lloyd, director of the corporate identity consultants Lloyd Northover.

'Developing an identity can be a catalyst for all sorts of changes internally. It can signal to an internal audience that 'we are changing',' he adds. 'We often work alongside management consultants who are looking at restructuring, and it can help their work to be realised.'

'Visual symbols are only visual symbols,' says Charles Seaford, a consultant with Wolff Olins. 'They are a way of communicating certain things, basic fundamental things. They often need to be looked at where an organisation is changing for some reason, what it does, the way it does it. It is often all about change, changing management and how to communicate that. One aspect of that, and quite a small aspect of that, is the visual.'

Mr Seaford says that work on corporate identity will often start with market research, which establishes what customers and employees think of a company's products and the quality of services. Changing corporate identity may then be about changing not only the image of a company, but its reality as well.

'Our role is to help the client to be clear about the vision they are working towards, which has to come from inside the company; to make it understandable to people who haven't created it; to hit a nerve lower down. It is about winning hearts as well as minds, about working with management in order to be clear.'

'Very often companies think about looking at identity when something dramatic takes place, like a merger, or a fundamental shift in what its doing or in its structure,' says John Sorrell, director of Newall and Sorrell. 'If things are changing dramatically a company needs to reposition itself in how people see it. What is less common is recognising that things are changing the whole time. A 20-year- old identity is no more appropriate than a director going to work in a 20-year-old suit.'

Newall and Sorrell have been working for the last three years with the AA, evolving a modified image. 'It has been a carefully managed process,' says Mr Sorrell. 'It is a matter of careful tuning, which is starting to appear now in things in the public eye, on vehicles, uniforms and in the advertising campaign, which stresses that it is one of the four organisations that are looking after you on the road.'

While corporate identity consultants would like image change and internal change to be harmonious, this is not always achieved. 'We have worked only on rare occasions with management consultants, I would say,' comments Dave Allen, managing director of Sampson Tyrrell. 'We have worked closely with personnel departments. Sometimes we are almost working against a company's departmental structures. Where we have worked with other consultants it has been very close. They have been responsible for changes in working practice, and we for the identity.'

Castrol is one Sampson Tyrrell's clients, currently three years into their Framework for Imagination programme to enhance the corporate image covering 45 autonomous units. Those units fiercely defended their autonomy, but, especially with the development of satellite television, the identity of the corporation was becoming blurred.

'Units were using the logo in ad hoc manner,' explains Linda Cripps, Castrol's publicity and promotions co-ordinator. 'We decided that because the company was growing so rapidly we had to pull back some of the elements. So we had to introduce a new identity manual, which contained a framework in which the units had to use an agreed style. We introduced the programme to push communication forward. We won't tell them what to do, or put them off, but we do explain why some things need to be done. In the first part we explained we have this brand, we need to protect it, and said why it is important. The second part was on vehicle livery, and in sponsorship, and how to make it more effective. The third part is a magazine called Brand Matters, which describes how you use colour, and how you create colour. We are trying to increase the input from our units.'

Corporate identity consultation is not unique to the private sector. One of Newall and Sorrell's clients has been British Rail's InterCity division, anxious to move away from its image as part of a nationalised organisation, and develop a more customer-friendly image. This has involved introduction of the swallow bird logo, new uniforms, repainting trains, producing easier- to-read leaflets, and an advertising campaign that emphasised trains as a relaxing method of travel. Newall and Sorrell describe it as creating a 'total InterCity identity'.

Another user of corporate identity consultancy has been Britain's largest union, Unison, created out of Nalgo, Nupe and Cohse. For Unison, bringing in Wolff Olins as consultants was not only to advise on the future image, but also to avoid bickering between the constituent parts. 'There were three very individual, long-standing organisations, in an amalgamation,' explains John Monks, director of communications with Unison. 'We were matching three very distinct cultures, and could not have done that if we had said to the design section of one union to produce a design. It was very important for someone from outside to go through that process.' That remained true for Unison, even though in the end it used an internal design for its new logo.

A corporate identity consultant has to look at identifying the perception, reality and aspirations of an organisation, says John Lloyd. 'It is only in understanding these things that we can know how to change its identity. There is a classic perception/reality gap, brought about because products have moved on. The exercise must not be cosmetic, it has to be credible.'

(Photograph omitted)