Aligning Design and Business Strategy

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A friend of mine was a graphic designer for a new company (Machinery Ltd.) and sought my advice.

The brief he was given was this, he was handed the marketing material and stationery of another company (Consulting Ltd.) and asked to copy its identity.

He had concerns about copyright, and I explained the specific identity problems the company would encounter by copying an identity. This article highlights the complications companies face by trivializing their identity in this way.

This is a real case; the names of both companies remain anonymous.

Machinery Ltd. imports machinery made in China. It then markets and sells the products in Australia. The business model should be lucrative as Chinese production costs are lower and the quality of product is of a high standard.

Machinery Ltd. is a new company. It has commenced trading with the objective to establish itself as a credible alternative in the Australian market. It has also applied to list on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX).

Machinery Ltd. is eager to start marketing as soon as possible, but the brand names it markets are not well known in Australia. Competitor products are well established and they are trusted international names that have extensive distribution and support channels. This is a major consideration of buyers.

The company whose identity Machinery Ltd. has copied is a small consultancy firm. After investigating that firm, it was obvious that the firm had devoted time and effort into developing its identity. It is a boutique firm, offering a range of specialized services. This is reflected graphically and in print throughout its identity.

Everything from the use of color, design concepts, photographs, language style, logo and taglines build a particular image and personality of the consultancy. This in turn gives the audience a clear idea of how the firm approaches projects and where it is positioned with regard to competitive pricing.

A big mistake of Machinery Ltd. is that it has more or less replicated this identity, right down to the shape and color of the logo. As much as this is a copyright with a potential legal problem, the greater concern is that no consideration has been used to gauge its appropriateness. Not to mention credibility concerns when it is listed on the stock exchange.

Of particular interest in this case was the decision by Machinery Ltd. to replicate the consultancy firm’s logo. Some organizations include a tagline with their logo (also referred to as a qualification) to help with their market positioning and assert particular strengths. This can be anything from length of time in business, such as "Company A—since 1925," or location "Company B—London Paris Sydney," or third party endorsement "Company Z—Government Approved Supplier."

The consulting firm uses two qualifications. The first qualification is explicit and says what it does. The second qualification offers further explanation as to what areas it specializes in. It has done this because all of its services can be grouped under two main headings:

Consulting Ltd.
Organizational Services
Primary Solutions | Secondary Solutions

Consulting Ltd. (non-descriptive trading name)*
Organizational Services (industry)
Primary Solutions | Secondary Solutions (competencies | expertise)

*The real name of Consulting Ltd. does not relate to or describe what the company does.

Machinery Ltd. chose to copy this format. Except in its case it is working in retrospect as it has simply found information to fit this particular configuration. The trading name is descriptive of the industry it is in.

Machinery Ltd.
Industry Services
Machinery Importing Solutions

Machinery Ltd. (descriptive trading name)
Industry Services (descriptive tagline)
Machinery Importing Solutions (descriptive tagline)

It is understandable that the consulting firm has deliberately chosen to use two qualifications as it offers a range of complex services. Machinery Ltd. however, does not offer services that would be classed as sophisticated or complex and therefore these taglines are dead weight. The real trading name clearly describes the industry it is in. Saying the same thing in three different ways is a repetitive waste of an idea.

On price, the consultancy firm uses a subtle color scheme that gives the impression of sophistication without being ostentatious. Coupled with the language style and choice of imagery it gives a clear indication that the company is not a price competitive firm, but rather more exclusive.

Machinery Ltd., however, should have been aware whether this choice of colors is appropriate for its objectives and ultimately, its market positioning.

Machinery Ltd.’s advertising now incorporates bright primary colors and playful fonts that attempt to support the low cost position. This is where the insincerity of an inappropriate identity starts to show with contradictory messages.

It is astonishing now when corporate reputation management is a subject being widely discussed, that this company blatantly chooses to copy another organization’s identity, to falsely inherit a reputation.

However, companies that base their identities on another company they consider to have "impact" is not an uncommon approach. They want their market (audience) to take notice and pursue their offering.

These identities are usually based on the assumption that to be noticed you must literally appear bigger, bolder and brighter. The resulting designs, imagery and promotional efforts end up either being brash or lacking in substance, or both. This method equates to judging the suitability of an identity on personal taste rather than strategic appropriateness. Attempting to stand out from the crowd in this way demeans the identity and is a lost opportunity.

If it works for that company why shouldn’t it work for this company? To copy the identity of a successful firm should give positive results, but, as illustrated in the case of Machinery Ltd., does it?

How would you address this corporate identity problem?

A better approach is to analyze what you like about the identity of other organizations and why you think all or part of their identity is compatible with what you are trying to achieve. Using a process that finds what is positive and negative for your own image will greatly assist you in determining your own identity.

Go and look at other organization’s identities. This is part of the process of questioning your own organization’s values and principles and how best to publicize and endorse them. The necessary groundwork will ensure your identity is sincere and can be substantiated and managed.

Successful organizations pay close attention to their identity. They devote considerable resources to ensuring that it is managed and reflected throughout their organization.

In time, it transforms their identity into a brand. Just as a financial investment takes time to create wealth, your identity requires time and management to become a brand.

The Pitfalls of this Case
The marketing and promotional activities are the areas in which weaknesses will first appear. Managers will have no guidance to make decisions that help position the company. Likewise, they have no way to measure the appropriateness of campaigns, strategies, brochure and prospectus design, imagery, and language style.

Simple exposure in marketing does not work effectively, and relying on the theory that "any advertising is good advertising" is glib nonsense. This highlights the difficulties graphic designers and marketers face when working with a company that has not properly considered its identity.

These firms cannot provide argument to marketers as to why a certain image must be portrayed, and creative professionals have no solid base from which to work.

It leads to confusion with weak and inappropriate marketing, misunderstandings and wasted budgets on ineffectual campaigns. This usually happens when a company like, Machinery Ltd., appoints a marketing firm. Without having any identity guidelines to work with, concepts are developed that may further weaken desired positioning. It is then that the company will realise it has a problem and hire a marketing firm to make changes to the identity.

Through no fault of their own, these marketing firms usually have little experience with the broader identity issues and make changes to suit a particular marketing strategy. The time and resources allocated for promotional efforts continue to be wasted.

Some people try and argue that image and identity are merely superficial and a "nice to have" thing. They must be fortunate enough to not have any competition.

Companies that want to list on the stock exchange have to consider carefully their options.

A descriptive name is one that ties it closely to the industry it is in or the products it markets. It does not offer much flexibility if the company decides to expand into other industries.

An ambiguous name allows the company to easily expand into other areas without too much confusion. It allows it to make acquisitions that can be taken under its own wing.

When a company publicly lists, it is not only relinquishing total control of the company itself, but it will have more publicity through the financial media regardless of whether it is successful or not. This alone puts demand on the identity as different markets have different demands and expectations.

Trivializing identity can result in a morale problem for staff, which leads to difficulties in attracting and retaining talented staff.

At the time of writing this article Machinery Ltd. had included the logos of the Chinese company’s products in its signage.

Used in this way, the logos become qualifications that Machinery Ltd. is willing to align and build its reputation on. By using the logos in this way, Machinery Ltd. is product focused rather than service focused. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the company realizes it is putting part of its reputation in the hands of the company it is endorsing. If the endorsed company sinks, the reputation of Machinery Ltd. could go with it. Considering questions like this makes identity a form of risk management as well as image management.

When a company publicly lists, it is not only relinquishing total control of the company itself, but it will have more publicity through the financial media regardless of whether it is successful or not.

This vision of a company must be broadly understood. You should not expect your audience to read your vision and mission statements—nor should these statements be included in your literature. However, your values can be emphasized in other ways. For example, using language, color and an appropriate tagline (qualification).

Choose what to emphasize. Should it be your products, processes, people, technology, speed, location, or another attribute? Do you want your audience to take you seriously? Do you want to ensure your marketing budget is spent wisely? What you do need is to carefully consider your identity—your true difference.

Baseless difference is insincere. If it is insincere, you will not be able to build or sustain your market position. Your identity needs to go further than to simply be decoration. You need to convey the right information in the most succinct way possible.

The problems of, Machinery Ltd., are very easy to avoid as long as you regard your identity to be part of your strategic plan.


This article is published on  and the AIGA website


© Hamish Chadwick, Image Substation 2004