Back in December Rebecca Nason wrote a short ‘news post’ about the rebranding of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), highlighting the switch from a rather formal blue logo with a gannet flying above jagged lines that looked like an ECG printout (itself a 2002 redesign of an earlier sulid-based logo) to an olive-green eye that has as its pupil the silhouette of an abstract warbler/insectivore peering out at a large ‘BTO’ positioned over the new tagline ‘looking out for birds’.
Rebecca linked to a You Tube recording of BTO Director Andy Clements explaining the thinking behind the rebrand to BTO staff. I listened with interest, not because I was a member of the BTO – the organisation had always seemed a little remote for an unscientific birder like me – but because I wondered (I suppose with a touch of discomfort in the offing) how the staff would react to the unveiling.
I know first hand how anti-climactic that moment can be, and how a poor reception can doom a project that a Director or Chief Executive is staking their reputation on. I was working for British Airways at the time of the birth in 1997 and death four years later of the disastrous re-brand which saw the tailfins of all the Company’s planes painted with ethnic designs to symbolise BA’s global inclusivity. The new livery was intended to present a friendlier face, to soften the airline’s perceived aloof ‘Britishness’, but it instead sliced away the ‘BA brand’ and handed rival Virgin Airlines a golden opportunity to rebrand themselves as ‘Britain’s airline’. It was a misguided and badly-thought out change in direction, the staff mostly hated it, and I’ll never forget the look on CEO Bob Ayling’s face when a disgusted Margaret Thatcher caustically fished a handkerchief out of the depths of her handbag and very deliberately dropped it over the fin of a model 747 she was being shown: Ayling, an autocratic and unloved boss, crumpled like the air had been sucked out of him, most of the workforce cheered, and I had the unusual experience of finding myself in agreement with the Iron lady (which never happened again in case anyone wondered).
Andy Clements is no Ayling though. I’d briefly met Andy, the Director of the BTO, at the 2010 British BirdFair, and despite the whirl going on around him he was very friendly, approachable, and interested – not in any way like Bob Ayling in other words who was renowned, amongst cabin crew anyway, for his bullish approach to staff relations. Based solely on that short meeting I kind of hoped there would be a roar of approval when the logo was unveiled, but to be honest it was hard to tell from the low-fi soundtrack. It was neither hugely enthusiastic nor was it ‘kiss of death’ silent. It was none of my business though and while I was at least temporarily interested I had other things on my mind which soon took precedence…
Little did I know, though, that just four months later (and, depending on when you’re reading this, a few days ago) I would be interviewing Andy for a Talking Naturally podcast, or that I would discover during a preliminary phone call what an extremely pleasant man he is…
It was obvious from the start of my research for the interview that the thrust of the discussion would be about the rebrand – why the BTO had felt it necessary, what it was intended to achieve etc. The internal debate I was having as I put a list of questions together was whether or not I should ask how Andy had felt at the moment of the unveiling, but I quickly decided that it wasn’t an especially relevant question and – more importantly – couldn’t imagine what I would gain by asking it. I wasn’t looking for an Ayling-like exhalation of breath and spirit, and Andy wasn’t going to say that he’d felt awful even if he had: yes, there has been some internet chatter which decried the new look, but like anyone responsible for the outward appearance of an organisation he was going to say that he felt great. If I’d been in his place I’d have queried the motivation behind asking that particular question as the interview progressed, and probably come to the conclusion that the interviewer had been looking to score a cheap point rather learn something interesting (yes, I do tend to overthink everything). Again if it were me I’d wonder whether the interviewer – given that there was only one answer I was ever going to give – actually wanted to discuss the topic or was simply trying to push me towards an answer he hoped I would give. I figured, instead, that as Andy was coming on to Talking Naturally to talk about the BTO the ‘rebrand issue’ would be discussed anyway, and as I only had thirty minutes (forty at the most) the last thing I needed to do was fold the conversation inwards or instill a degree of self-defence.
Besides, when I thought about it the real question was not how the rebranding was received, but why an organisation as well-established as the BTO felt the need to make such a drastic change in its appearance. And it turns out, which I realised almost as soon as I asked myself the question, is that no matter how ‘big’ or ‘established’ you are, there is always the feeling that you’re somehow either delivering an out-of date message (eg British Airways’ belief that it was too ‘stuffy’ and therefore losing out to the newer, more modern low-cost airlines it felt driven to compete with), or not reaching the people you think would support you if they could only be persuaded to look at you in the first place (and I deliberately wrote that ‘the organisation had always seemed a little remote for an unscientific birder like me’ at the start of this post to make this very point).
I was upfront with Andy Clements right from the outset and explained that I’d never thought about joining the BTO because it didn’t seem a natural fit for a birder like me (a bit lazy, if I’m honest, a dilettante when it comes to record-keeping and understanding data) – and it turns out that the rebrand was felt necessary because there are apparently quite a few people who think about the BTO in the same terms. While he didn’t say it in so many words, given the current financial crunch which is threatening to derail many a strategist’s carefully thought-out plans it’s also true that an/every organisation really needs to reach out to potential new supporters – and that most definitely includes birders like me who claim strong conservation leanings…
At this juncture perhaps I should say that I appreciate that this whole post may seem like little more than an advert for Talking Naturally and the BTO, but that hasn’t been the intention of writing it. I’m actually fascinated by how we are all engaged in ‘branding’ these days. As I’m sure most people are aware our clothes supposedly define us (though I do feel that what birders tend to wear make us the happy exception to this rather sad rule), and the type of car we drive is supposed to make a powerful statement about our aims and beliefs (though if you ask me I think for the majority of us what we drive more reflects what we can afford than either our aspirations or whether we think battery is better than internal combustion).
Branding is everywhere and despite how we might want to resist we do all buy into it – and let’s face it, it’s that ‘buying in’ that is behind every corporate change in appearance. And that of course extends to the birding and conservation organisations we either support or are indifferent to.
It’s very difficult to know what it is that persuades someone to actually become a paying supporter of a particular organisation – most charities have whole departments devoted to discovering the answer – and in reality far easier to pinpoint why someone doesn’t. In the former’s case it may be that our parents supported XYZ and so, therefore, we were exposed to it at an early age; that we just happened to be in a receptive mood when we were approached by a fund-raiser or recruiter; that we met the staff at an event like the BirdFair and were impressed or motivated by them; or even perhaps heard or read an interview online and realised that we agreed with the aims of the organisation and wanted to help in some way (and a regular cash donation is a great way to help).
Conversely many people are absolutely indifferent to what your society/organisation want to do and/or can’t be bothered to join an organisation (especially if they don’t get how they’ll benefit if they do); will tell you that there are hundreds and hundreds of organisations all vying for their limited resources anyway; events like the BirdFair can actually be an overwhelmingly packed arena to be heard in; and who has time to read a whole interview – or even a blog post – these days (the ins and outs of superinjunctions and who a premier footballer ‘played away’ with before being ratted out to Max Clifford, yes, but not a plea to save the environment by yet another thoroughly decent campaigner)? And it’s the converse and the plethora of excuses for inaction that makes the way you present your external face so incredibly important.
So will such a rebrand work for the BTO? I guess only time will tell. I hope it does work, but I do think that we will doubtless be presented with many new looks during and shortly after this recession. Lack of money triggers insecurities in companies as huge as BA and as small as your local neighbourhood watch, and we’ve all become persuaded that it’s not just what we do that matters, but it’s also how we are perceived, how ‘sticky’ our brand is, how modern we are, and – a cascade effect in action – how we seem to need to show that we’ve moved on simply because our rivals have.
I’m not taking bets on which major environmental charity will be next (Conservation International rebranded in 2010 and the Marine Conservation Society was perhaps the most recent, rebranding in March this year), but I am willing to bet there a lot of Directors/CEOs in the third sector right now scrutinising their organisation and wondering whether they need to freshen their image as well. Good luck to all of them, because it’s a tough decision to make and there are big risks if you go too far and leave your core support behind.
Just ask Bob Ayling – though I’m sure as eggs are eggs he’ll still tell you it was a good idea; what else could he say…?