Station logos and identities seem to change at the drop of a hat, and the specialist design houses receive the brickbats as a result. But whose fault is it really? Richard Elen thinks it's time to stand up for the design agencies, which are by and large simply doing what they're told - and what they can.
Thanks to the history of UK broadcasting regulation, it was not that long ago that British television was a matter of four or so channels, in contrast to the tens of stations that graced the VHF and UHF bands in the United States.
Today, however, all that has changed, with the advent of multichannel cable and direct satellite broadcasting, and on both sides of the Atlantic there are hundreds of channels competing for attention.
In the days of fewer than five terrestrial channels in the UK, the modern concept of branding was hardly a matter of concern. There was BBC One and BBC Two, your local independent television contractor and Channel Four.
All you needed to do was to make sure that your audience knew which one they were tuned to. A broadcaster would produce the corporate identity - the logo, the idents and other material, right down to the letterhead - in-house, in their own presentation graphics department.
A logo and its associated music or jingle could happily last for years, before changing cultural and artistic values made it look old-fashioned and it was time to update it.
Then suddenly, everything was different. The advent of a significant number of additional channels in the Nineties made channel controllers suddenly conscious of the need to ensure that viewers knew immediately what channel they were tuned to, and what that channel stood for.
The idea of a corporate identity for a television station graduated from animated graphics and accompanying tunes to complete statements designed to give the viewer on their way past an instant feeling for what the broadcaster was about.
The main spur for this change was no doubt the need to attract viewers and build some kind of loyalty among them. The all-important ratings determined not only the income of commercial broadcasters, but also the apparent relevance and financial prudence of public service broadcasters. Thus the BBC was as much a part of the change as the ITV contractors and their new satellite and cable rivals.
The role of the corporate identity had to change too. Astute designers saw that it was no longer possible to consider a station's identity as a purely graphic entity or label seen between programmes. Instead, it had to become part of an overall marketing strategy for the station, covering every aspect of the station's activities.
The craft of building a station identity has today become more than could easily be handled internally, and instead, the job is generally farmed out to specialist agencies.
These agencies built their reputations on an ability to develop a strong overall branding proposition, including paying due attention to market positioning and even the name of the station or channel, developing a strong identity, and communicating that identity effectively (including making sure that the branding is picked up within the company itself!)
Such a strategy must extend to every aspect of a broadcaster's activities, and not simply what is seen at the end of a programme or on the company letterhead. The same overall approach has to work, for example, on the web site, in other new media activities, for sponsorship and for every other aspect of a modern broadcaster's new vocabulary.
We might bemoan the move from a regulated broadcasting environment in the UK to one that is undeniably market-led. We may also feel that the move towards branding has, paradoxically, led to a situation in which the visual identity of a broadcaster is no longer stable, and changes as if with the weather forecast. If there is a new on-screen identity every few months, how does the viewer ever become familiar with the look and feel of a station, regard it as home, or build any degree of loyalty?
There are all kinds of obvious, and cynical, answers. You can't tell the stations apart, some might say, so the fact that the identity changes as quickly as a new model emerges from a Japanese TV manufacturer doesn't make any real difference. Everyone's programmes are very similar and channel-surfing viewers will simply stop on something that looks interesting, irrespective of what channel it's on, and it just needs to look exciting and different. Perhaps loyalty doesn't even matter any more.
But what has really happened is that station branding has become a part of the marketing business, and is no longer in the design business per se. Arguably, this is not so much a good or a bad thing as an inevitable result of the need for stations to carve their own piece of electronic shelf-space in the multichannel supermarket. And that is a world in which New! and Improved! work wonders. Or more to the point, the people who run the broadcasting companies think they do.
Channel heads change quite frequently, and inevitably an incoming controller will want to leave their particular mark on the station (and erase their predecessor's) with a new look that is all their own. Often they'll have their favourite designers and branding experts with whom they have a relationship, and they'll ask them to build the new brand identity.
As it's still a relatively small field, this might be the same people as last time, but the brief is different. It'll focus on what was wrong with the previous identity and how it was somehow out of touch with this aspect of the audience, or that facet of the company that should be more clearly projected. And of course it has to look as different as possible to the identity that the previous incumbent commissioned.
If you are lucky, all these requirements will appear in the brief - but all too often, there isn't much of one, and equally often there is internal disagreement between different parts of the company about what should be done. The agency has to pull it all together.
Interestingly enough, designers and especially agencies generally appreciate the need for continuity - a link between old and new: by and large, it's clients who don't. And to the client, everything is already old hat.
Before you see the new idents on-screen, the station staff who have been involved in the design process, probably as part of a joint task force with the agency, will have lived with the ideas from comps, outlines and storyboards for many months. Quite likely, they will already be bored with them and thinking about something else - and the viewers haven't even seen the new identity yet.
In my own experience in advertising agencies, it is all too often the agency that has the job of trying to remind the client of the importance of repetition, familiarity and the concept of the campaign.
The client, on the other hand, wants every item to be new and different. They don't want to develop the theme carefully presented in previous efforts. They don't want the logo in the same place. They don't even want the same logo. They want the colours to be different. They want a different feel, and a different message, and the agency is left scrabbling to find some element of continuity between, say, the old logo and the new.
Despite the fact that people all know (and hopefully love) the old logo and its design, just a few years (or months) old, is still totally contemporary (or if you're lucky, timeless), someone will want it to now look completely different to highlight this or that aspect of the company, and the need to recognize some new acquisition or venture.
Comments from the agency (and the results of market research) that the old logo is well liked, familiar to the audience and has a high degree of recognition may fall on deaf ears, along with their suggestions that there should be some kind of link with the past.
It can be difficult to resist such client pressure. Apart from the obvious fact that agencies like to make money, and a new identity will be worth quite a lot, the fact is that you would need to be unusually strong-willed and rich to say to a client, Are you sure you really want to change that? - especially when the reply is most likely to be that if you don't want the job, the agency down the street will be only too pleased to oblige.
Similarly, the client will often want the latest in video technology to be used for the idents, despite the fact that everyone else will be using it too, and it'll look passé in a few months.
The agency, on the other hand (and with any luck the station's marketing people), will probably take the view that the technology used to implement the branding strategy in a given environment (say on-screen) is not the point: the overall strategy will determine the tools to be used and not the other way around. If you don't like somebody's idents, think yourself lucky that they weren't done with the latest in CGI, which won't be the latest in a few weeks.
In summary, I believe that the main cause of premature change and the lack of enduring identities in the current marketplace is the result of irresistible pressure from the client - and that's usually an individual at the client.
This pressure works completely against accepted marketing research, which puts a high value on repetition, familiarity, and similarity as the core of establishing the effectiveness of an identity and brand loyalty.
Basically, people need something to come home to: something that is always there and can be relied on. Change your identity every five minutes and it's no longer an identity. If you're lucky you get to develop the new one from the old one so the public can see that it's the same people it was before. But that does not happen too often.
So, curiously enough, branding would probably work better if the clients were more conservative. They are still more conservative than an agency would like in terms of how far out' an acceptable idea can be - they always want things that will offend the least, rather than something that will stir strong emotions (such as loyalty), especially if there is a committee involved.
My view is that good marketing should cause a powerful (and often mixed) reaction, the main point being that it needs to gain a strong reaction to work well and be memorable.
Clients don't let you do left field things very often: understandably, they're too scared as they have too much to lose. But they will change from one middle-of-the-road approach to another far too easily.
Clients might do well to be less conservative when it comes to ideas, and more conservative when it comes to changing them.
It's fashionable to blame the designers when the latest branding identity hits the screens (and the posters, and the ads, and everywhere else that a modern brand must be marketed).
But by and large, the designers are simply doing what they're told. Next time you encounter an ident you don't like, just think how much worse it could have been.