This week saw three interesting and topical brand issues in the news that underscore the power and importance of Branding, national identity and the powerful role design has in communications. All three are examples of national identities derived from, and integral to, the flags of their respective nations.
Canada and Currency
First of all, Canada has introduced a new currency note design that uses a maple leaf design as part of the security feature across the denominations of Canadian Dollars. The ‘new’ design includes what has been described as a ‘representative’ leaf as opposed to an ‘actual’ leaf (meaning – a stylized interpretation of what a maple leaf looks like based on no specific variety of Maple Tree). However, Botanists and Canadians are not letting this one get ‘spun’ – why? Because it does not look like the traditional native Canadian Sugar maple leaf, but rather looks like an imported species of Maple Tree (The Norwegian maple leaf)! One could be forgiven if the differences were subtle, but anyone familiar with Canadian symbolism and iconography knows – the leaves are different and the Sugar Maple is THE definitive representation of all things Canadian. So, why and how could this happen? At the end of the day (as suggested in the BBC news report), the role of design is one of interpretation, and therefore sometimes a designer needs to take the liberty of interpretation for various reasons. In commercial enterprise, theatre and/or entertainment – this is acceptable and encouraged. However, when it comes to government, business or any aspect of society in which a degree of trust, familiarity or citizenship is involved it is better not to stray too far from convention. The iconography of a nation is representative of culture, patriotism, history and pride. The symbolism of a flag or coat of arms is almost sacrosanct and needs to be treated with respect and care, and it needs to be accurate to previous and historic convention. I would argue, in the case of currency – this is a base requirement. So – kudos for retaining the maple leaf design as an integral part of the currency, and embracing technology to allow it to be integrated as a security feature (a see through window). However, nil points for mistaking an imported leaf species or ‘stylistically blending’ the Norwegian variety with the familiar, iconic and truly native Canadian Sugar Maple leaf!
Cuba and the Union Jack
The second example this week is the report out of Havana that Cubans are going ‘loco’ for anything Union Jack. The ‘bandera inglesa’ (English flag) is a popular design icon for everything from clothes, to bags, to tattoos! Technically – the flag is the British flag (made up of the English Cross of St George alongside the Scottish Cross of St Andrew and the Cross of St Patrick). It is officially the Union Flag but in common parlance is referred to as the ‘Union Jack’. But we are splitting hairs…to young Cubans, it represents a cool design feature which is now very ‘on trend’ because of the London 2012 Olympic Games. When asked in the BBC feature on why they like it or what they associate with it – a young Cuban answers that because ‘the country is beautiful, the people are friendly and the women are pretty’. Introduced last summer, the effect of the Olympic Games and the coverage of London 2012 has had an impact which has translated into a commercial opportunity for vendors in Havana. Suffice to say, the ‘Cool Britannia’ of the Union Jack is evident around the world and in Britain as well – but, to the extent that an avowed Communist state and its people embrace a symbol of The United Kingdom versus just a nice piece of red, white and blue design depends on their associations. And, in this case – it is one not of politics but sport and the cultural coverage from The Games.
American Airlines and the new American
The third example is that of American Airlines. We at FutureBrand spent two years investigating and understanding every element of the American Airlines identity as well as what represents ‘America’ in terms of symbols, icons, graphics, colors, type and associations. The result is the new identity of American Airlines. (You can read more about it on the www.futurebrand.com web pages and indeed, in the press). You can make up your own mind about it from a subjective or objective point of view. My point in this blog is to merely highlight that when a branding or design firm is asked to leverage symbols and icons of a commercial enterprise (and one in which there is history, equity and pride) you have to be careful! Plus, if those elements are also part of a wider narrative or cultural symbolism (e.g. that of the nation!) you have to be extra vigilant and careful! In the airline business, logos and tailfins are the glamour elements and the icons that enter into the social and cultural vernacular. Therefore, one cannot approach the task lightly. However, I believe the new American Airlines design gets it right for several reasons. One – the iconic elements of the silver fuselage, red/white/& blue, and ‘eagle’ have all been retained, contemporized and incorporated into one system that is easier to implement and facilitates recognition. Two – the tailfin is both dynamic and expressive with a strong reference to the ‘flag carrier’ concept yet it is abstract and not literal. Three – the ‘flight symbol’ is a strong stand-alone element that unifies all of the elements into one that aids recognition and ownership making it distinctive. The symbols of America are enduring and strong, but also ubiquitous and to create something which stands apart is a tough challenge. Judging by blog forum discussions and overall press, the consensus is that American Airlines needed a ‘new’ breath of fresh air into its design and visual identity, and whether you ‘like’ it or ‘not’ – for the brand and the business it is the right thing to do. Preserving equity and iconic status is a challenge, and for an airline it is vital. The new American represents a 21st century America and will stand the test of time!