Visually redefining a brand won’t fix its problems

As a creative professional working in Malta, there’s much to fault with our industry but what annoys me more than anything is when I see some of Malta’s biggest brands gratefully swallowing tripe for cream, served to them by foreign creative companies because of some misguided belief that if it’s made abroad, it’s somehow better.

For example, take Air Malta’s rebranding, executed last year by FutureBrand London for a reported total cost of 1.9 million Euro. As an agency with a global reputation, do I hold FutureBrand to a higher standard than other local branding firms? Of course I do! Yet they still failed to get anywhere near my expectations with this exercise. In order to demonstrate why, I’m going to compare Air Malta’s new aircraft livery with a spectacularly successful piece of Maltese ‘vernacular design’ – the Malta Bus (click here for video).

Malta_bus1

Visitors to our island thought the experience and style of the Maltese bus so novel, they queued up in their thousands to have photos taken with it, bought replica souvenirs of it, depicted it in paintings and recounted stories about journeys taken on it long after they returned home. In fact, they coveted the brand so much that they were willing to overlook performance issues (these were hot and noisy contraptions) and customer service flaws (some of the drivers were said to be surly). Only time will tell if Air Malta’s aircraft will acquire such a fanatical cult following with their new and expensively decorated aircraft but somehow I doubt it.

So, how is it possible that a bunch of local bus drivers are able to outperform one of the world’s foremost marketing companies, armed with a sizable budget? The answer is simple; it’s not easy to fake culture and traditions – customers see straight through it. While the bus drivers may not have had an expensive design education, they understood that holiday makers wanted an authentic Maltese experience, rather than something manufactured and did not need tablet-wielding creatives from The City to tell them this.

Malta_bus2

Also, let’s not forget that the Malta bus brand was effective not because of its style and novelty but in addition to it. The drivers built the buses to a practical design which worked for the local climate, terrain and budget. Unique to Malta, these became as much an icon in our country as red double-deckers are in London. For decades they gave us a cheap, workable, frequent bus service that rarely ever broke down. They did not have to look important because they really were important and their brand identity reminded people of this

By contrast, Air Malta’s lack of a meaningful position (who is this brand for and who does it exclude?) and flaws with its product, value perception, reputation, company culture etc leave its brand communications with a very tall order indeed – to create preference with nothing much of substance to say. In a roundabout way, this rebrand kind of reminds me of a sketch British comedian Eddie Izzard used to perform about imperialists going to foreign shores and claiming countries under their flag.

“But, you can’t just come here and take our land, we live here” the indigenous people would say. To which the imperialists would reply “Yes, but do you have a flag?”

Trying to fix a company’s problems by visually redefining it is unrealistic and anyway, today it’s no longer possible to manage an external image to talk to audiences on behalf of companies. No matter how well scripted and slick the brand communications are, people have the means to probe for their own truth and if they find any kind of discrepancy, share it with the world.

The internal dynamics of a company play a critical role in its performance in the marketplace. This is where the branding should start – placing core truth and values at the heart of any effort to build (or rebuild) the brand.

It seems to be out of fashion for branding companies to advise clients to fix their businesses and build the reality they are so keen to portray in their brand communications. Too many brands seem content to portray a pig’s ear as a silk purse and hope that nobody notices. Of course, since this is a much easier course of action, there’s no shortage of ‘branding’ firms happy to oblige – both in Malta and everywhere else.

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Thanks to Johann Tonna for the Malta Bus images. Click here to check out his Flicker site for a comprehensive collection of Malta Bus images.

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4 Comments

Joe Scerri 25th, July 2013

I have gone through your article and I think it is a really good read. Actually I had sent a note to Dr Francis Zammit Dimech ex Minister for Tourism regarding the AirMalta rebranding. I had argued then, that a half decent Maltese Graphic designer would have done a better job for a pittance.

Marc Vella Bonanno 26th, July 2013

Great article Ren, coincidentally i was just touching this subject with a few acquaintances last week about your same exact views. First of all, why not hire a Maltese based creative company to do Airmalta’s rebranding when it was obvious that a deep knowledge of Maltese culture and historical background was required to perform such a task in a genuine way. And another thing, why pay 1.9 million euro to foreign entities when we do have local top-notch creative industries within our shores?!!

Keep up the buzz Ren, was an absolute pleasure reading your article!

P.s. – amazing bus pics Mr Tonna!

Mario Borg 1st, August 2013

As our friend Lee Clow once tweeted “As in life, so it is in branding: No one stays true to a relationship built on false pretenses.”

Ren Spiteri 11th, August 2013

Hi Guys, thanks for your comments.

Although I agree that the work FutureBrand did could have been done in Malta for a fraction of the cost, if I’m honest, I’m not sure the end result would have been any better for Air Malta. Personally, I don’t have any issue with the price FutureBrand charged (beyond the fact that Air Malta spent money it did not have). The reported cost of 1.9 million Euro was not what FutureBrand got paid – I read that this was around €400,000).

This sounds about right for a project that requires extensive research intended to uncover the belief system of the audience, what triggers would make them switch from their current preferred brand and what is true about the company to be branded (or rebranded). However, you would expect this work to reveal meaning and values in which prospects see themselves and want to be a part of. Also, it should ensure the brand occupies a different position than that of its competitors – forcing a choice to be made. This is where I DO have an issue with the work Air Malta and FutureBrand carried out.

If this research leads to an ineffective position and fails to align the brand with the beliefs of the audience, then every marketing message, every behavior, methods for product support etc, will not be persuasive enough to get customers to choose Air Malta over its competitors. How creative the brand communications and experiences are won’t matter a jot – whether they were created in Malta or anywhere else.

Marc, I don’t see the health of our industry quite as rosy as you do. At the risk of sounding flippant, if you know what to look for, a quick scan of the Maltese brand landscape will tell you all you need to know. How many telecommunications companies are trying to own ‘lifestyle’? Retailers? How many sell based on price? Drinks Industry? How many are trying to own ‘taste’? The basic idea around positioning is to create preference by giving the customer a reason to switch from a competing brand to yours. If our creative economy is so healthy, how is it possible that so many Maltese brands that compete in the same sector are trying to position themselves around the same cost of entry benefits?

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