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.

Visually redefining a brand won’t fix its problems

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

Visually redefining a brand won’t fix its problems

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.

Bus Malta

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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