I believe religiously in the power of design to shape perception in the branding game. What I’ve never understood, though, is why it so often becomes the last resort of scoundrels. Whether it’s Robert Milton a few years back, giving Air Canada’s fleet a snazzy new paint job in the wake of a government bailout, or the freshly reconstituted AT&T, there seems to be a breed of executive who believes that all will be forgiven if you just buy your brand something new and frilly to wear.
But I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a monumental mismatch between a PR problem and a design solution as the recently unveiled new visual identity for Blackwater USA.
Blackwater, of course, is the private security contractor that has had so much negative press lately, in particular around America’s Iraq adventure. Whether for their alleged shenanigans in-country, or for the enormous cost and ethical concerns of employing them in a war zone, or just for their swaggering macho image, this firm is perhaps second only to Halliburton among corporations to which the Iraq war has attracted unwanted attention. And at the very apogee of all this controversy, the press circling them with First Amendment rights locked and loaded, the boys from Blackwater unholstered… a new logo.
Not that it didn’t need work, mind you. Their old logo looked like a sweater patch for the varsity homicide team. The new one is definitely friendlier and more corporate. Now they just look like a phone company that kills people.
But the timing. Whoever advised them on this move should be made to do quite a lot of pushups. Nothing a brand does is judged in a vacuum. It’s always about context. And when you’re talking about something as supposedly sacrosanct as a logo, that judgment is about imputed motive. Logos are symbolic by definition, so when one gets changed the first question is, why? Or, at least, why now? In this case, intended or not, context and imputed motive combined to send an unfortunate message. Design geeks are having a heyday with it. The press, meanwhile, is just shaking its head and wondering how stupid Blackwater thinks they are. And the rest of us, thankfully having no reason to encounter a Blackwater brand experience for ourselves, will form our impressions solely on the press’ reaction.
A tactical blunder for sure.
In fact, I’d say it was a branding disaster if I thought that Blackwater’s customers paid any attention to the press…