Around the turn of the millennium, dotcom start-ups and established businesses were beating a path to the door of corporate ID specialists with pockets full of branding budgets.
Royal Mail, Arthur Andersen, BP, PricewaterhouseCoopers and others decided their name, image or both needed an overhaul. At the same time, online businesses such as Letsbuyit.com and web off-shoots such as cahoot (abbey) and IF (Halifax) had a brand and an identity to build from scratch.
And then, it seemed, someone turned the tap off. Wary, perhaps, of the negative media attention these rebrands often attracted, and conscious of an austere commercial climate, chairmen, chief executives and their boards stopped sanctioning these big-budget rebrands.
"The dotcom era fuelled the silly season and it went on for too long," says Terry Tyrrell, chairman of corporate identity specialist Enterprise IG Europe. "People were throwing away valuable brands and properties as they wanted to fill their portfolios with shiny new things, rather than realising they had something with great value and looking at how they could create greater value from it."
So what has taken the place of the mega-rebrands, and in this new climate, how do companies change their image without spending millions?
Andrew Pinkess, strategy and business development director at design agency Rufus Leonard, believes there is a more grown-up approach to corporate identity and rebranding.
"There was a lot of voodoo economics and branding going on two or three years ago," he says. "Markets were growing rapidly, people were creating brands out of thin air, and people were reluctant to question things because shares were going up and value seemed to be being created for shareholders.
"In the current market, everyone is trying to run a tight ship and can't be seen to be spending a huge amount of money on something as frivolous as visual identity and positioning."
There are rebranding projects out there, argues Pinkess; they are just being handled in a different way. He cites work his company handled for BT last year, when it replaced the piper image with the 'Connected World' globe logo.
BT consulted staff, partners and agencies to understand what people thought about the brand, and that led to a thorough collaborative exploration between the brand team, Rufus Leonard and other agencies.
"In the past," says Pinkess, "it would have called in one of the top three brand consultants and asked it to come up with the big idea on which the business proposition would be founded. This would be imported in and rolled out to create a vision that people could buy into, even though the staff would often not buy into it, as they could not identify with it."
Another significant factor, says Pinkess, was the choice of the Connected World logo as the replacement for the piper. This was an existing BT property, so it did not involve the expense of designing something new. Furthermore, says Pinkess, BT has taken a more pragmatic and flexible approach to the implementation of the rebrand. "It is not changing all the pipers on the boxes in Cornwall on a given date," he points out. "Instead, there is a planned replacement cycle. It used to be thought that you had to have 100% consistency across all touchpoints, but these days, there's a realisation that this is not realistic, nor financially viable," he says.
If the money is not being spent on designing logos, where is it being spent? Budgets are undoubtedly smaller now than a few years ago, but there does seem to be a consensus that good branding and corporate identity begins at home.
Adrian Day, a director at design company Ziggurat, says: "Employee behaviour, internal communications and the idea of getting people to live the brand are all important, and that has continued through the recession."
With employees onside, adds Day, companies can communicate their brand values and identity in a much more integrated fashion.
"If you have a strong understanding of your corporate personality, you can express it through everything, so the message is not dissipated" he explains. "A lot of organisations waste money by having conflicting messages about their brand."
Tyrrell calls this an "inside-out" approach to branding. "The old world was outside-in," he says. "We would not worry too much about whether it was honest, true or legal. We would create a veneer to sell to the audience.
"Now it's projecting the real world. It's about embedding the brand among our people so they know what it means, because we know that people can see beyond the veneer."
Clare Fuller, a director at brand identity and communications consultancy Roundel, says: "Clients will put more emphasis on internal audiences to safeguard their investment in identity. They've known staff are their most important audience for a decade but now they really believe it."
There is some optimism now that clients are ready to invest again in corporate identity work. "When it's raining, it's impossible to believe the sun will shine again, and it's the same with corporate identity at the moment," says Fuller. "The market's flat, clients are feeling risk-averse and there's no upturn in sight.
"So it's all over, right? Well, probably not. Merger and acquisition activity is starting to pick up and corporate rebrands will follow. Corporate budgets will become more generous, Consignia and Monday will be seen in perspective, and the press will have other things to focus on."
Day goes even further, citing one or two organisations that he believes are in urgent need of a rebrand. "There are a couple that need changing," he says. "Sometimes the status quo is daft. British Gas selling electricity and a raft of consumer services is really odd, especially as in the 90s it did not enjoy the best of reputations. I just can't bring myself to buy electricity from a gas firm."
Rentokil is another company, says Day, that needs to look at its name.
"Rentokil has a good corporate reputation, but when one of your businesses is office plants, which is all about growing things, it is very odd," he points out.
But then, as Tyrrell adds, company names are strange things - and easy targets. "There are lots of times we deride start-ups with strange names, then when they go bust, we put it down to the name," he says. "But if the company is successful, the name doesn't look so silly any more."
CONSIGNED TO THE WASTE BIN
In March 2001, on receipt of plc status, The Post Office Group rebranded as Consignia at a cost of £2m, £500,000 of which went on the name change devised by Dragon. The rebrand was deemed necessary to enable the Post Office to expand into Europe with a name that would not be confused with the local national postal service in each country. Nevertheless, the name attracted widespread criticism and derision. After it was announced, the Communication Workers Union called for a boycott of the name, claiming it had been foisted on the public by "corporate spin doctors". In November 2002, the Consignia name disappeared, replaced by Royal Mail Group, at an estimated cost of £1m.
I DON'T LIKE MONDAYS
In June 2002, PwC Consulting, the consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers, spent £75m rebranding itself as Monday. Brand consultant Wolff Olins came up with the name and identity. The word, the consultants insisted, had connotations of "fresh thinking, doughnuts and hot coffee". Not surprisingly, given the negative connotations Monday has for most people, the rebrand was mercilessly mocked in the media. "The hype surrounding the launch of Monday may help raise the $6bn of equity that PwC Consulting's partners are looking forward to carving up after their flotation. That still won't stop it being a bloody stupid name," wrote The Guardian after the name was announced. In the end, it was all for nothing, as the business was bought by IBM, which ditched Monday in favour of IBM Business Consulting Services.
After its acrimonious split with Arthur Andersen, Andersen Consulting had less than a year to continue using its existing name, so had to rebrand. That the £110m rebranding exercise, carried out by Landor Associates, came in for so much criticism was down both to the choice of the meaningless name, Accenture, and the curious typography used for it, complete with the 'greater than' symbol - '>' - above the 't'. In fact, this was meant to form part of a cunning reading of the name as 'Accent on the Future'. It left most commentators cold, however. Take this from the Financial Times in January 2001, shortly after the name change was announced: "'We wouldn't suggest our clients do anything we wouldn't do ourselves', trills a slogan on one of the many billboards that Accenture has bought for its £175m, followed by a list of the firm's activities. Mercifully, corporate identity isn't among them."
WHEN THE TAIL WAGGED THE DOG
In 1997, British Airways scrapped the Union Flag emblem used on its aircrafts' tailfins in favour of a series of 28 brightly-coloured 'ethnic' designs created by artists from around the world. The change aimed to help the airline penetrate new markets, but did not go down well with many customers. Baroness Thatcher famously described the new designs as "absolutely terrible". By mid-1998, BA started to question the designs, asking customers for their views on the tailfins. One year later, in June 1999, the airline announced that it would revert back to the Union Flag designed as part of the original 'ethnic' rebrand by Newell and Sorrell, at a cost of £2m.
REBRANDING STRIKES TWICE
BP (British Petroleum) is no stranger to rebrands. In 1989, it undertook a £100m rebrand, including a fresh logo and green on yellow colour scheme, which was applied to its tanker fleet and almost 20,000 petrol stations. In 1998, the company acquired US oil company Amoco and became BP Amoco, then in 2000, dropped the Amoco part of its name, and spent £100m on another rebrand, introducing the 'Helios' sunburst logo and a 'Beyond Petroleum' positioning. Though the rebrand came in for some criticism, particularly from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, many commentators believe that as rebrands go, this one, although expensive, has been a success.