The previous adage that individuals who stay in glass homes shouldn’t throw stones can be noticed right here (for probably the most half). It isn’t my goal to ‘diss’ the re-identification of the just lately merged United and Continental air carriers. Although, I confess, I’m not loopy about it. I’ve been recognized nevertheless—am infamous—for altering my thoughts. That stated, from a design standpoint, it appears to me a rickety, patchwork development, that smacks of identity-by-committee; and one can—maybe all too simply—infer that it was a mutually begrudged ‘solution,’ a clumsy compromise between administration homes, unwilling to sacrifice close-held belongings for a ‘greater cause.’ All that stated, the brand new United merger model id will not be with out its strategic deserves as a branding answer, no matter misgivings one might have about its aesthetic qualities (by the best way, I’m referring now to what I’ve recognized as “Exhibit A,” above. The story will get extra fascinating once we introduce “Exhibit B” additional on).
Mergers and acquisitions are occasions that have to ‘declare themselves’ on the degree of communications, past mere press stories, press releases, and the usual inner bulletins. They name—typically ‘scream’—for rebranding or re-identifying the ‘resulting’ entity.
There are 4 primary choices with which to strategy merger and acquisition branding, every with its personal actual or potential variations:
(1) Juxtaposition | acquainted examples of this conference are ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips, by which the prior identities are maintained, however fused on the hip (typically with a brand new coat of paint or software of a brand new typographic veneer)
(2) Absorption | examples of absorption are Wells Fargo (Norwest), Financial institution of America (Nations Financial institution), and Delta (nwa), the place the id of 1 firm is adopted as such and the opposite retired
(three) Mixing | A great instance is Arcelor. In mixing, id parts (or fragments) are faraway from every particular person model and recombined into a brand new synthesis—Arcelor (the world’s largest steelmaker) was the merger of three entities and the identify the sum of syllables extracted from every of the prior, unbiased entity names—Arbed, Aceleria, and Usinor
(four) Mutual Exclusion or, to coin a phrase, “Neodentity” | It’s theadoption of a completely new model id that erases all ties or discernible references to the beforehand unbiased entities, an instance of which is Alliant Power, which resulted from the merger of IES Industries, Interstate Energy Firm, and WPL Holdings.
The working example
The place does the United case fall into this framework? As I stated, there are variants of those 4 approaches and I might say that United is a mixture of Absorption and Mixing. It’s Absorption—clearly—from the naming standpoint. It’s Mixing from the visible standpoint, in that Continental’s visible image is mixed with the United identify. Absorptive Mixing. Having established the place the brand new United id ‘sits in the brand solution stack,’ so to talk, what extra can we are saying about it? What are the professionals and cons? What can we study from it? Are there branding Greatest Practices to be gleaned, that may information us, particularly germane to M&A?
One fascinating dimension of Absorptive Mixing, as we’re calling it, is that it performs very in another way relying on medium: in audio-only or audible-only media (radio, dialog) and textual content, it’s pure Absorption and provides United pride-of-place—with the perhaps-unspoken implication that this was an acquisition by which they performed the position of the buying firm (that, or their model ‘won’ out, a la Wells Fargo, which was acquired by a bigger financial institution, Norwest). Within the spoken and heard phrase, as in ‘pure’ copy, the Continental visible legacy can’t comply with. One might argue—fairly subtly, maybe too subtly—that the ‘United’ identify is being utilized in a radically new, self-effacing means. One might argue that ‘being united’ is one other means of claiming ‘being merged.’ Thus, ‘United’ transforms from the identify of the previous, buying entity right into a ‘description’ of the merger. I owe credit score to my colleague, Michael Dula, for this sensible studying. As a justification or a post-facto rationalization, it’s ingenious—however thus unlikely to ever have occurred to the ‘architects’ of this momentous id occasion. However, I digress.
In fully-fledged type—the place each identify and visible id seem collectively—the id suggests a merger of equals—until one holds to a delicate view that possession of the identify displays primacy, whatever the ‘strength’ of the visible. If the underlying transaction is a merger of equals (MOE), the answer appears ‘apt’: proportional, correct. However, even when it isn’t an MOE, the id answer could also be an necessary diplomatic gesture, designed to play to inner audiences (the newly built-in or integrating worker swimming pools).
There are different deserves to this mannequin which are value mentioning: by not allotting with the equities of both model, it could actually leverage each; by not shelling out with each (as in Neodentity) it might keep away from or mitigate the potential confusion brought on by the sudden, full disappearance of acquainted ‘players.’ In United’s answer, the historical past stays ‘alive’ and visual by way of the ‘new’ current and into the brand new future. We don’t, in different phrases, have an entity created <ex nihilo>, with all reference to its historical past, to its story, erased. Moreover, creating, a completely new model entity (i.e., not recycling previous supplies) requires extra effort, time, and funding to elucidate. Absorptive Mixing is cost-effective.
On the draw back, Absorptive Mixing, could also be or could also be taken to mirror indecisiveness or a scarcity of ‘design’ on the strategic and enterprise ranges, about what ‘larger’ functions the merger/acquisition actually serve. Whereas such underlying strategic functions might have been very nicely thought-through and nicely served by the M&A, this specific id ‘solution’ may simply mislead; it might fail to inform—or inform nicely sufficient—that underlying story. It might be perceived as a ‘rush to rebrand,’ a ‘disconnect’ between enterprise and model technique; a chance to inform an awesome story—clearly, and compellingly—misplaced.
However wait a second…
As a result of there seems to be a curve ball—certainly, a change-up pitch—thrown on this lengthy At Bat. In Might 2010, the CEO’s of UA and Continental, Jeff Smisek and Glenn Tilton stood, palms clasped in a goodwill gesture of merger unity, in entrance of the ‘logo wallpaper’ that has develop into an all-too-familiar function of press occasions. That emblem (Exhibit A) was primarily, the Continental emblem, with one change: substitution of phrase/identify “United” for “Continental.” In each different facet—colour, sort, and symbolism—it was Continental’s signature.
Bait and change
Since then—and it hasn’t been lengthy—issues have modified (a bit of radically, if you’ll). With out fanfare—not to mention rationalization—the truth is, with silent, sheepish—maybe furtive—subtlety, the design ‘morphed’ in a extra United-centric course (Exhibit B): the phrase ‘Airlines,’ outstanding in Continental’s id, was gone; the extra fascinating, complicated blue, changed by a extra main colour; and United’s distinctive <sans serif> sort ‘restored.’ Frankly, I discover Exhibit B extra engaging, easy, and trendy, from a ‘pure’ design perspective. And, it’s debatable whether or not this variation represents a extra 50/50 stability of the legacy identities or ideas the scales in favor of United. What is way extra problematic—to the purpose of disturbing—is the hole between the ‘May 2010 signature’ (which now seems to have been an advert hoc assemble designed as a mere prop for a televised announcement) and the currently-running id seen on the corporate web site. What occurred?
We might by no means know the complete or true story, however I’m adopting the ‘wallpaper theory’. With out actually considering it via, it was felt that a image—a fairly literal, visible image—‘had to’ be contrived, in slavish conformity to the conference of staging a strategic press announcement, earlier than a ‘logo paper’ backdrop. The truth that this visible image—a re-designed company id—can be seen by tens of millions, together with the worker swimming pools of the 2 corporations and skim, misinterpret (or ‘read into’) as a significant assertion concerning the meant character of the blended entity, didn’t daybreak on the ‘choreographers.’ Sooner or later, it was both sensed that the advert hoc id had despatched an unintended or undesirable ‘message’ (e.g., ‘It’s extra Continental”) or had merely served its merely disposable objective (regardless of the public interpretations), and the corporate might ‘get on with’ the intense enterprise of designing an id whose form, contours, colours and symbolism would really mirror one thing important, strategically necessary, and of kind of everlasting worth concerning the new firm.
Timing is every part (and so is Story-telling)
No matter one thinks of the comparative deserves of the designs (or the truth that each unceremoniously discard wealthy design legacies with roots within the work of Saul Bass, Raymond Loewy, and Pentagram—for one thing prosaic), it’s the unapologetic bait-and-switch ‘approach’ that’s branding and speaking at its worst. One might ‘forgive’ the lightening-quick ‘evolution’ had there no less than been a compelling, evenly advised, adequately broadcast rationalization. However there wasn’t. Smisek and Tilton would’ve been properly endorsed to ‘be patient’ and stand earlier than wallpaper that ‘alternated’ their two separate identities, pending the second when a correct, nicely rationalized, well-designed ‘merger identity’ might’ve been rigorously unveiled and inaugurated beneath a considerate enterprise narrative.
The United Continental re-branding might have added a brand new and potential useful hue within the spectrum of M&A branding fashions (‘Absorptive Blending’), no matter what one thinks of its precise design execution and implementation. It’s one with deserves value pondering as one approaches the M&A branding problem. We have now additionally thought-about the dangers that go together with it—some or all of which, it must be stated, might be mitigated or prevented altogether by way of sensible, disciplined merger communications. Reflecting on it has additionally been the event to think about—even when solely in passing—the opposite fashions out there to corporations which have to deal with the branding dimension of M&A.
Nevertheless it has additionally turned out to be a Cautionary Story concerning the significance and risk-laden nature of company id ‘make-overs’: their energy—for good or ailing—to ship robust alerts to the marketplace, staff, and ‘the world’; to inform an essential story of change—or be construed as telling one. Within the latter case, if the interpretation is left to an untutored public, its coherence and unequivocal nature will—extra probably than not—crumble beneath a number of (perhaps even conflicting) interpretations—not fairly a Rorschach Blot, however perhaps a ‘blot’ all the identical on the fame of the corporate whose picture it has turn out to be.