Of Balls and Band-Aids

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

After an 18-month development process, Xerox has unveiled a new corporate logo: a "friendly" font, and a red ball wrapped in band-aids. It promises to spend many millions this year to promote its new brand.

There are any number of reasons to dis this latest example of branding run amok. The idea that it took over a year to develop, and involved interviews with 5,000 people, is laughably incomprehensible, as is the resulting imagery, which looks derivatively like a logo for Xbox 360, AT&T or, more aptly, just a red ball wrapped in bandages.

Interbrand, the gurus behind the obviously very profitable project, claim that the new branding evokes a bunch of ideas, emotions, and connections. It has made the logo "…an even more valuable business asset," according to its home page. For the amount of money Xerox likely wasted on it, that value better evoke the sturm und drang of an epic symphony.

Only there’s one meaning the new branding fails to evoke at all: the reality of Xerox’s business.

You see, Xerox has been busy these past few years reinventing itself. 

Most consumers might still associate the company with copiers — making a xerox meant copying for any of us old enough to remember existence prior to the 1980s — but it now makes billions from corporate clients, providing services and technologies for managing documents and the flow of information. Lots of times that flow ends up getting printed, so Xerox still makes printers and inks, too.

It has morphed itself into a consultative muddle of a business model, wherein it is
"a customer-centric company" that competes with a wide variety of similar companies that have abandoned archaic hardware pasts (like IBM and HP), or that have never manufactured anything other than slide presentations telling other companies what to make (like Accenture and BearingPoint). 

To my continual surprise, there seem to be an infinite number of valuable technostrategicprocesssystemschangemanagementweb-enabled contracts to be chased in this muddle.

And guess what? Xerox was doing it up to now with the old logo!

Customers handed it about $12 billion in the first three quarters of 2007 alone, and all of it for products and services branded with the good ‘ol outdated X

Maybe the company could have earned more if people didn’t hate the old logo so much, but I doubt it. Perhaps too many folks associated it with copiers, and didn’t include Xerox in bids for new, consultative projects, but then again, the company was (and is) utterly thrilled with its business results.

No, it seems that Xerox successfully moved its business into the future, enduring — if not actually benefiting from — its old branding, logo, and historic association with copiers.

Humm. Maybe brand communications didn’t need to tell anybody anything; there was no value, or cost, embedded in its iconography beyond awareness and, in this instance, memories of many decades of business performance having legitimized the old X by associating it with doing things to documents

But it was (and is) what Xerox did — its behaviors — that defined its new brand proposition for its customers. 

And now, after having worked its way smack dab into a generic, consultative business muck wherein it’s really hard to differentiate one "customer-centric" management blather-provider from another, Xerox has made a strategic decision to throw away the graphic evidence that linked it to its past, and trade it for a criss-crossed red marble that nobody will recognize.

Don’t you wish you could have been in the room when the branding gurus explained away the entirely of reality and history, and convinced Xerox management to opt for some nonsense that connected to nothing but vague, imagined notions? That’s some brilliant selling.

But, like I said, it’s too easy to dis. I’d like to propose an alternate version of how Xerox could have gone about its branding:

  • After, say, a few years into "The Document Company" reinvention, it could have announced a company-wide assessment of what made it unique
  • Individuals and teams could have been incentivized to find, or to create, the services, products, and processes that made what Xerox does different from what its competitors do
  • Then, it could have assembled a braintrust to think about how the things it was doing so well had any connection to its past. The goal would be to find ways to somehow track back from its newfound business services to the performance of Haloid photocopying…and, in doing so, identifying the truisms and consistencies that made Xerox Xerox
  • It could have then prioritized the company’s successful activities (in terms of business return, potential growth, etc.), and committed operational budgets to make sure the company exploited them fully
  • This would have been its investment in the brand
  • And, by strengthening these behaviors — and not looking outside its business at the generic nomenclature of the muddled consultative marketplace — it would have formed the basis for a branding communications strategy
  • Nobody inside Xerox would have ever uttered a term like "customer-centric" with a straight face, as it would be common knowledge that it had no relevance to what made the company unique (and uniquely successful)
  • Instead, it could then — after focusing and strengthening its business activities, and conceptually linking them back to the company’s past — have gone to some branding guru to figure out how to better communicate it
  • Forget changing the logo…in fact, leave it just the way it is. Branding isn’t a matter of image, but rather identifying what actions could best present and support its unique business proposition
  • The gurus would be task to understand these company behaviors — the reality of what it does — and help it present it within a logical, sensible context of Xerox’s past
  • It certainly wouldn’t require asking people what they think about the company, or its graphics: the research would be based on what actions prompted which responses
  • The ultimate goal would be to come up with ways to identify what Xerox does today as xeroxing something or another. Make it synonymous with the value and benefits it brings to its customers. Label the company’s behaviors, versus trying to associate it with some abstraction
  • Then, to deliver this branding, it would naturally extend far beyond images, taglines, and colors
  • Xerox might choose to develop even more visible, robust, or extended activities based on what has made it successful; it could institute technology investments to ensure that it stays a step ahead of its competition in these areas
  • Again, brand communications would support these actions, not supersede them

The "new" Xerox — the reality of its behaviors — would be the source of brand communications. Anywhere that the “X,” or the red ball, or any other icon appeared would be defined not by the look of the imagery, but by the context of the experience of Xerox’s behaviors. Value wouldn’t be presumed to reside in imagery, but result tangibly from the company.   

The company would be the brand, not some text treatment or red ball. 

In this sense, I’d suggest that Xerox has been branding itself for a few years already. And it seems to have been successful. 

So isn’t the label it chooses to put on that branding pretty much an after-thought? Or, in this case, perhaps a novel distraction. 

My guess is that ultimately it doesn’t really matter.

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/01/of-balls-and-ba.html