Thursday, December 04, 2008

Revising Identities

The latest change at our best-known big-box store seems to have elicited a rising tide of apathy. Wal-Mart removed the hyphen (or the star that occupied the same space in many places) several weeks ago. I still am straining to hear the cheers for Walmart.

In these tough times, however, it might be worth taking a moment to ponder the costs of changes like this. Think of the signs, letterheads, labels, painted truck panels, and numerous other items that will have to be altered. Walmart is so big that costs in the millions are easy to visualize, and customers will pay them as the hyphen-less and star-less merchandiser subtly includes them in price increases.

Although in this case the alterations easily could be phased in to hold costs down, keep an eye on our leading discounter and see if its intrepid execs don’t start to champ at the bit and order quicker revisions than necessary to “get the project completed.” They recently were running an expensive advertising campaign just to tell us about it. And who cares? The company’s own home page showed the name all three ways just a few days ago. The star in the middle was replaced with something at the end best described as an orange doodad, making the revised name into a logo that fails to signify much of anything. One would think corporate leaders could find more important things to meddle with.

In the case of Walmart, Wal-Mart, or WalMart, it’s hard to think of a reason for the changes. The company has been making money hand over fist, and is expected to make even more as people look for places to buy cheap stuff to help cope with economic distress.

Sometimes, more than a hyphen or star is involved and there may be fairly good reasons to upgrade a corporate identity. About a year before I went to work at Allis-Chalmers in the public relations department the corporate wizards there decided they needed to create a more modern image by renaming the company and following that with the introduction of a new logo. Most of us thought they were right. The old moniker—Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company—was not inspiring. They fixed that by just knocking off the last two words, and it was a good fix.

The A-C logo was a stodgy affair that did not lend itself to a quick fix. So the image makers scrapped it and commissioned a high-priced advertising agency to develop a completely new symbol. Veteran PR men told me numerous new designs were proposed and rejected over many months before a logo finally was approved by the CEO. Although no one knew the exact costs of developing and changing to the new symbol, my associates estimated very conservatively that the total was about $250,000. In the mid-1960s, a quarter of a million was considered more than just walking around money, even in a big company.

The name change was nice, but it did little to reverse the downward spiral of the Allis-Chalmers corporate fortunes. The logo change became an embarrassment. Just a short time after the sleek new symbol had been plastered, painted, and printed all over the place, someone encountered an Associated Grocers logo, an emblem which had been around for years. It was nearly identical in color and form to the “unique” Allis-Chalmers creation that cost so much to design and adopt.

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