Simplify and add… marketing.
It might seem like a lifetime ago, but it was only last September when Volkswagen unveiled its new logo at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The logo was launched in conjunction with the ID.3 EV and was intended to herald a new era for the company, where the wholesale electrification of its model range would take centre stage. Unspoken, but undoubtedly the case, was the hope that it would also help draw a line under the diesel emissions scandal that has dogged the company since 2015.
The superseded logo was in use since 2012 but looked older as it had been only a minor update on the previous version, introduced in 2000. It was drawn to appear three-dimensional, with sharp chamfered edges to the silver chrome letters and surrounding circle, with shading to create the illusion of a convex surface. The logo was pretty much a photo-realistic representation of the physical badges fitted to vehicles and dealership signage.
The new logo is strikingly different: it is flat and two-dimensional, a simplified construct of the two letters within a circle. There is a palate of three colours; white, mid blue and dark blue, but only two colours are used in any representation, one for the background colour and the other for the letters and surrounding circle. This gives a total of six possible colour combinations for the logo and background.
Strangely, the switch to a two-dimensional logo was explained as being more suited to digital representation. In the era of extraordinarily realistic 3D and VR graphics, this argument seems counter-intuitive. It might have been true a quarter of a century ago when broadband did not exist and computer memory and processing power were both limited and expensive. Today, even the somewhat clunky touchscreen on my Boxster produces a very realistic isometric image of the complex Porsche badge when it is powered up.
It is rather more likely that Volkswagen was simply following the current fashion for large companies to strip down and simplify their logos, just as MINI did in 2018. Skeuomorphism, the practice of making virtual images resemble physical objects, has very much fallen out of fashion in recent years. It has just taken the automotive industry longer than most to catch up.
Jochen Sengpiehl, Chief Marketing Officer of Volkswagen, explained the new logo as follows: “We have created a new holistic global brand experience on all channels and across all touch points. We want to become more human and more lively, to adopt the customer’s perspective to a greater extent and to tell authentic stories.”
For a simplified logo, it is oddly complicated. Volkswagen made much play on the significance of the floating ‘W’ but it is actually firmly anchored at its upper extremes, just like the ‘V’. Why not be consistent and allow the letters to float all around? The lines forming the letters are thicker than the surrounding circle. The gap between the ‘V’ and ‘W’ is now wider than before, but narrower than the gap between the lower points of the ‘W’ and the circle.
Volkswagen boasted that the new logo was produced “in the record time of nine months in a collaboration between nineteen internal teams and seventeen external agencies”. Unfortunately, not everyone was pleased with the result of this herculean team effort: Erik Spiekermann, a German graphic designer, tweeted, “Too bad that the new simplified version wasn’t drawn by a good designer. A typedesigner would have known what to do, but this was designed be(sic) a committee of marketing people.”
Six months after Volkswagen unveiled its new logo, BMW was all set to follow suit at the Geneva Motor Show, before that event was cancelled. BMW instead had to make do with a low-key virtual launch to coincide with the unveiling of the i4 Concept in early March.
Like Volkswagen, BMW has discarded the three-dimensional convex blue, black, white and chrome logo that had been in use since 1997 for a stripped back 2D version in blue and white only, again explained by its supposed greater suitability for virtual applications. Controversially, the formerly black outer ring is now transparent. When used on the company’s vehicles, this will appear as body-coloured, as it did on the gold i4 Concept. One wonders whether, on a white car, it will tend to merge with the white quadrants in the propeller.
The transparent section of the logo is meant to “…radiate more openness and clarity.” and invite customers “…more than ever, to become part of the world of BMW” according to Jens Thiemer, the company’s Senior Vice President of Customer and Brand.
There was, apparently, a strong adverse critical reaction to BMW’s new logo, so much so that Marc Mielau, the company’s Vice President of Brand, Marketing and Customer Strategy, sought to correct the “misinterpretation” in an interview with the Design Week online magazine just a week after the logo was unveiled.
Mielau blamed the lack of a physical launch event for the confusion, which might have been heightened by photographs of the logo on the i4 Concept. “Obviously, it’s something we tested on the car.” Mielau said, but added, “How do you take responsibility [for] such a strong heritage? Steps need to be taken very carefully.” Those steps include considering customers’ opinions and feedback and observing what the media says, “Then we can build our opinion for the future.”
The sound and smell of heavy braking from BMW was unmistakable, so the new logo may yet be significantly altered before it appears on any production model.
Major corporate rebranding exercises such as these have always been controversial, with strong arguments offered both in favour of and against such exercises, often in highly polarised debates. It might be worthwhile to examine these arguments to see if any conclusions can be drawn.
Those in favour would contend that such exercises can refresh a tired brand; one that consumers are now taking for granted, or even ignoring entirely. It can facilitate a repositioning and enable new brand values to be inculcated in the minds of consumers. It can even signal a break with negative past events that have tainted the company’s former image.
These factors should, they contend, stimulate a reawakening of customer interest in the company to the benefit of sales and profitability. If it did not, the argument goes, why would senior management engage in such exercises, since their primary goal is (or should be) to enhance shareholder value?
Those against such exercises would argue that most consumers are largely indifferent to branding – new or otherwise. Attempting to load a new logo with all these subliminal meanings is nonsensical and passes straight over the heads of those it seeks to influence. Sometimes, such exercises are simply a distraction for senior management who have lost focus and strategic direction, or an exercise in self-indulgence and flattery.
The enormous cost, in both developing then rolling out new branding globally, could be spent more productively on improving the product to the real rather than imagined benefit of customers. Such critics would, I imagine, ridicule the enormous effort Volkswagen put into a new logo that looks like it could have been drawn in a few minutes by anyone with access to a compass and protractor.
I think, as is often the case, the truth generally lies somewhere between these extremes. There are examples of rebranding that have been highly successful and, equally, examples that have been a public relations disaster. British Airways, to take just one company as an example, has experienced both extremes. The company’s 1984 rebranding created a much more elegant and prestigious style that was far more appropriate to a national flag carrier than the informal style it superseded.
The subsequent 1997 rebranding, where the union flag on the tailfin was replaced with abstract World Images, was widely derided, most notably by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who memorably draped her handkerchief to hide one such image on the tail of a model 747 she was shown. Within two years, the national flag was reinstated, albeit in a different, flowing style.
Time will tell into which category Volkswagen and BMW’s rebranding will fall. Meanwhile, I leave you to make up your own mind.