Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and their protégé, Rebekah Brooks, are at the time of this writing embroiled in a self-inflicted Shakespearean tragedy centered around phone hacking and political influence. The closure of their “toxic tabloid,” News of the World, with a final headline, “Thank You & Goodbye,” should be read as an act of design. It tried, in fact, to rebrand (and thus protect) the parent companies, News International and News Corporation, moving them away from the sprawl of bad news. Rebrand…or else!
“Forced rebranding” is a coercive process. It can result from some sort of public scandal, it can lead to one, or it may be used to avert one. It cuts both ways; many of News of the World’s advertisers withdrew from the paper under public pressure leveraged by Twitter campaigns. Brands like Ford, Renault, T-Mobile, and Orange began to “review their advertising options”—i.e., they pulled the plug. Being seen advertising with News of the World became an undesirable asset; -advertisers that had once enjoyed the paper’s soaring sales (thanks to its many corrupted “revelations”) now pledged eternal goodness. Ford called itself “a company which cares about the -standards of behavior of its own people and those it deals with externally.” Boycotting became the new advertising.
The intricate mechanisms of branding and identity today manifest themselves in a mix of public-relations strategies, secret payments, fact manipulation, legal action, extracourt settlements, and other such methods. Especially since the 2008 financial crisis, the term “rebranding” has increasingly been used to describe a change of strategy rather than a change of logo. The New York Times described Citigroup’s 2010 shake-up of its audit committee and advisory board as a “rebranding attempt.” Similarly, a strategic overhaul a year earlier at the banking giant UBS was referred to by a Swiss news portal as a “rebranding.” Observable visual change—like a new logo or name—is often just the tip of the iceberg. Invisibility is even more strategic than visibility. As WikiLeaks’ editor in chief, Julian Assange, has asserted, “power that is completely unaccountable is silent.” A forced rebranding can be a hurried pledge to meet the taste of the public; it can also be a move to restore silence.
The new millennium of corporate misconduct was spearheaded by Enron, the Houston-based energy, commodities, and services corporation that went bankrupt in 2001 after its massive accounting fraud was discovered. The Enron logo was the very last piece of work by the designer Paul Rand, one of the fathers of American modernism. Rand was born and raised in a “prebranding” age, in which corporations were largely seen as enlightened caretakers, hiring artists to do their advertising campaigns. Enron exposed such beliefs as false when it collapsed under the weight of its fictitious profits—casting a new, somewhat harsher light on Paul Rand’s presumably timeless musings on design, art, and the world of business. For example, in 1991 Rand wrote, “A well-designed logo, in the end, is a reflection of the business it symbolizes. It connotes a thoughtful and purposeful enterprise, and mirrors the quality of its products and services. It is good public relations—a harbinger of goodwill.” Though Enron did not have the opportunity to rebrand itself to survive its own collapse, it now stands as a symbol, not of “goodwill” but of the new economy’s accounting bubble of limitless profit that would ultimately lead to 2008’s, and subsequent, financial crises.
Xe’s logo, replacing Blackwater (2007).
From Terror to Template: Blackwater > Xe
The Bush (and now Obama) administration’s extensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought by a conglomerate of public-private parties, reminding us once again that warfare is big business. U.S. troops in the Middle East are served at Pizza Hut and McDonald’s branches staffed by a giant service sector of Asian laborers—“third-country nationals” who, according to reporting by The New Yorker, are being promised work in Dubai luxury hotels, only to find themselves serving fast food in a military camp in Iraq. Combat itself is also partially outsourced to private security companies, of which the best-known was a corporation called Blackwater, based in the borderlands of North Carolina and Virginia and named after the color of the swamp there. After reporters found out in 2007 that Blackwater employees were responsible for various shootings of Iraqi civilians under the mantle of security operations and risk management, the size and nature of its corporate governance became exposed; in 2009 the company rebranded itself as “Xe.” Blackwater’s distinctively carnivorous logo, depicting an animal claw in crosshairs, was swapped for a piece of nondescript typographic stealth that could have fit equally well on a business jet, a laser printer, or a modem. A spokesperson for the company said that the new name was supposed to have “no meaning.” Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, has since stepped down and is now creating a private mercenary army in the United Arab Emirates. The Obama administration in 2010 awarded a $250 million contract to Xe and, according to The Nation, “actively defends the company’s continued existence as a government contractor in good standing.” But the forced rebranding was only partially effective; most people still refer to Xe as Blackwater.
From Greenwashing to Crowdsourcing: BP by Greenpeace
Greenwashing is a strategy whereby corporations—especially energy companies—seek to impress the public by appearing committed to the environment. For example, in 2000 the U.K. energy giant British Petroleum changed its long-held green-and-yellow crest into a beautiful flower, paired with the slogan “beyond petroleum.” In April 2010, an explosion aboard Beyond Petroleum’s oil platform the Deepwater Horizon (which sat on the deepest oil well in history), triggered an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Subsequently, both the company’s real policies and the sailing habits of its CEO, Tony Hayward, became painfully obvious, sweeping aside a ten-year-old greenwash of the BP brand. Greenpeace, in turn, deployed an original protest method. It invited the public to rebrand BP.
“Gapvetica”: The Failed Rebranding of a “Classic”
Last October, the giant American clothing retailer Gap announced a rebranding campaign. Its existing trademark was a blue box with its name in white, stretched capital serif letters. A sneak preview of the new sign, released on the company’s website, consisted of “Gap” rendered in Helvetica with a blue square behind a section of the p. To some, the new mark brought to mind an oil company, while the deadpan use of Helvetica was vaguely reminiscent of American Apparel. The brand’s “loyal fans”—or, more accurately, various people using social media—began to “protest” the rebranding, demanding that the change be revoked. In typical corporate lingo mastered by CEOs, politicians, and “sociopreneurs,” Gap’s North American president, Marka Hansen, wrote an open letter to the angry mob praising the new logo’s consistency: “We chose this design as it’s more contemporary and current. It honors our heritage through the blue box while still taking it forward.” Now comes the best part: “Given the passionate outpouring from customers that followed, we’ve decided to engage in the dialogue, take their feedback on board and work together as we move ahead and evolve to the next phase of Gap.” Hansen invited them to submit new Gap logos to the company’s Facebook profile, and covered the silent withdrawal of “Gapvetica” on a positive note: “Thank you to everyone who has already shared feedback,” she wrote. “I’m excited about continuing the conversation and believe passionately in where we’re taking our brand.”
Emergency Brand Evacuation: HBGary and Anonymous
Following the WikiLeaks release of a trove of U.S. diplomatic cables last December, companies such as Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa terminated services to the organization under circumstances that, according to the Harvard Law scholar Yochai Benkler, amounted to extralegal political pressure. In response, a loosely coordinated hacker group working under the collective handle Anonymous launched “Operation Payback.” The action consisted of distributed denial-of-service attacks targeting companies involved in the WikiLeaks boycott.
In February, the Financial Times broke the story that Aaron Barr, the CEO of a cybersecurity company called HBGary Federal, claimed to have used social-media tools to discover and map out Anonymous’s much sought-after “top leadership,” which he was to unveil at an upcoming security conference. It did not take long for Anonymous to strike back at Barr; the group hacked his Twitter account, broke into HBGary’s servers, and leaked tens of thousands of company emails, which revealed, among other things, HBGary’s role (together with two other technology firms) in an anti-WikiLeaks information-manipulation task force called “Team Themis” and commissioned by the law firm Hunton & Williams, which was itself working for Bank of America. The subsequent revelations jeopardized not just Aaron Barr’s position but also HBGary Federal’s role in the industry and, eventually, the company itself. In March, Barr stepped down. “I need to focus on taking care of my family and rebuilding my reputation,” Barr said in an interview with Threatpost. “Given that I’ve been the focus of much of the bad press, I hope that, by leaving, HBGary and HBGary Federal can get away from some of that. I’m confident they’ll be able to weather this storm.” Again, we observe the familiar pattern of corporate risk containment—ironic, since Barr’s fatal bluster about his Anonymous research was clearly intended to boost the company image and, perhaps, get new clients on board. And again, the visual regimen of all this seemed to be the least concern for all involved. The most striking symbol of the episode was the pictures taken of the vacant HBGary booth at the conference and fair where Aaron Barr was supposed to address security professionals: Nothing to see here. At the time of this writing, HBGary Federal’s website is still offline.
Further study of the anonymity and pseudonymity strategies of volatile network insurgents like Anonymous and LulzSec should be a vital task for anyone making sense of visual identity today. The tools these groups deploy may be technologically new, but they’re part of a long conceptual tradition. In a post-Enron era of rebellion against corporate and administrative misconduct, the laws of Rand’s enlightened despotism are suspended, and the mask reigns supreme.
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