On logos (and the Royal Mail)

I happen to like the Royal Mail logo. It is simple and workmanlike and when properly used it hints at the existence of a competent and professional organization standing behind it. It makes me feel good, but only briefly. I shall keep silent about the Consignia aberration, other than to hint that if as much effort went into worrying about some other aspects Royal Mail operations as went into the graphics then it might be the better for it.

My enthusiasm for the logo and the professionalism it is intended to convey is invariably ruined each time I am forced to lose an hour of my life by having to visit my local delivery office. It is a dismal, depressing experience. It is located in what to my eyes looks like tired and inappropriate premises in a rotten location to which must troop an endless stream of non-delivery victims who must queue silently in the cold and rain because the waiting area is too small and the wrong shape to admit more than two people unless they know each other inappropriately well… You get the picture.

What struck me as I attempted to use the enforced waiting time to best advantage was to compare what I thought the corporate identity guru might have had in mind when he (or she) was asked to produce the logo, and what I actually observed.

What I think was sought was a logo that reinforced the appearance of an efficient and focused, professional organization. What one sees in a highly customer-facing area such as a delivery office is something that very different. Outside, there was an expensive enamelled sign over nearly all of which was a paper notice attached by Sellotape and produced on an office machine in black on white, maximizing the awfulness of the appearance. I suppose the times of opening had changed. Inside there was a large plate glass serving window. Within the office as a whole I counted a dozen assorted notices of which only four were corporate, though randomly spread about. The remainder were all home made things contrived locally and looked dreadful. This was partly because they had not been designed at all (some were hand written) and partly because they were dotted around all over the place, including the glass. Some had been there for as long as I had known the place, and looked it. The glass itself looked dirty, but the inside was festooned with strips of old Sellotape, presumably a relic of notices long departed, and other detritus. Perhaps this served to diminish the view of the chaotic scene behind the glass that I finally concluded was beyond any rational description beyond looking like a very large number of heaps. No electronics was in evidence, just boards and lots and lots of home-made notices. The staff appeared (at least on my last visit) to do a reasonable job in the circumstances, and one was positively cheerful, but the whole operation had a rather third-world feel about it.

What I actually felt about it, was that I would have liked to have identified the person who commissioned the logo and asked them to spend an afternoon at this delivery office, enjoying the surroundings. If you go to the expense of producing an enamelled sign with opening times on it you either do not alter the opening times or you have a system for replacing or altering the notices with a professional replacement the day the alteration occurs. If you discover that the call-attention bell push is in the wrong place you either have professional notices saying ‘Bell Push’ or you change the position of the bell push; you do not, after ten years, tolerate an exhausted hand written and much-Sellotaped notice saying Press Bell. If only certain forms of identification are acceptable, then it must be the same at all delivery offices and a proper notice with the approved documents should be produced and displayed properly in an official notice case. And so on. It seemed evident to me that no manager that had any interest in the reputation of the Royal Mail could possibly have visited this establishment or what I find on every visit simply could not happen. What I was looking at was a scene that was totally unmanaged.

I know that these well-intentioned but partly inevitable unofficial notices can be managed away because it has been done elsewhere. I expect some readers are old enough to recall Underground stations of old where ticket office windows were liberally covered with unofficial notices, in some cases making it quite hard to see the booking clerk (which may have been the idea). When I was an operational manager I tried to get them reduced (as unnecessary), replaced (by something official) or replaced and moved somewhere more appropriate. In the end, the opportunity was taken when the new UTS  ticket offices arrived to forbid hand written notices and to deploy publicity assistants to act as the bridge between local staff and HQ to produce official notices where there was a local need. Coupled with a strong corporate identity even I would acknowledge that LU (for all its faults) does maintain a reasonably strong corporate coherence where evidence of local anarchy, eg hand written stuff just stuck anywhere) is unusual  It was not an overnight process, but if LU can do it then I am certain the Royal Mail can.

Much of my ire must be directed at Royal Mail central management who either do not know what goes on locally, or does not care. It is surely obvious to all that creating a professional brand is more that paying some design agency to produce a logo and expecting all to flow from that. A brand must be a consistent message from one end of the organization to the other. Every time the public is exposed to the delivery office shambles this undermines the brand: it does real harm. A lost letter or a rise in stamp prices is (perhaps) excusable if the public only sees the professional side – the nice logo and the always clean and smart vans, for example. A lost letter seems inevitable if one has visited my delivery office and seen how stuff really seems to happen, one marvels anything gets through. These things matter and I remain astonished that, as the years roll, by nothing is done. Don’t take my word for all this; I recommend Wally Olin’s book ‘The Corporate Personality’ for a splendid insight into how any corporation’s persona is affected by all kinds of messages visible to its public (but perhaps invisible to itself). The logo, incidentally, is the least important factor (but the only one an incompetent manager can actually do anything about). To make progress it is first vital for the Royal Mail to acknowledge that the public sees things differently from someone in their office at HQ. I would love to give their MD an insight into what I believe the public actually sees (and reduce their Sellotape bill, and perhaps their rubber band bill  I haven’t had to buy rubber bands for years).

It emerges that my experience of delivery offices suggests that I am getting off lightly and there are ones where the service is much worse with regular queueing of up to 45 minutes but in equally dismal surroundings. This is rank poor service and again suggests a problem in either having or maintaining standards that sit happily alongside the ‘corporate’ identity.

Getting the image right is fixable, requires consistent management and is not necessarily expensive. It is important. Fix it! 

UPDATE 23 November 2012

Here is a photograph of a Royal Mail pillar box passed by hundreds of people a day in central London and it is fairly clear that the problem (presumably loss of a door for reasons that can only be guessed at) has not just happened. This kind of thing does immense damage to an organization’s reputation, and changing the logo won’t fix it. This is a management problem.

By the way:

(1) If you are obsessed by logos and the people who impose and police them then 
http://www.royalmail.com/sites/default/files/docs/pdf/Logo_guidelines.pdf may be of interest;

(2) How many readers know that Post Office Ltd (the people who own the 500 surviving ‘crown’ post offices and who are the franchise owner for the rest) are no longer part of the Royal Mail group, having been demerged 1st April 2012?

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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2 Responses to On logos (and the Royal Mail)

  1. Doug Rose says:

    Well I get accused of moaning about this sort of thing too much, and I suppose I don't deny it. Bring back Gilbert Harding, that's what I say.

    When I was made aware of Wally Olins's book I was told ‘it will change your life’. A bit over the top perhaps but I have lost count of the number of people I have told ‘you must read this’ — including some of my own clients.

    The author rightly labours the point that corporate identity and corporate personality are entwined but quite different. Written over 30 years ago, and with some obvious technological design and production methods being quite different now, the thrust of mankind’s input clearly are not. We still make the same mistakes over and over again, worrying ourselves silly over the precise (whatever that means) application of corporate colours and typefaces and then paying scant attention to the crucial part — implementation of the products for their intended purpose. Committees meet, sometimes for several years, interrogating the designer to get just what they (think they) want. Satisfied with the inevitable compromises, the project is handed over to a lower ranking group of people to make it all happen.

    The implementation group often has had little involvement in the design process, and equally insufficient sensitivity to it. So the new products and posters are exactly the right colour (until they fade quickly owing to the procurement process having appointed the cheapest supplier). Posters are then put into poster cases that aren’t quite the right size and often then not positioned to their best advantage. (I must write a piece about poster cases; you wouldn’t believe how much there is to get wrong — and routinely is.)

    I read this book about 24 years after its publication and realized that we still bang our heads against the wall. The real problem is that corporate identity is massively important to the people who own it and not that high on the priorities of the end user who sees it. As you say Mike, the corporate identity police don't go out and experience the corporate personality that the customer ends up with.

    My delivery office is not as bad as the one you describe. We only have one sticky notice in the window and I seldom have to wait long. I am however curious to know why a letter, correctly addressed to me but not delivered, took two weeks to arrive back with the sender. It contained a doctor's prescription. Luckily my ailment wasn't life threatening. As someone said to me once 'thank god we are not flying a plane'.


  2. sdfasfd says:

    People often look at things Wolff Olins do as crazy. Look at the Olympics Branding. Look at EE. People laughed at and derided both of these brands based on their logo when they were launched. But look at how well all the olympics branding came together. Look at EE, their one message right through from the adverts, to the website and stores.

    People just don't understand that branding is more than just a logo. Mike, you are so right on this one. I had to fight with my last employer many times on this front, as they took crazy, lazy cost-cutting decisions that just undermined the brand further. Ironically, this brand was created by Wolff Olins, but you wouldn't know it to look at their communication or physical locations now.

    I must find and read a copy of that book!


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