|Friday, 25 June 2010 16:40|
When the Muslim world’s biggest development bank asked Siegel + Gale to create a brand identity for its new trade finance business, the agency had to draw on all its Middle Eastern experience and get to grips with a whole newway of working. Frank Sutton reports
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) sounds like an extremely serious organisation. Because that’s exactly what it is. Although still just a youngster – it was spun out of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) in 2006 – it has been quick to make an impact in the Muslim world, handing out business loans to organisations across over 50 countries, and reinvesting profits into equally serious things like trade development. But although it had been full steam ahead since the day it launched, two years ago the people with their hands on the tiller realised they needed to create a brand identity.
Majid Bin Ayed Al-Ayed was brought into the organisation to put this right. “When I was hired they had a name and a purpose. What they didn’t have was a personality.” Al-Ayed explains that the importance of a clear and well-articulated brand isn’t stitched into the fabric of Middle Eastern business in the same way that it is in the west. Certainly, he says, it wasn’t in the case of the IDB. “The IDB had never been interested in branding. Their approach was to let their work speak for itself. They just weren’t used to communicating properly with the outside world. The ITFC was the first organisation to embark on this kind of activity in the whole group.”
Fred Burt, MD of Siegel + Gale, London, was the man chosen to create the brand with his team. His sense of the task ahead was much the same as Al-Ayed’s. “The IDB was steeped in bureaucracy. There was a certain dynamism that the private sector had that the ITFC wanted to emulate. Many of the brands developed locally are quite clichéd. Our job was to create something that wasn’t clichéd but at the same time we couldn’t come up with an identity so far removed from the local culture that it didn’t resonate.”
Burt was acutely aware from the outset that coming in with a western viewpoint and doing things the western way wouldn’t wash. The new identity would only work if it was a true reflection of the organisation. “Authenticity is key. You need to be able to substantiate the claims a brand makes. Hollow razzmattaz doesn’t give you any long-term business advantage.”
This was all the more important given the scale of the ITFC’s ambitions. “We didn’t just want a name. We wanted a symbol that could eventually grow to represent ITFC. If you open a brochure and see the Mercedes logo you know it’s Mercedes without any words being needed. The same with Apple. That was the level of brand awareness we wanted to build.”
Step one was for Burt and his team to pack a suitcase and get on a plane to Jeddah. Al-Ayed explains: “I had Siegel + Gale sit down with our CEO and deputy CEO to learn how we do things, what the mindset of the organisation is, its heritage, customers and stakeholders. We also had half a dozen conference calls and one trip to London before they even started working on any designs.”
This period of learning, of soaking up everything about the business, was crucial. In fact it wasselecting their agency. “When we were first in contact with them, Siegel + Gale were in the process of finishing a project with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology [in Saudi Arabia]. So we were confident that they had a good understanding of the cultural nuances of our region.”
“If you see the Mercedes logo, you know it’s Mercedes without any words being needed. The same with Apple. That was the level of brand awareness we wanted to build”
Burt picks this up in more detail. “For us it was about cultural immersion. For example, the subtleties in typography, the different colour palettes used in the Muslim world, which tend to mirror the very arid landscape. Then there was photography – we had to understand how to use it without offending people.”
He found the whole process distinctly different from working in the west. “We discovered that the organisation was extremely open to quite profound change. Branding as a discipline is relatively new in the Middle East. In places like the US and the UK, established brand thinking can get in the way rather than being a help. But the people at the ITFC were really keen to explore contemporary design. The value they put on design work is really high.”
Equally, not only was the CEO of the ITFC involved at every stage of the process but he also realised that a successful brand needs to be geared towards more than just customers. That other
crucial stakeholder group, employees, needs to buy into it as well.
“We developed three design iterations,” recounts Burt. “We presented to the CEO. He turned around and said he loved all three but couldn’t pick a winner. So he called in his entire senior team and asked them to decide. It made sense – it’s his staff who have to
live and build the brand. But we’d never seen a CEO open up such an important decision to his staff in
this way before.”The new brand is based on the idea of partnership. The brand mark looks like an aerial shot of interlocking arms. “It shows we are interlinked with the economies and member countries in which we operate,” says Al-Ayed.
Fred Burt takes this on: “The notion of honesty and balance is important in Shari’ah banking. To reflect that, the mark we created is almost mathematical in its construction. It almost takes the form of a seal. Seals are quite common as tribal marks in the Middle East. If it appeared here in UK it might have a slight Islamic feel to it yet doesn’t feel 100 per cent Islamic. In that sense it crosses east and west.”
Al-Ayed was also pleased with the choice of colours. “We wanted the use of colour to reflect our Islamic heritage. But we’d asked Siegel + Gale not to overuse the colour green. It is a very important colour in the Muslim world and it had to play a part but we said that the new logo cannot be green green green.”
Burt explains how they answered this challenge: “The colour palettes were developed from the colours of the region, with its sand and stone.”
“Siegel + Gale also came up with guidelines for photography,” adds Al-Ayed. “Their advice was that for primary photography we should only use black and white. When we later followed these guidelines to produce our first annual report, we saw what they meant. It went very nicely.”
“The president of the IDB is a die-hard banker. He is a man of few words but I saw him comparing our annual report with those of the other organisations in the IDB group. He picked ours up and had a smile on his face. That says it all.”
With the design complete, the final challenge was to seek the approval of some key stakeholders. “Our CEO felt that speaking to the powers that be was of primary importance. We wanted to show senior IDB board members that this was money well spent. We unveiled the brand identity in front of the king (of Saudi Arabia) at the 33rd board of governors’ meeting.”
They also recognised, and this was a point strongly reinforced by Siegel + Gale, that communicating the new brand, and the thinking behind it, to staff was critical. Siegel + Gale worked with them to create a full-day workshop called ‘Connect – living with the brand’. There was a 95 per cent attendance rate. The workshop had such an impact that the IDB had to limit the number of people asked to transfer to the ITFC from the IDB.
Al-Ayed believes the success of the project was down to the depth Siegel + Gale went into – the research, the strategy work, the brand guidelines. He concludes: “They didn’t just give us a logo, they gave us the whole nine yards. As the Americans would say.”
David Riddle, Corporate Edge
“I like it – slightly reminiscent of the BP logo, but then what’s new in art and nature these days? But I think it does a good job in transcending boundaries and appealing to a wider audience yet still being faithful to its roots. Whilst it looks simple in construct there’s a lot in it – the sun, a flower, linking arms, a sense of rotation, structure and it feels very accessible and fresh with the use of lower case initials for the name.
And well done for resisting the temptation to over embellish it – which in our experience can be a common theme for Middle Eastern projects.”
Christian Schroeder, Lambie-Nairn
“Upon first glance, the ITFC identity has a wonderful sense of simplicity, clarity and modernity about it. It also gives a nod to its heritage through its form, shape and structure, whilst avoiding the usual visual clichés of the region.
However, dig a little deeper and its tone, both visually and verbally, does not really offer the degree of differentiation one might expect. Beyond the logo, its swirling colours and black and white photography seem a little predictable, especially given the identity is designed more for print than today’s media-driven world.”