As we enter the Year of the Snake in the Chinese lunar calendar, I’ve been thinking about birds. To be more precise, how brands have utilized birds to feather their own nests, so to speak.
Snakes don’t bear much thinking about. They’re slithery, slimy reptiles strongly associated with cunning, deceit and death (who can forget the story of Cleopatra’s asp-assisted suicide, immortalised ever-since in Western poetry and paintings?).
Perhaps these are age-old cultural tropes and I’m being unfair to snakes. After all, I view them through tinted occidental spectacles whereas Chinese tradition takes a more roseate view: ‘little dragon with feet’ (how charming) and a good omen if found in the house, for example (though I’m still not convinced).
Yet Chinese people also grapple with the snake image problem. Unlike the water dragon, a more auspicious symbol of the year that’s just passed in the Chinese zodiacal calendar, serpents are very difficult to portray in an affectionate (might one say cuddly?) way that could make us feel comfortable around them. Chinese manufacturers of New Year souvenirs went to great lengths trying to make snakes look as cute as possible, with mixed results. Some vendors preferred to produce stuffed ducks and then dressed them in snake costumes to disguise the reptile. In most cultures, birds win, snakes lose.
Birds have more to offer by way of appeal to a buying public. What brands would choose to use snakes as imagery? The short answer is a handful of pharma companies, hospitals and medical associations which have adopted either the Rod of Asclepius or a two-snake caduceus as symbols. Outside of the health profession though, snakes are a branding taboo. I can only recall a beer brand that calls itself Cobra, and that’s because I saw their TV ad yesterday. They studiously avoid any cobra-like iconography in their product branding.
As further evidence of the ‘birds win’ argument, I should point out that the English language is rich in bird similes: ‘as free as a bird’; ‘as proud as a peacock’; ‘as wise as an owl’; ‘as graceful as a swan’. Contrast these benign figures of speech with ‘as deadly as a snake’, ‘as venomous as a viper’ or ‘as slippery as a serpent’. The closest any bird similes come to expressing negative anthropomorphic attributes are ‘as sick as a parrot’ or ‘as dead as a dodo’. Birds win for positive associations, snakes lose, again.
Brands have long appropriated avian symbols for their corporate and product logos while aiming to derive some benefit from the positive anthropomorphic associations that we use to characterise birds in general: grace, freedom, independence, power, beauty, playfulness, fun. Airlines are the natural home for bird symbolism to the point of cliché. Sitting in an airport departure lounge overlooking a runway is like observing a corporate aviary; looking outside, colourful aircraft tailfins track past emblazoned with stylised bird motifs.
Many of these airline logos are too abstract in my view. Plumage doesn’t need the intervention of the human hand tinkering with its design. Birds are their own design excellence which is one reason why I prefer the literal design that captures the beauty of a bird’s plumage such as India’s Kingfisher Airlines, for example. Sadly, as it’s bankrupt, that airline is unlikely to be flying for much longer. Happily the real species of kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) with its iridescent colouring is not facing extinction, at least not just yet.
The portrayal of eagles, wings, and flying birds by U.S. airlines peaked in the late 1960s and has waned since then, though American Airlines (AA) has stuck with its eagle icon in its re-designed corporate logo. AA is bankrupt (a common problem in today’s airline industry) and expected to merge with US Airways so how long its new abstract eagle logo will survive is anyone’s guess.
For two decades KLM Royal Dutch Airlines used the swan as a brand positioning device. The swan is probably the most iconic and regal of birds with a reputation for grace, strength, loyalty and constancy (they’re monogamous and mate with one partner for life) which perfectly suited the airline’s tagline: ‘The Reliable Airline’. It’s regrettable that KLM dispensed with the swan’s anthropomorphic brand services a few years ago.
China has a flock of airlines sporting bird motifs such as white cranes (Shanghai Airlines), egrets (Xiamen Airlines) and generic fowl (Hainan Airlines, China Eastern). In a culture where traditional symbols permeate the collective unconscious, mythological birds get air time too: the phoenix (Air China) and peng (Shenzhen Airlines) to name just two.
There is a problem when looking at these airlines’abstract logos. It is this: they lack distinction and individuality. It’s as if China’s airline brands – with their melange of over-designed bird-like symbols – are trying very hard not to be noticed by trying too hard with conceptual design. Each one of them lacks a singular, differentiated identity and aside from the colour palette (in itself limited largely to reds and blues) and minor variations to vectors they appear pretty much the same. A trawl through the airline websites won’t tell you much, if anything, about why the airlines have adopted this or that particular bird to encapsulate a vision or express corporate values.
The design abstractionism in preference to literal imagery is a problem too. It only needs one of China’s airlines to use the realistic imagery of a particular bird species in their corporate identity to start differentiating themselves. Design realism is the low hanging fruit, the quick win, and the patently obvious hidden in plain sight. As the glossy veneer of a brand identity and the visual touchpoint that reminds customers of the service experience, a corporate identity is a powerful way of communicating the values that sets a brand apart from its competitors. A service that delivers on the brand promise reloads the visual identity with ever more customer relevance and meaning, making the logo and supporting design a valuable piece of intellectual property.
Airline brands are not the only industry sector to be graced by birds as graphic devices or in advertising campaigns. Many famous and not so famous British brands have used them: Penguin books and Penguin chocolate biscuits are still going strong after decades (though flightless, penguins are social creatures –how human -and endlessly amusing because of their Chaplinesque waddle), while Guinness beer ran multiple advertising campaigns over many years featuring, somewhat oddly, a big-billed toucan (perhaps for its capacious beak, to hold all that brown liquid) that became an integral part of 20th century British consumer culture for 45 years.
There are two venerable niche Chinese brands named after birds, Seagull Watches and Flying Pigeon bicycles (the latter actually uses a dove for its trademark). They’re venerable in the sense that they’ve been around for a half century or more and are respected by Chinese consumers and cherished by a cohort of nostalgic brand fans, western and Chinese alike. After experiencing mass popularity during the mid-20th century Mao-era, the two brands faded from view in the 1980s and 90s. Since then they’ve demonstrated a phoenix-like resurgence in their respective markets.
Coincidentally both of them began life in the eastern coastal city of Tianjin which certainly goes some way to explaining the moniker used by the Seagull brand. The Flying Pigeon brand name, on the other hand, owes something to the Chinese love of racing pigeons , birds that are valued for being fast, sturdy and reliable, while its dove logo was introduced during the Korean War to express a desire for peace and harmony in turbulent times.
Younger Chinese brands with global ambitions have put more marketing heft and budget behind their visual identity, using creative design and photography in an attempt at a differentiated presence in their overseas markets. One of these relatively youthful brands is Bosideng, an upmarket menswear fashion manufacturer and retailer using a birdwing logo.
Because of Bosideng’s aspirations to replicate the best traditions of British tailoring ( choosing London to locate its first international store ) I gently took it to task in an earlier post for an inapposite use of eagles and ravens in its brand positioning. Eagles are strongly connoted with American culture (cf. American Airlines) while ravens in western folklore are associated with witchcraft, spells, black magic and bad luck (not much better than a serpent, really). Why not choose a bird species that is incontrovertibly British to symbolise Bosideng’s brand pretensions, such as the black grouse, I mused?
As it so happens, the black grouse is indigenous to the British Isles and a perfect symbol for a fashion brand which aspires to the highest classical British tailoring traditions. It has a splendid Latinate name that pays homage to its country of origin: tetrao tetrix britannicus. Recently, for research purposes, I read a book (‘The Black Grouse’ published by Merlin Unwin Books) dedicated entirely to the history, characteristics, behaviour, habitat and ecology of this fascinating bird. Its author, Patrick Laurie, describes the black grouse thus: “His immaculately contrasting sartorial appearance gives the mature black-cock (male) a knowing air of comic pride and insolence which is unique to his species.”
There in a nutshell is the perfect anthropomorphic rationale for a Chinese company to appropriate the black grouse as an identity symbol should it need to envelop a product brand with an aura of Britishness. There are many other passages in the book that describe the black grouse ‘personality’ which the author has also captured in his paintings that liberally illustrate the book. (My more complete review of the book can be found here).
Since Laurie is fighting for the survival of the black grouse which is now under threat from predators, agricultural policies and changing land use, the author writes with a passionate intensity that will fire the interest of any reader. I cannot imagine being quite so absorbed had the book been about snakes.
- Phil Mead