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Combined Authority logos – do they do it for you?

Combined Authority logos – do they do it for you?

🕔14.Aug 2017

With branding of the West Midlands, as ever, under discussion and the Midlands Engine currently looking to develop a campaign brand, Chris Game wonders if anyone recognises any of the Combined Authorities.  

There’s a serious debate to be had about whether our new generation of mainly city region-based combined authorities, far from being too large – as is sometimes suggested of our own WMCA – are in fact too small to form the basis of a really effective tier of sub-national government, able to compete with other countries’ powerful regions and provinces in today’s global economy.

And, while this could certainly be an appropriate place, now – for me, anyway – is not the time. Sorry to disappoint!

The case, at least in the context of the north and the possible creation of a ‘northern super-region’, was made earlier in the year by IPPR North (Institute for Public Policy Research), and the theme was taken up recently by Nick Golding, editor of the Local Government Chronicle.

Noting Yorkshire council leaders’ Yorkshire Day (August 1st) announcement of their intention to form a “coalition of the willing” – as opposed to one defined by ministers and civil servants in London – he suggested that a Yorkshire-wide body, of potentially up to 20 councils with a substantial enough and lasting devolution deal, “could become England’s Bavaria, posing a challenge to the centralist mindset.”

It was the opening to Golding’s column, though, which particularly caught my attention, with its less than enthusiastic reference to the corporate logos of our six new CAs. He found them “curiously similar symbols … series of coloured dots or slivers that come together in a wheel or a line”, and likely to leave their wider populations cold and/or bewildered.

They could easily represent, Golding suggested, a legal partnership, or one of the management consultancies involved in their design, none being “as emotive as Warwickshire’s bear and ragged staff, Liverpool’s liver bird, or the white rose of Yorkshire.”

READ: Combined Authority decides not to re-name

Overlooking that Googling ‘white rose logo’ nowadays will get you an insurance company, a shopping centre, and a facelift long before you get anywhere near a council, you can see his point.

And if you don’t, see what you make of this lot:

These certainly colourful creations include the logos of – and in five cases specifically commissioned for – our six new Combined Authorities, presumably designed to communicate at a glance to local residents something really distinctive about their identity and function.

Just to remind you, and in case most seem worryingly interchangeable, we’re looking for Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, and Cambridge/Peterborough. Oh yes, and lest that seemed insultingly easy, I added in a couple of non-CAs.

Of course, they – and indeed you – could reasonably point out that these symbols are generally accompanied by the CA’s actual name. Which is true – but in turn prompts the question: so why bother with the indecipherable and hardly costless logo?

As it happens, one – the proverbial granddaddy CA, Greater Manchester – hasn’t bothered. The pile of building blocks – each representing, as generally in these logos, a constituent council – is actually the logo of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), the GMCA’s longstanding and still extant predecessor, and the CA presents itself to the world logo-free.

There is, I think, a serious point here. I know nothing worthwhile about the advertising business, but I do know that a logo’s primary, if not sole, purpose is to identify the product or business, and establish instant brand recognition.

These CA logos don’t come close to doing either. Which is why they look fundamentally so different from pretty well all really successful brand logos, which have the product name as an integral part of the logo.

If you look at the earliest versions of the “most iconic brand logos of all time”, before the instant recognition was almost universal, the product name is absolutely central, if not the logo itself – the one exception here being the crazy guy who thought it might be a fun idea to name his computer after part of his fruitarian diet.

Even the Nike ‘Swoosh’, the sole symbol of the company for over two decades now, was for the previous two accompanied by the Nike name.

Yet we’re expected to remember whether our CA is the one represented by a pile of coloured plates, a child’s windmill, or a curly string of different-sized hexagons.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, though, comparing these admittedly quite pretty images with those designed to sell some of the most popular products on the planet.

So I looked at the logos of the seven constituent councils of the WMCA. They’re collectively a bit yesterday, but most do at least attempt to integrate their name into the logo design, rather than just sticking it alongside as all the CAs except West Yorkshire do.

West Yorkshire CA’s slightly more artistic effort, if you hadn’t already checked, is the string of hexagons, representing its five constituent authorities plus the non-constituent City of York – an idea possibly copied from (sorry, inspired by, as we say in academia) one that Sandwell made earlier.

You can see why Sandwell councillors were keen on a makeover. Even without the dreadful events of recent weeks, you probably don’t want tower blocks as a prominent feature in your corporate identity, especially if your housing policy claims to have knocked more of them down than anywhere else in Europe.

Surely almost anything’s better than that, even a design that looks disconcertingly like a question mark: possibly ‘What are we all doing here?’ or even ‘Where on earth is Sandwell?’

It derives, of course, from Sandwell Priory, a small Benedictine monastery near West Bromwich, which, dissolved 450 years previously, could be trusted to cause only moderate offence to councillors representing the six real towns whose civic names would disappear in the 1974 local government reorganisation.

As for Coventry, when you’ve got a genuine 11th Century Lady Godiva with even an embroidered salacious backstory, you wonder how the city’s coat of arms with, in clockwise formation, a black eagle, wild cat, mythical phoenix, and elephant (don’t ask!), lasted so long.

Which brings us to Birmingham’s logo, and what my students used to reckon is the cheekiest bit of corporate political propaganda in English local government.  Earnestly as I’d explain about it depicting the city at the heart of England, they’d see two arrows, a smaller Conservative one pointing backwards and a bigger red one pointing forwards, and speculate on how the councillors got away with it.

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