AT&T's Not-So-New Logo

Ma Bell's recently unveiled icon looks suspiciously like the old one. What's the rationale behind the subtle changes?

Sit down. The Logo Doctors have a story to tell -- a story about a time-honored logo that has just been changed. And more broadly, a story about when and how to tinker with a powerful brand icon.

Once upon a time, in the Orwellian year of 1984, one of the largest companies in the world unveiled a new logo that depicted -- what else? -- the world itself. The designer of this new logo was Saul Bass. The company was AT&T (T).

Bass's new globe replaced the company's previous logo, a bell. Although Bass himself had updated the bell in 1969, the icon had been in use for nearly 100 years before it was replaced in 1984. It was, in many ways, the perfect symbol for the AT&T brand: Not only was it a simple mnemonic for the company's original founder and the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, but bells symbolize sound, and many bells (church bells, doorbells) connect people. AT&T essentially made sound boxes that connected people.


  So why change such an appropriate, well-recognized symbol? Because in 1984, the U.S. government forced AT&T to break up, spinning off its local phone service into seven regional "Baby Bell" companies. If you're not the only bell in town, you can't very well keep using the symbol to mark your territory.

Bass's solution was to signify something more than sound and connectivity: AT&T's global reach. While the Baby Bells connected friends and family across town, AT&T linked you to a network spanning the world. Despite the ubiquity of the bell, Bass's globe was instantly accepted because it symbolized how customers had come to see AT&T -- and how the company had come to see itself. The globe signaled to AT&T customers, shareholders, and employees that its new vision was international.

And what a globe it was! Emblazoned in a UN-style blue (an element Bass borrowed from the bell), the globe's racing longitudinal lines thinned to white in what would be North America's location, subtly positioning that continent as the information flashpoint for an increasingly wired world. The icon presented the globe as a unified, country-less sphere, coursing with information.

This vision of the world has remained potent: The symbol is still widely recognized despite the fact that, since Comcast (CMCSA) bought AT&T's broadband cable division and Cingular bought AT&T's cellular division last year, the services many consumers have come to expect from AT&T no longer belong to it.


  When SBC Communications bought AT&T this year, the newly formed company opted to keep the AT&T name and redesign its logo. How does AT&T's latest mark, introduced on Nov. 21, stack up? Well, like the old mark, it's round. Like the old mark, it's blue. Like the old mark, it has stripes of varying widths. And, like the old mark, it suggests that its round shape is three-dimensional.

But this time, the three-dimensionality is emphasized with the addition of transparency, shading, and some nifty computer effects. Other than looking like Pixar's (PIXR) version of an old Disney (DIS) cartoon, it's pretty much the same.

As design consultancy Pentagram's Michael Bierut -- who has written a moving elegy for Bass's globe on the Design Observer Web site -- points out, "Bass's AT&T mark has one advantage over anything that will replace it: It already exists.... Anything new will surrender all that equity, return to square one, and compete for attention with all those other telecom marks out there."


  When a company decides to change a logo that is as beloved and recognizable as AT&T's globe, it better have a good reason for doing so -- say, the government has declared your company a monopoly, and you must split it up. So change your mark because the rules of business have changed and the old mark no longer applies. Change your mark because your company has shifted its business strategy. Change your mark because it was bad to begin with and no one recognizes it. And when you change your mark, really change your mark.

The only upside in writing over something as long-lasting as Bass's globe is the opportunity to present something entirely new, a bright and confident vision of what's to come. AT&T's new logo does no such thing. If Bass's globe was a confident cannonball into the pool, this logo, by an uncredited designer, is a timid toe in the water. It reduces Bass's mark to a hollow, cartoony shell of itself. It may not be the same, but it's definitely not new.

As a result, it fails to communicate what, if anything, is actually new at AT&T, or even -- more basically -- why the company changed its logo in the first place. True, AT&T's sale to SBC required the new entity to review its corporate mark. But in recognizing that AT&T had the stronger brand, the company should have left the globe alone. The logo's change reeks of egotism more than anything else: SBC, once a Baby Bell, has redecorated big Ma Bell's house.


  The "un-newness" of this new mark reminds us of the spring rollout of Mountain Dew's "new" logo, which looks almost identical to the old one, except that it's sharper and shinier. In response to charges that the new logo was anything but, Scott Johnson of the ad agency Tribal observed: "A lot of people aren't really going to notice it..., [but] guys can find things that no one really knows are there."

There's a great story about things that no one really knows are there. It's called "The Emperor's New Clothes." A king, told his imaginary robes are the finest and most beautiful in all the land, confidently strides out in public naked -- his perception clouded by the power of his deceptive tailors' tale. In rationalizing its transparent globe, you can witness AT&T falling prey to a similar kind of storytelling.

The company says: "The new globe is three-dimensional, representing the expanding breadth and depth of services that the new AT&T family of companies provides to customers, as well as its global presence." But wasn't the old globe three-dimensional? AT&T says: "Transparency was added to the globe to represent clarity and vision." But wasn't the old globe transparent?

Diagnosis? The third time's not the charm, AT&T, and your new blue "beach ball" is full of hot air.

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