To fly, to serve, to shield

British Airways has revamped its coat of arms of old (well, 1975) in an attempt to convey notions of heritage and stability after a troubling year

Does heraldry have a place in modern corporate branding? What do coats of arms and devices such as lions, dragons, griffins and unicorns, whose significance is shrouded in the dim and distant past, say about organisations in 2011?

If you’re a Great British Fashion Brand, a local authority, university, bank, professional sports club or Donald Trump, you might claim that the trappings of this ancient identity system can still convey lineage, continuity, integrity and quality in a way that a simple logotype or a modern symbol cannot.

And if you’re a Royal warrant holder with a good back story, such as Smythson, Bendicks or Twinings, a royal coat of arms (or two or three) can cause a certain kind of heart to beat faster, although just as many warrant-holders (eg Boots, Harvey Nichols, Jaguar) choose to play down their royal connections. A few years ago, corsetier to the Queen, Rigby & Peller, decided to unclip the royal coat of arms from its logo to remove the perception among younger, fashion-conscious women that its products were only for elderly ladies with deep pockets and a need for strictly functional uplift.

British Airways, in strapping back on its traditional coat of arms, is pledging itself to values and a promise from another age – although not the age usually associated with heraldry. “The coat of arms has been in our heritage since 1975,” says BA’s Head of Brand, Proposition & Insight, Abi Comber, “and the motto made us think, ‘That’s what we do’. We are re-committing to what it stands for, and what the motto stands for.”

Its unveiling has been wrapped up with the launch of BA’s biggest ad campaign for years: a liquid-metallic, blinged-up version appears in the endframe of BBH’s sugary, flying-hats-and-goggles aviators clip. But the coat of arms is being ‘recrafted’ for permanent adoption and more tasteful application over the coming months. Forpeople, an agency with a background in automotive and product design that BA has worked with for several years, has remodelled the design in 2D and 3D forms and worked with craftspeople such as Bill Amberg on leather embossing and Mr Smith’s Letterpress Workshop on various printed matters.

The designers have bypassed Landor’s 1987 rendering of the coat of arms – rumoured to have been influenced by its concurrent work on emblems for cigarette packaging – and returned to the ‘heraldically correct’ original, for its gravitas and authenticity. This was awarded by the College of Arms just after BA was formed from BOAC and BEA, and was still in public ownership.

Behind the reintroduction of the noble symbolism, though, can be read an intention to present not just a united front after painful, public rifts with its staff, but also an unambiguous statement of identity following BA’s long struggles with its image, on tailfins and everywhere else. It’s a flag to rally behind that isn’t red, white and blue.

We’re told the coat of arms will be applied beautifully, evoking the company’s heritage, pomp and Britishness through craftsmanship and design. Neo-royal heraldry has connotations of public ownership, duty and service. But, in contrast to what BA would like us to think, the revival of a coat of arms doesn’t fit into the lineage of radical and brave design patronage that the airline displayed in the days of Concorde and commissioning uniforms from RCA students.
It’s a safe route to go, and particularly in times like these, safety is a welcome association for an airline. 

Michael Evamy is the author of LOGO and its companion, Logotype, to be published by Laurence King in 2012. evamy.co.uk. More of Forpeople’s work is at forpeople.co.uk

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