Disclaimer: As a designer, I have a heightened response to visual information. Nevertheless, from time to time something so blaringly awful crosses my path that I can hardly contain myself but to shout out a cosmic “WHY?” for all the world to hear. To give this story context, I used to drive through a part of San Francisco where I would pass by a Sherwin-Williams paint store. If you’ve ever seen their logo, it’s a red can of paint that’s dumping muck and suffocating the earth, as the mass of paint drips to cover most of the earth’s surface. As though that weren’t enough to outrage environmentally conscious sorts, their tagline reads, “Cover the earth.”
As I went by their signage, I would start scowling and get a furrow in my brow, with a feeling of frustration. Why should I be affected by a brand who’s products I’ll never buy and a company I don’t relate to? Because of branding. Plain and simple, they are a giant corporation, with worldwide distribution and their brand exudes the sentiment, “We don’t care,” and it’s ok to trash the earth with our toxic products. That’s exactly how strongly I feel when I see the Sherwin-Williams logo.
While I’m not one to normally write letters to Congressmen/women or CEOs, this time I took a couple of hours to do just that. I clocked in some time reading through one of the company’s websites, trying to understand the scope of their offerings, learn about their management and what they were doing in the realm of sustainability. I was also curious about the style in which they communicated with their stakeholders. I wanted to be thoughtful and strategic about making a case about why their branding was so out of touch with the times. This is an excerpt from the letter that I wrote to Christopher Connor, the CEO of Sherwin-Williams;
“To clarify why it is that I’m writing to you, I think that based upon things that I saw on your website, your company actually does care about important things like your employees, creating quality products and having a legacy that incorporates sustainable business practices. What I don’t understand is why that isn’t reflected in the messaging of your branding? Why is it that I can’t feel it in San Francisco and actually feel the opposite—that your brand is so off-point and off-putting, that I took the time to write to you?”
Granted that the business of creating coatings and surface products isn’t in alignment with sustainability in its purest form, I asked them to research a company called Clarke as a point of reference. The Clarke company is in the pest control business, but in their own words, “developing and delivering environmentally responsible mosquito control and aquatic services to help prevent disease, control nuisances and create healthy waterways.” I had heard their CEO give a presentation at the Sustainable Brands conference two years ago and he reminded me a lot of Ray Anderson, the former CEO of Interface Flor. Mr. Anderson made it his mission to integrate sustainability into their business model. His willingness to do so became a game changer for the survival and success of the company.
This is another part of my letter to Mr. Connor regarding Clarke;
“As an example, look at how Clarke (Clarke.com) has shifted its products, messaging and branding to reflect a company that cares about its customers, employees and the environment and contrast that with Sherwin Williams. The difference has to do with relevance, consistency and clarity. Sherwin Williams comes across as fragmented in terms of what it says and how it portrays itself through its branding.”
I think one of the most important attributes of making sure that a brand is on point is that it has a strong correlation with trust. The trust of your stakeholders, both internally and externally. I could go into great detail about why branding is crucial but ultimately, it’s about harnessing a company’s intention and building of trust. Ironically, Sherwin Williams has tremendous market share, regardless of their dated branding but it’s curious why they preach the importance of sustainability as part of their business, when their brand says otherwise. It’s like saying one thing and doing another. That’s both confusing and creates a mistrust because you’re not sure who you’re really dealing with.
Ultimately I did receive a four-paragraph letter back from Sherwin-William’s Vice President of Marketing Communications. Her explanation was filled with corporate jargon, and disappointing but to be expected. Essentially, the VP of Marketing made the case that the design first appeared in 1893, symbolic of how Sherwin-Williams quality paint could become large enough to make an impact on the entire world. Turns out, it’s been the same ever since. Well…1893 thinking isn’t quite applicable in 2014.
That’s just it. They don’t get it. There’s nothing innovative and exciting about 1893 thinking as a lazy response to why their brand can’t be refreshed to represent their sustainability initiatives. I don’t think that people should have to fish around to learn that your company gives a damn. As far as Sherwin-Williams is concerned, I’m conflicted about whether they actually do.