18 February 2009

Can A Name Change Erase A Troubled History: The Question of "Xe"

1947.Blackwater USA.

Likely as not, you took one look at that pair of words and had an instant reaction.

And, no matter where you stand on the idea of the world's most famous private security firm, a truth is that coporations go through brand refreshes for a very specific reason; whatever the previous identity said about the company, the fit has become awkward or completely wrong.

Blackwater, of course, has gone through two such evolutions; from the orignial form "Blackwater USA" to the latter-day form "Blackwater Worldwide" and now, the new, tabula rasa-esque, very nearly devoid of any apparent meaning, short, sweet, and easy-to spell "Xe".

In updating the identity to Xe, the company has explained as its reason:

On February 13, 2009 the company announced that it will now operate under the name 'Xe' (pronounced 'zee'). In a memo sent to employees, President Gary Jackson wrote that the new name "reflects the change in company focus away from the business of providing private security." A spokesman for the company stated that it feels the Blackwater name is too closely associated with the company's work in Iraq. Spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said there was no meaning in the new name, which the company spent over a year to arrive at in an internal search.

Shades of the word "Exxon" there.

At this time it might be a little instructive to go through the evolution of the Blackwater logo. The first and most famous version is this:

Blackwater (now Xe) is based in eastern North Carolina ... Dixie, the American South. Knowing this, several visual tropes leap immediately to mind. The name Blackwater itself ties it in geographically; the so-called "black water" rivers (slow-moving rivers whose waters are inky due to an abundance of tannin from decaying vegetation that is not quickly moved away) are very common in the US's rural south, as are black bears, which very well may have provided the inspiration for the spookily-unnaturally-symmetrical paw print. The oval-and-ticks arrangement communicate nothing so obviously as a guns's target reticle.

The over-arching type reminds this commenter strongly of the type design typically found on logos you'll see on NASCAR autos (we once watched every auto race we could find). Indeed, the logo itself would seem quite at home on a stock car.

It's a very locally-tuned design. But between there and the desination of Xe, Blackwater must have realized that thier design was a little too "good 'ol Southern boys". It needed to be more grown-up, more corporate. A remodel was ordered up, and this was the result:

And it it somethign of an improvement. Gone is the heavy overarching type which looks more like it belonged on a satin jacket than a corporate letterhead. The reticle is stil a reticle, but is a little more abstract. And the bear paw now looks like a real bear paw.

The graphic design has become more ecumenical, while obviously referring its roots.

The type design became much more corporate: obliqued and off to the side, with Blackwater in large type with the word Worldwide reduced and tucked below. It was also broken away from the logo, which frequently appeared without the type at all (as above).

With the advent of Xe, we notice some that the corporate identity, however it's been re-engineered, is still being held very close to the vest. Despite exhaustive searches via teh Google we've been unable to find out what the new graphic design is, or even if Xe has deigned to develop a new logo at all.

Meanwhile, the company's training facilities have taken on the much more generic name of U.S. Training Centers, retaining use of the updated Blackwater Worldwide logo.

Can a name erase a troubled history? After thinking a great deal about it, we really still don't know. It would be naïve indeed to say that Blackwater/Xe doesn't have simple hurdles to overcome to rehabilitate its pulblic image. Where you stand on this issue depends on where you sit.

But just like every organization that has a past it wants to separate itself from, Xe understands that they have to make a clean, effective break with it if they are to recast themselves in the image they now see themselves in. And that, in and of itself, is a canny branding move.

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