The Brand That Wrote The Book


Most of us have our own favourite brands – the ones we can keep going back to, that show us a few lessons. From Mailchimp to Marlboro, Apple to Orange, Old Spice to New Balance.

We think – and talk – a lot about brands: their meaning, and meaningfulness; their narrative, and the stories they tell; their identities and their personalities. When we work this stuff out for a brand we package it up, in a brand book.

Well, it’s World Book Day, and one of the most enduring brands that always shows me a thing or two is Penguin, so here’s a few lessons from the brand book of the world’s best book brand.

Chapter One.

Allen Lane, who worked for the publisher Bodley Head, was on his way back from a weekend with Agatha Christie – no-one was murdered as far as we know – when he found himself at Exeter station looking to pick up a good read for the journey. Finding nothing, he founded his own publisher – Penguin Books.

You need a villain.

His marketing northstar was that a paperback should be no more than a packet of cigarettes, and be just as appealing. (Fags are less popular today, but a Penguin paperback still costs less than a pack of 20 Camels, and you don’t have to stand outside in the rain to enjoy one).

It’s a challenger strategy – the Democratiser. Confronted with the exclusivity and prices of the old-guard publishers, Allen Lane was motivated to make the good stuff more accessible. All brands need a foe because they’re engaged in a struggle, a challenge (there’s no story without struggle). For Nike – they’re ‘for’ the inner athlete in all of us that wants to get outside, and they’re against procrastination. Just Do It. The challenge for all brands is to be a challenger, even if you’re the leader.

The Penguin-sceptics (‘it can’t be done’) watched on as it sold 3 million paperbacks in that first year.

Democratic Designer Penguins.

"Good design is no more expensive than bad," Lane famously declared, and they’ve stuck with a strength of identity and design that broke the rules, and has stayed as strong through evolutions since.

It’s a clarity and singularity that we’ve seen in brand-building relationships like the one at Apple between Steve Jobs and the designer Jony Ive. Allen Lane and his first designer established that instantly recognisable colour-coded three-part grid that’s remained through the decades – orange for fiction (is orange the brand-colour of the democratiser? Easyjet, Dunkin’ Donuts, Soundcloud?), green for crime, blue for biographies and pink for travel and adventure.

By the late 1940s Allen Lane worked the German typographer Jan Tschichold – another design-obsessive who fought against the orthodoxy of the typesetters to impose a distinctive set of typographic rules. The Penguin Composition Rules were an attempt to standardise the brand’s visual language. More than 60 years later, and in an era where typesetting and letterpresses are largely defunct, the Penguin Composition Rules are still highly regarded among graphic designers worldwide.

"Penguin stood for a democratisation of design," says Phil Baines, professor of typography at Central Saint Martins and author of Penguin by Design. "It marked a change in perception, that design wasn't just for monied people any more.”

Dignified flippancy with flippers.

Dignified, but flippant. That was Allen Lane’s summation of the brand persona. Challengers love little juxtapositions and oxymorons like this. It’s like Target’s ‘cheap chic’.

It’s a statement of attitude that led Lane to the idea of ‘Penguin’ – a disruptive name in the first place - the animal that he felt moved with this ‘dignified, but flippant’ spirit. Then – with true 1930s aplomb – he sent the office junior down to London Zoo to get some quick sketches of the flippantly dignified little flightless bird for the brand identity. It’s undergone a few iterations, but it’s still wonderfully wonky and quirky today.

Keep on telling challenger stories.

From fighting and winning the watershed obscenity trial in 1960 to publish D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to the controversy around Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Penguin have kept telling their dignified, but flippant, story.

BlogColin Cather