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Colonial Pipeline’s branding is a disaster. That should’ve been a warning sign

James I. Bowie decodes Colonial Pipeline’s branding so you don’t have to.

Colonial Pipeline’s branding is a disaster. That should’ve been a warning sign
[Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
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This month’s cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline’s operations made many Americans aware of their dependence on a company they had never heard of. And not only was Colonial Pipeline’s obscurity at odds with its importance, but its branding, its public face, seemed strangely archaic, as if it had been encased in amber since the days of the Kennedy administration.

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[Image: Colonial Pipeline]
In 1961, when nine oil companies jointly created a new pipeline that would deliver fuel from Houston to New York, branding didn’t appear to be high on their list of priorities. As a privately held concern with little relevance to the public, the new firm simply needed a name that would express a bit of bland American gravitas, and “Colonial” did the trick, replacing in 1962 the original, more colorful name, “Suwannee Pipe Line Company.”

Like “National” and “Federal,” “Colonial” was a rather generic term that could be used by American businesses to project a certain bigness, with a bit of historicity to boot. And since the pipeline would traverse states that had (mostly) been among the original thirteen colonies, the name fit. But by the early sixties, “colonial” was already acquiring a whiff of datedness. According to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records, 0.027% of American trademarks through 1962 contained the word, compared to just 0.007% of those since.

Today “colonial” sounds downright geriatric, and it carries unsavory connotations stemming from new ways of assessing the course of empires; consider that the most stinging epithet hurled in the 2018 film Black Panther was “colonizer.” The Colonial Pipeline name is further weakened by its goofy anachronism—there were certainly no pipelines crossing the Delaware alongside George Washington—and by an alternative interpretation that verges on the scatological (for what is a pipeline, if not a colon of sorts?).

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Like the company’s name, its 1962 logo has remained unchanged. A classic, clean, and clever midcentury trademark design, it displays the CP initials within a cross-sectional view of a pipeline. It’s a cousin, perhaps, of the old U.S. Civil Defense insignia. As pipeline logos go, it’s right up there with the 1951 mark for Trans Mountain Oil, part of the first corporate identity program by renowned branding agency Walter Landor and Associates. But since we haven’t been accustomed to seeing it for decades, as we have the decidedly old-fashioned-looking General Electric and Coca-Cola logos, it strikes us today as a relic of a different era.

[Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images]
Because Colonial Pipeline continued to operate largely outside of the public eye, it probably felt little pressure to update its branding over the years. Had it been a publicly traded or consumer-facing company, it might have been renamed “Colpex” or “CPL” during the “alphabet soup” naming craze of the ’70s. Its logo might have been adorned with stripes in the ’80s or swooshes in the ’90s to keep up with the high-tech design trends of those times.

Colonial Pipeline appears to us today like Austin Powers, a creature of the ’60s suddenly unfrozen, and more than a bit out of place, in the present. Its story over the past few weeks has been full of oddly dated elements, from the gas lines seemingly straight out of the OPEC-plagued ’70s to the Doctor Evil vibes of the ransom amount—”FIVE MILLION DOLLARS”—reportedly paid to the hackers, themselves branded with a cheesy moniker—DarkSide—that sounds like it could have belonged to the bad guys in a Roger Moore-era James Bond flick.

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In the end, the whole affair suggests that Colonial Pipeline, like much of America’s infrastructure, is outdated, fraying, and particularly vulnerable to new threats. It seems that while tech unicorns cavort in their multi-billion-dollar valuations, old-school American industry is still struggling to wrap its head around the internet. It wasn’t all that long ago that a U.S. Senator described the internet as “a series of tubes,” as if it were, well, Colonial Pipeline.

Elements of branding, particularly those that are most obvious, such as names and logos, are often belittled as facades or window dressing. But a brand’s appearance can actually be a keen indicator of the nature of the firm it represents. It’s clear that over the course of the cyberattack and its aftermath, Colonial Pipeline’s timeworn brand has told us all we need to know about the company.

James I. Bowie is a sociologist at Northern Arizona University who studies trends in logo design and branding. He reports on his research at his website, Emblemetric.com.