Insights A tale of two identities: which way for Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is home to some truly iconic local brands: Ocean Park, Cathay Pacific, Octopus, HK Tramways, and Wing Wah (just to name a few). As our major brands, they contribute significantly to the image of our city to the rest of the world. Many of these brands are greatly loved by both locals and those of us who have chosen to make this city our home.

And when I say “love,” I include “tough love” when we feel they haven’t met our standards. It is on this latter point that I feel it is worth contrasting two recent brand relaunches, and what they suggest about the future direction of our top brands and Hong Kong itself.

An old-fashioned “Dood”

If you think about it, the Octopus card is our city’s true identity card. You can leave your HKID at home for a day and it’s no big deal. But leave your Octopus at home and things get difficult. You’re fishing in your pockets for loose change to get on the bus or hearing the grumblings of your fellow patrons in 7-11 as you fumble with bills to pay for your Vitasoy Lemon Tea. With millions of cards in circulation and thousands of payment machines in shops from Stanley to Sheung Shui, the Octopus identity is probably the most ubiquitous visual graphic in the city.

And so I felt a sense of disappointment when seeing the new identity. I don’t intend this to be a graphic design critique (there are others far more qualified to discuss its merits and challenges) but raise this point as I see it as a missed opportunity to refresh a brand and company which is facing big competition from Apple Pay, Android Pay, WeChat Pay and others. (Full disclosure: I was part of a team which participated in Octopus’ pitch for a new identity.)

When you look at the brands that are being created by leading companies in China or the US, they are embracing a design-driven mindset that puts the customer at the centre. This is reflected not only in their forward-looking identities, but in the customer experience as well – Alibaba’s Hema supermarket being just one example.

When I see the new Octopus identity, the first impression is one of a company which is rooted in its past, at a time when we all need to be innovating to keep abreast of Chinese companies that are running circles around everything (and everyone) in Hong Kong.

Ringing in something new

I would contrast this with the recent rebranding by Hong Kong Tramways:

The clean, simple and charming design captures the spirit of the brand and what its riders love about the tram. (Full disclosure: I’ve commuted on the tram daily for over a decade and have a soft spot for the “ding-dings”.) The identity extends through the entire experience – from maps to signage to the metal plaques on-board. It all comes together to create a better, more navigable environment for both frequent riders, such as myself, and visiting tourists. Full credit goes to the teams at Hong Kong Tramways and Stepworks for putting in the time and efforts to create a new look that preserves a beloved brand while giving it a fresh, forward-looking feel.

The question for all of us

I raise these examples not to be critical and tear down from a design point-of-view (there is far too much of that online these days) but to pose a broader question:

I raise these examples not to be critical and tear down from a design point-of-view (there is far too much of that online these days) but to pose a broader question:

Where do we want our city and its businesses to go in the future?

We can keep operating as we are, enjoying the fruits of past efforts, and watching as the world around us (and China especially) keeps picking up speed. Or we can choose to once again take the bold steps that have characterised our city in the past, and which have led to the success we have enjoyed to date.

I’m answering my own question obviously, but I feel that we need a call to action and to positively challenge each other to spur the next wave of growth in the city. Not just in how we manage our brands, but also in our business models, in the policies we create to foster new innovation , and – perhaps most critically – in how we grow and nurture the next generations of leaders.