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Lunar Perspectives

Lunar Perspective: PG&E

In my own experience, one of the best examples of the process and power of successfully navigating change is the Pacific Gas & Electric Company corporate identity program.

When came to the firm I was working at, PG&E  had been using the same name, logo, tagline and color scheme for 78 years – since Warren Harding was President. The “deciders” were a group of white-haired men with an average age of about 65. I was blond, young, and very green in my career. At the time I had a boss who genuinely believed not only in my design skills, but in my ability to translate my passion to others. He saw something in me that I felt, but couldn’t yet identify, and that ability turned out to be the truest thing about me, at least career-wise, right up to this day. He made me the Design Director for this important program and it turned out to be one of the most informative and rewarding experiences of my career.

It’s not uncommon for people to blame big bad corporations for the cost of things and, even though they are a regulated utility, people definitely blamed PG&E for the price of energy. The board wanted to improve their reputation but weren’t sure how. They came to us for “a change,” but we knew it would be a challenge to move them very far from what they already had.

We knew that we wanted them to retire the long, cumbersome name that was rarely used, except for legal purposes, “Pacific Gas and Electric Company,” to the more modern and already in the vernacular, “PG&E.” But at that stage, even a change from “and” to an “&” was a major discussion.

We recommended that they retain their original tagline “At Your Service.” The line still worked, still seemed contemporary (what’s old always becomes new again at some point…), was short and to the point, and retaining it helped soften the blow of the massive change we knew was coming in the form of new logo candidates.

From my perspective it seemed that they were afraid to do anything overt largely for fear of appearing boastful. As a result, they were hiding behind a stodgy, old, brown-and-beige logo from the roaring ’20s, reticent to be proud in any way. The way I saw it, what they provided was nothing short of a miracle: light, energy, security, safety – power in all it’s forms. And remember – 25 years ago you couldn’t even begin to think about providing these things for yourself.

PG&E was legally obligated to charge fair, nondiscriminatory rates and to render safe, reliable service to the public on demand. Given that, I couldn’t see a major downside to just going for it and getting them some of the credit they deserved. So we encouraged them to come out of the closet and be proud of their company, it’s history, and it’s service to the community. All three of the new logos we presented to them were a major departure from the existing one. Our strongest recommendation, which they adopted, we named the “PG&E Spotlight.” The design was a bold, bright blue block with the PG&E letterforms clearly and solidly encased within it. The shaft of light illuminated the ampersand, signifying the link between Gas & Electric – two factions within the company always vying for preeminence. Making the “&” the hero served a dual purpose: neither division was dominant, and the visual linking of the two signified a strong, unified company.

During the massive Oakland, CA fires of 1991, newspaper headlines showed color photos of nothing but smoke, devastation…and bright blue trucks. I couldn’t have been prouder, and we know they were as well. They had literally emerged from the gloom to get the credit they deserved.

The PG&E logo we created for the company is the one you still see today, some 25 years later, still working hard in a whole new century.  While I still cringe whenever I see a truck go by with the logo decal improperly applied, (or when someone tells me they thought the symbol was the Transamerica building…), the PG&E identity program remains as the best example of successful, albeit painful, change I have ever helped implement in my career.

If PG&E could do it, anyone can.

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"I always knew I wanted to be somebody... I see now I should have been more specific."
LILY TOMLIN