Brand Beacons


The death of the logo has been greatly exaggerated. Within our brand-permeated culture of information overload logos remain necessary beacons. They offer instant recognition – identifying and differentiating brands amidst a relentless cacophony of content. To be clear, a logo alone is not a brand. Brands are the sum of many things. A logo is a symbol that ties them all together.

Symbolizing a brand is no lightweight job. Success in the modern marketplace requires tying much more together than ever before. Brands must express themselves across multiple media, platforms, applications and experiences. It’s a new brand world, and within these environments logos practice public relations as well as old-fashioned carnival barking. What, then, gives a logo singular voice amidst the racket?

A True Story

Once upon a time, a woman struck up a conversation with eminent designer Raymond Loewy…

“Why did you interlock the Xs in the Exxon logo?”

“Why ask?” he asked.

“Because, I couldn’t help but notice.”

“Well,” he responded, “that’s the answer.”

Ideas don’t need to be esoteric to have resonance. Sometimes a simple visual device is all you need. Any idiot can make something complicated, but it takes talent to design something that’s simple. Never confuse simple with simplistic, though.

Consider Apple’s silhouette logo. Upon first blush it couldn’t be simpler. Deeper scrutiny reveals a clever pun in the visual device of a “byte” having been taken. Suddenly, minimalist form gives way to rich meaning, metaphor, character and wit. Simple, yet far from simplistic. Designer Rob Janoff admits he actually never intended the pun, yet it was immediately perceived, and perception has become reality.

Equally simple yet nuanced is the encircled, three-pointed star of Mercedes Benz. Brevity of form connotes precision, balance and refinement, all positive and appropriate associations for a maker of fine automobiles. Moreover, by virtue of the brand’s status, the logo has also come to epitomize wealth and luxury, even though nothing inherent in its form implies those meanings.

Nike’s ubiquitous Swoosh was originally conceived as an elegant metaphor of a wing on the ankle. Economy of shape and color combine in a brilliant visual articulation for a company that began by manufacturing running shoes.

Perhaps nowhere more than in logo design does the dictum “less is more” ring true. Illustrating your products, services, history, philosophy and mission statement all in one succinct symbol can get messy. Logos need not be literal, their job is to parse the tenets of your brand into a simple, memorable form everyone can identify with.

How the story is told largely depends on the context of the brand. Design fundamentals don’t change, but context does. Every brand is unique, and what makes sense visually for one won’t make sense for another. Designing within the context of your brand’s voice leads to a logo of authentic expression and potency.

A Logo You Can Believe In?

Brand context has rarely been rendered as vividly as in the lauded logo of the Obama presidential campaign. Encircling the symbol within a sphere – recalling the “O” in Obama – manifests myriad meanings such as perfection, wholeness, unity, oneness, vision, and focus. Rounding it off, the negative space of the “O” gives shape to a rising sun shining its light across the rolling American plain. Or, does it?

Despite the obvious intent, it’s interesting to note that formally the logo implies a sunset as much as a sunrise. Nothing of the design sways the meaning either way. Outside the context of the campaign it’s entirely up to the viewer to decide whether the mark heralds a descent into dark night or the dawn of a new day. Viewed within the context of the brand, however, the message of a “new day dawning” is stamped with indelible clarity. Politics notwithstanding, there can be no argument that branding execution was brilliant for candidate Obama’s presidential bid.

Critiquing the Obama logo calls to mind Benjamin Franklin’s remarks at the close of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, in 1787. Franklin said of the sun carved into the back of George Washington’s chair, “I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I know that it is a rising sun.” Whether or not President Obama’s sun is rising or setting is a discussion for another blog – one that addresses more mundane topics, like politics :-)

Eye of the Beholder

Legend has it that an IBM executive declared, “It reminds me of a chain gang,” upon first seeing the now famous stripes applied to “Big Blue’s” logo. Everybody’s a critic, especially in boardrooms. But, design is always open to interpretation, as we’ve seen with the intriguing “byte” in Apple’s apple. Here, though, the sense of speed that designer Paul Rand sought to convey with those simple stripes was misinterpreted, triggering an unexpected negative association.

What that executive didn’t understand, but Rand did, was that the letters I-B-M, each wider than the last, form an awkward linear progression. The result is visually problematic. Unifying the letterforms with bold horizontal stripes solved that problem while lending dynamic forward momentum and a sense of urgency to the static shapes. Nice correlation for a technology company seeking to own the cutting edge of innovation.

In the end, Rand’s design prevailed. Through the years, his groundbreaking collaborations with IBM established the modern corporate identity design philosophy. Rand believed a logo would not stand the test of time unless “designed with the utmost simplicity and restraint.” Nearly four decades later, the striped IBM logo remains in use, the linchpin of an ever-evolving brand. Nobody knows what became of that exec.

A Tale of Too Many Swooshes

Logos are meant to differentiate a brand among clutter. Occasionally a brand commands such consumer mindshare that its logo ends up becoming the clutter. Such has been the case with the Nike Swoosh. Designed in 1971, the Swoosh has since ridden a wave of innovative branding that’s made it one of the most recognizable logos on the planet.

Commercial saturation of the Swoosh soared through the years as the mark appeared ad nauseam in advertising and on apparel. Exposure achieved absurdity when Air Jordan basketball shoes were adorned with 14 Swooshes each (that’s 28 Swooshes per pair for those of you keeping score). Inevitably, consumers got sick of seeing Swooshes.

Nike reacted with swift “DeSwooshification” – their term – actually retiring the sacred symbol and replacing it with a lowercase, script text logo. Overcompensation left consumers nonplussed, resulting in brand disassociation. Nike gradually reintroduced the Swoosh in less pervasive ways (my new Nike running shoes only have 6 Swooshes combined). Even in exposure, sometimes less is more.

Scarlet Letters

Ultimately, a logo is only as strong as that which it represents. Sometimes negative brand perception can turn a logo into a target. Rarely have there been more striking examples of this phenomenon than in America’s post-T.A.R.P. climate of corporate mistrust.

Public rancor toward AIG – the insurer bailed out with Troubled Asset Relief Program money, i.e. taxpayer money – reached a fever pitch in Spring 2009 when employees were being harassed in public and began receiving death threats.

According to a leaked internal memo, AIG staff were instructed to conceal their badges in public, to cease using branded corporate charge cards and to avoid wearing branded apparel. The company even went as far as removing its name from buildings.

General Motors, another beneficiary of taxpayer money, and target of taxpayer resentment, took similar measures to minimize exposure upon their emergence from bankruptcy in early 2009. GM brass made the unceremonious decision to distance their various automobile nameplates from the corporate brand, and model year 2010 cars and trucks rolled off assembly lines without the secondary GM badging they had displayed in the past.

Adding Excellence to the Equation

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but logos speak volumes. Your logo symbolizes who you are and what you stand for – your brand promise. More than mere decoration, in today’s dynamic marketplace it’s a vital component to your brand’s success.

That’s why clip art, crowdsourced contrivances and recycled rejects pre-packaged for stock logo web sites just don’t muster. They make brands appear predictable and pedestrian. When rendered by the mind of a talented designer a logo will engage the viewer with intrinsic beauty and draw them deeper to reveal artful meaning. Done right, the impact can be clear, memorable and timeless.

Truthfully, a poorly designed logo is often as memorable as a well-designed logo. You just have to decide how you want your brand to be remembered.

About Ken Peters

Chronically curious. Compulsively creative. Opinions here are my own, and those of the voices in my head.
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3 Responses to Brand Beacons

  1. Ken Peters says:

    This article was originally posted prior to our accepting comments on Brand B.I.G. Now that we’ve opened up the conversation, we’d love for you to share your thoughts.

  2. Brooke Kenney says:

    Very well done, Ken.

    I’ve been reminded that “a logo is not branding, but more a signature”. But once people understand that the signature stands for something, it is branding.

    Thanks for your ongoing posts on Twitter. It’s always a pleasure to read about what interests you, including the cool stuff your 5yo says.