How automobile logos define a brand

Automobile logos are among the most widely recognised – and most loved – graphic symbols on the planet, so why do car makers insist on fiddling about with them? John Stones looks at how they are used to define the essence of a brand

Car logos are a bit like buses/ you wait a long time and nothing arrives, and then they all come at once. But rather than public transport, here we’re talking about that increasingly controversial beast, the private motor car, or rather, its logo. In recent months, Fiat, Lancia, Mercedes, Opel, Vauxhall, Volvo and Chrysler have all tinkered with their holy of holies, their long-standing marques.

Some of the most consistent, monolithic marketing of all time has meant automotive logos are among the most recognisable in existence. Look at a photomontage from 1919 by Dadaist artist Hannah Höch, and you see the famous BMW blue-and-white propeller roundel, almost indistinguishable from the design that adorns the 3 Series saloon you just saw drive past.

These famous badges are crucial in distinguishing one lump of metal from another, even more so now that so many parts are shared between rival manufacturers. Styling is one differentiator, but the main identifier is the primary brand or marque, which, apart from minor tweaks, seldom changes. Yet there has been a loosening of branding and a more flexible approach is hitting the car manufacturers, which are becoming more willing to play with their branding.

Fiat has been perhaps the most drastic, ignoring design and marketing convention by repeatedly redesigning its logo. Its classic Modernist blue logo was ditched in the late 1990s for a retro design with a laurel and typography drawn from pre-war iterations, only to be ditched again for a redesign in red with a chrome surround – both pieces of work were by Robilant Associati in Milan. ‘Fiat has a totally different audience now, and its cars, such as the Fiat 500, are very different. The car badge must reflect that,’ suggests Glenn Tutssel, executive creative director at The Brand Union. The historic Lancia brand, also part of the Fiat stable, has always had an asymmetric logo as quirky as its cars, but this was simplified and made symmetrical in a redesign, again carried out by Robilant Associati. The move is sacrilege for some. ‘The new designs seem a bit more anodyne,’ says Chris Wood, chairman of Corporate Edge. ‘I am a petrol-head, and attached to the originals. But the 20- and 30-year-olds the car makers are targeting probably don’t give a toss about heritage.’

When Corporate Edge worked on the identity for Triumph motorcycles four years ago, Wood says the main job was ‘a cleaning up, in the context of wanting the marque to be seen as young, relevant and contemporary, not stuck in the 1970s as “the bike my uncle used to ride”‘.

This summer Vauxhall was also treated to a logo redesign which is to be rolled across all the dealerships, printed materials and cars, starting with the appropriately named Vauxhall Insignia. A spokesman for the company says the existing griffin logo ‘was fussy and couldn’t be read from more than a foot away’. Unusually, the redesign, like that of European sister marque Opel, was carried out in-house by the car design team lead by Mark Adams, vice-president of design for General Motors Europe (and implemented in the UK by BMB).

‘Since we were making such a big leap forward in terms of design and quality of execution with the Insignia, it was very important for us to give special attention to creating new emblems for Opel and Vauxhall,’ says Adams. ‘I refer to this as polishing the brand, as we worked very hard to achieve the precision and sculptural beauty in every detail.’

Like the Fiat and Lancia logos (and the Volvo redesign by Bite, now part of Loewy), it follows the lead set by Volkswagen in assuming a shiny, three-dimensional quality even in printed rather than badge form. ‘Normally, I’m not fond of this kind of overblown glossiness – just look at what UPS has done to Paul Rand’s original marque,’ says Mike Dempsey, former head of graphic design consultancy CDT Design and founder of Studio Dempsey. ‘But when it comes to car manufacturers, the approach seems highly appropriate because they reflect more faithfully what is actually applied to the cars. Even the glitzy naffness of the graphics seems right, too.’

Mercedes has, however, gone in a very different direction stylistically. While the ‘gun sight’ three-pointed star has been left well alone on the car, for its printed communications it has had a redesign, courtesy of Claus Koch, a brand consultancy based in Düsseldorf. As a result, there is only a simplified ‘white out’ of a star on its communications, eschewing any pretence at three-dimensionality. This rebrand was accompanied by Mercedes’ first ‘sound logo’, or jingle.

The redesign was carried out following the divorce with US car brand Chrysler, which in turn reverted to a ‘pentastar’ for its corporate branding in a design that Pentagram’s Michael Beirut has described as ‘puke’. Like the Vauxhall and Opel redesigns, the Chrysler logo design was carried out in-house by its car designers, rather than by graphic or brand design specialists.

‘People who design great cars don’t necessarily design great identities,’ says Tutssel, who is unenthusiastic about the Vauxhall logo. ‘It is not adding any value and reflects the style of the car rather than the heritage.’ Wood agrees, suggesting that a logo should have ‘stand-out’ of its own and not be tied too closely to passing design styles.

After all, the enduring badges are there partly to suggest that the car companies are going to be around for a long time to come. But it seems unlikely that all the brands will survive the current turmoil, and both General Motors and Ford have been forced into desperate moves to stay afloat, including, in Ford’s case, mortgaging its family silver – its famous round blue logo.

Logo a-go-go

Italian car marque Fiat has always gone its own way. Its design and engineering innovations have been respected and widely imitated, but its flexible, almost flippant, approach to branding is quite unique. Founded in 1899 as Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino (literally: Italian car manufacturer in Turin), within two years its initial parchment-like logo and prosaic name were changed. Abbreviated to Fiat, it now boasted an ornate logo heavily influenced – particularly in the asymmetric typography of the letter ‘A’ – by Art Nouveau (or Liberty style as it is known in Italy). By 1904 this had become ovoid in shape. In 1921 the typography was simplified, retaining the characteristic letter ‘A’ but the logo was now round, surrounded by laurel leaves and red to match the Italian national racing livery. Art Deco influences are apparent in the angular 1931 redesign, with elongated typography. The following year this assumes a more conventional badge-like shape, and is left alone. Its most radical redesign comes in 1968: returning to the colour blue, its four rhomboids matched the Modernist industrial design of its cars of the time perfectly. In the 1980s a simplified abstraction into five slashes was introduced, before the retro craze saw the 1920s design revived first in blue in 1999 and then reinterpreted and simplified again in red for 2006.

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  • Federico November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    There’s a mistake on the image signed as 2 (Lancia Logo), infact it is the previous one designed at the end of the seventies by Vignelli and Associates, New York. It has been used for over 25 years (with a redesign at the end of nineties, but not sure who did it and exactly the year). The actual one is a simplified version of it, without the wheel and the flag.

    Here you can find the new one


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