Is the logo still the most important part of a brand’s image?

What’s in a brand? Paul Bailey, strategy director at We Launch, argues that a company’s character is made up of so much more than its logo, from its sound to its app icon.

Courtesy of Google

People don’t really care about logos anymore, do they? Well, over 18,000 page views might tell a different story.

I recently shared a post on LinkedIn, which showed the changes to four leading brands’ logos – Google, Airbnb, Spotify and Pinterest – which had previously been shared on Twitter by Oh No Type Company.

The recent rebrands of all these companies seemingly followed a trend of moving from characterful to clean, sans-serif styles. I compared this trend to 1960s corporate America, which reminded me of an article in the Guardian in 2014 on Helvetica’s use in that era.

It described the corporate branding world using the typeface like a “high-pressure hose, blasting away the preceding decades of cursive scripts, pictorial logos, excitable exclamation marks and general typographical chaos” and replacing all this with “a world of cool, factual understatement.”

This comparison is one example of a well-trodden view of how design trends follow patterns and fashions, which repeat every 20 years or so. But the post also led to a lot of insightful comments about how the role of the logo has changed.

Businesses want to “grow up”

Tim Milne, co-founder, Artomatic: “Isn’t this just a sign of maturity? Tech companies are often founded by young people who are probably quite conscious of their age and start out wanting to appear playful and rebellious, which is a good way to hide their quite orthodox commercial ambitions.

It’s rather like being a teenager, which writer Quentin Crisp described as “rebelling against their parents while conforming with each other”. Once they become big businesses they suddenly want to be taken seriously and so put on the clothes of big corporations — a clean, solid and permanent-looking logo.”

Each of the four businesses have certainly “grown up” since their previous logo designs, and so the need to be taken more seriously is a very valid point. It is not only their target audience who might need to do this, but also the wider stakeholders such as investors. By using the logo to communicate a more serious tone, these businesses may be reinforcing their changing approach and increased ‘permanence’ in their markets.

The logo doesn’t need to try so hard

Craig Dimond, freelance design director, Conran Design Group: “I think this shows that as brands grow, mature and build a reputation, they can rely on the experiences they create to deliver their personality. This is opposed to younger brands, who feel the need to apply their personalities to every asset of their visual identity in an attempt to build the right perceptions of their business.”

Good point. Maybe as a business matures – and has more money and resources – they can take advantage of more ways to convey their personality. Ambitious start-ups need to say a lot through very few channels. Often this might simply include a logo, a website or app, and the founders themselves.

So the logo needs to work hard and say a lot, as it is one of the few ways of communicating the brand. As a business becomes more successful, a multi-channel approach becomes available. Each channel, from social media platforms to TV, digital and print advertising, has specific roles, and can be targeted on objectives, meaning the logo needs to do less “work”.

It’s more about the symbol

Lee Davies, freelance design director: “We most frequently see these brands’ visual signifiers, such as Google’s ‘G’ or Pinterest’s cursive ‘P’, as an app icon on a mobile device.”

Shaughn McGurk, creative director, Incorporate: “Particularly with Airbnb, the symbol carries most of the personality, especially when the visual identity is at its most minimal as an icon on a smartphone home screen.”

As all four of these brands are primarily digital, identifiable symbols have taken on greater significance. Think of how often you’ll look at a smartphone screen to see a collection of graphic symbols, each representing their brand in a tiny, square box. Perhaps the symbol has taken on a whole new level of prominence in a digital age.

Is name more important than logo?

Emily Penny, brand consultant, Colourful: “Perhaps names are more important than logos for stand out today?”

In an age where a brand name is often seen in simple text form, how important is a logo’s visual representation when compared to the actual name itself? Naming is a very important part of the strategic development of a brand, and is something that comes with difficulties, from pronunciation to global relevance and legal protection.

But once a name is chosen it can grow over time to really reflect the character of a brand. This is not a new phenomenon – while the term ‘Google’ has become entrenched in our language, even becoming a verb, so did ‘Hoover’ far before this. Perhaps the name now has a bigger role in defining a brand.

It’s not just how a brand looks but also how it sounds

Mark Smith, creative director, Earth: “Here are four brands that are so much more than a typeface or a trick of design. Say any one of these words and pretty much anyone will have an instant association of what this brand is all about, irrespective of whether it is in brushscript or Helvetica. This got me thinking – does Alexa, Siri or Cortana speak in a typeface?”

This touches on the previous point of the importance of names, but also brings up other issues. In an age where we are seeing increased use of voice recognition, it is not only the name that is important but also how people say it. Market research company ComScore estimates that 50% of all searches will be completed by speaking by 2020.

If people can’t pronounce the name, then how can they possibly request it from a voice assistant like Alexa or Siri? And if voice response is on the increase, will audio branding finally become an important way of conveying a brand’s personality?

A “graveyard of typographic personality”

Shaughn McGurk, creative director, Incorporate: “This looks like a graveyard of typographic personality to me. I know a brand is more than a logo, but a logo is meant to be a trigger to an emotional response – and a lot of the emotion has been eradicated, especially from an ordinary person’s point of view.”

I love this phrase, and it holds an important truth. Although a logo may not need to do everything, an important part of a brand’s role is to identify and differentiate. If all businesses opt to “grow up” and look the same, they might be losing the distinctive character of their brand.

Logos have always evolved. But look back into history and you will see how many “young” businesses had theirs expertly hand-crafted, which in comparison to the four examples here, has made their evolution subtler as they retain that craft.

Whether a start-up or a huge global business, there will always be managers who struggle to see the value in putting time and resources into such a thing. Designers have to teach these people that there is value in conveying a company’s style and character through a unique brand identity – whether that is a symbol, typeface, sound, name, or straight-up logo.

Paul Bailey is strategy director at We Launch, a London-based branding design studio.

Hide Comments (10)Show Comments (10)
  • Emily Penny March 1, 2018 at 6:02 pm

    Thanks for the mention Paul. Spot the naming consultant! More about my position on this here:

  • Darren Cornwall March 2, 2018 at 10:42 am

    Great Article.

    I have to say I don’t buy into the thinking that the Digital space dictates a need to strip out personality from a brand/logo. I worry that in the drive for slick UX/UI, brand personality is seen as superfluous and we are ending up with a whole bunch of faceless websites with little engagement. I understand the need to remove barriers, but I don’t see brand personality as a barrier!

    At Pull we recently had a challenge for a retailer with a 50-year history who, in the drive to ‘grow up’ over the years had lost much of the wonderful provenance that they had. Yet their largest revenue generator is now ecommerce, fuelled by a sophisticated YouTube operation. The job was to reconnect with all the richness of their past and with the culture of their customers, whilst embracing the future and technology. The solution for the logo was to think responsively.

    As Lee Davies and Shaughn McGurk pointed out, all the quoted brands are probably more easily recalled as symbols or marques (it’s sad that their logotypes have become homogenised), yet there is a place and need for a logotype with good recall too. There’s no need to remove all trace of brand personality, rather consider the adaptability and recognition of form and build in the ability for the logo to operate successfully across multiple platforms through its component parts. I don’t think the logo needs to work less hard, just smarter!

    To support the view of Shaughn again, we say at Pull ‘everything has changed, nothing has changed’. Media and technology have changed but human emotional responses remain, and it would be mad to ignore them! How miserable will the world become if we keep stripping back and simplifying until there’s nothing left!

    Personally, I love the logo as a device and I don’t see it going away, only becoming more sophisticated. We are all well aware of brand consisting of many components over and above a logo, but surely if there is one component that is recalled or utilised more it must be the logo as the primary visual identity element.

  • mike dempsey March 2, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    Is the logo really important? As a visual trigger, yes. But the success of a logo has nothing to do with its quality as a piece of design. In fact, some of the most famous logos are downright ugly e.g. MacDonalds, Subway. And there many beautiful ones that remain relatively unknown. Why? Because it’s all about repetition on the retina, that ultimately creates the all-important recognition.

    Major web brands like Amazon, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, eBay and Spotify seemingly cared little about their logos when they first appeared on the scene. But the constant visual bombardment bedded them in pretty quickly. We all knew them. Once these organisations started to expand, and in doing so bringing in better people to deal with communication, we see these logos being tidied up, or, to use the vernacular, ‘refreshed’. Any decent design director would be embarrassed to inherit such inept work and would automatically want to up the anti.

    The world of Apps has demanded that these visual triggers need further refinement, be it a single letterform or recognisable shape.
    But once again it is all about the rapidity of seeing them 24/7.
    That is more important than anything. There are far more successful companies with God awful logos e.g. Ryanair, Pizza Hut. Sadly there are far fewer enlighten ones that care about doing everything well e.g. Apple, VW.

  • Lee Davies March 5, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    As Mike says, this demonstrates brands placing more emphasis on their visual identity beyond their humble VC-backed days, where they probably got a mate to knock up a logo and spent all their resources building great products. Hopefully the designers were paid with share options.

    Also, for me, begs the question… what is a logo? because the ‘after’ examples I’d define as wordmarks, maybe with the exception of Google. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  • Carl St. James March 6, 2018 at 9:17 am

    If the future of interaction is via voice control then branding has to work harder. How would an average person on the high street recognise the voice of Siri over Alexa or Google Assistant? I believe the answer lies with the oldest medium: radio.

    The jingle that plays upon invoking Siri has become the ‘logo’ in much the same way as the Radio 2 jingle is their branding. This is unless the brand becomes the trigger word. For example when the Xbox 360 introduced voice controls with the Kinect sensor the trigger word was ‘Xbox’.

  • Will March 8, 2018 at 5:14 am

    Logos are still hugely important to a brand. The new lululemon men’s logo is a great example of how to not to do it. With the change they tried to make it different enough to attract new male clients but in doing so they alienated existing male clients who already loved the brand and the existing logo. The new logo is actually ruining all of the loyalty they had built up over 10 years

  • Merlin Duff March 9, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    Logos are symbols of brands, but they are just one of a great number of symbols (which may be visual, audible, experiential… etc). What’s true now has always been true — what matters is not the logo, or any other single symbol, but the relationship between them all and the ‘gestalt’ they create (we might like to call it the ‘brand’).

    We just forgot all this for a while.

    So I totally agree, it’s about trends and how they come and go around; it’s just not really about visual trends. That’s simply a symptom (a symbol if you will) of the pendulum swinging back to the brand as a whole once again.

  • Rubens Cantuni April 3, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    I think a major role here is played by the nature of those businesses. Let’s not forget we’re talking of tech companies, and as such being up to date it paramount. Looking outdated, out of style, can be a real damage for the image of these companies. I can’t see Coca-Cola doing anything like this (they tried in the 80s, they failed), because innovation is not exactly their core value. Tradition is. In the history of design and commercial products, I think there’s never been an age where the image of the brand had to go step by step with the technology in such a way as it’s happening nowadays. This is a new paradigm of design and branding, which apparently includes updating your logo and brand to what the trends are in each given moment in time.

  • Chris May 9, 2018 at 3:53 pm

    “Startup” is not a blanked term for small businesses, a startup is a company with huge growth potential in a very short time; A media site/service is a startup a bakery is not.

  • mike dempsey October 15, 2018 at 8:31 am

    Talk about stating the bleedin’ obvious!

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