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Your logo is your signature, not your self-portrait
by Christopher Armstrong - September 2008 Interbrand, Toronto
Part of the problem is that. identifying and subtly revealing a brand’s specific qualities. some clients want their logo to fully express all part of their new platform. and attributes. When a logo is applied to a product. Okay. Along with the visual and verbal expression. A logo does the same. For instance. Another. functions as a promise. On the other hand. Initially. After having gone through the process of redefining the strategic positioning of the brand. including the core idea. . more powerful. along with typography. This brevity seriously limits a logo’s expressive capacity. Volvo’s logo promises safety. the visual system as a whole is a far more important consideration than the logo in isolation. and through a kind of subtle graphology. imagery or photography style. positioning statement. Although the logo is a vital element of a brand identity. by any means. Like the logo. But in many cases. perhaps. these are all designed to convey the character of the brand. tone of voice. Is the signature bold and energetic. can carry either great meaning or no meaning depending on the ideas and emotions the viewer associates with it. I know this sounds like some designer whining about clients not understanding his work. it can remain relatively unadorned as a wordmark. and layout conventions. A person’s signature identifies a person. with a name. In addition to brand expression. If the word part of the logo – the name – is strong enough. and describes some of the functions and limitations of the logo. or letter. While important. component of the signature analogy is that a logo. In doing so. not self-portrait The logo is often referred to as a corporate signature. the logo can only allude to the promise of these qualities – it cannot speak with eloquence. This ability to combine both is the logo’s strength. clients have come to understand that the brand is much more than the logo or corporate identity. but I believe there is a larger issue with people’s understanding of the role of logos within visual identity systems. in general. check. it would seem that the logo fits primarily into the visual expression stream. a precious gem in the crown of a greater brand.The Role of Logo in Brand Expression A logo. Although. it is a component of a larger system of expression. paint a complete and accurate portrait of a person. the logo still seems to be regarded as a sacred article. The logo acts as a promise in a similar way. it promises that the product will deliver a specific quality that alludes to the brand’s identity. graphic devices. and the tagline all comprise the verbal expression stream. a signature cannot. like a flag. the name requires additional embellishment and graphics to become an ownable logo. if not a single one. Having worked on the creation of logos and visual systems over many years. Likewise. It seems like hundreds of viable designs die a sad and premature death due to seemingly unachievable expectations. it is not necessary for the logo itself to express the entire strategy. messaging. suggests an individual’s personality traits. as well as many internal components that build employee brand culture and behaviors. By applying your signature to a contract. I’m constantly struck by how difficult it is to create logos. As such. but any avid reader knows that the opposite is also true: words can paint thousands of pictures. like a signature. While it’s true the overall expression of the brand must encompass all elements of the brand positioning. This analogy is a good one. they pose a nearly impossible challenge for the logo designer. while the logo would seem to fit into just the visual expression stream. we are limited to an extremely finite number of words. there are a large number of touchpoints that create customer experience. it is interesting to note that it is really an unusual hybrid of both word and picture. while the Hermès logo promises elegance. Where does the logo fit in the world of brand expression? Brand expression is made up of two streams: visual expression and verbal expression. you have given your seal of approval and indicated your ownership and obligation to what you have signed for. At the same time. it cannot speak with eloquence. It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. the brand name itself. But again. or restrained and conservative? A signature can hint or indicate this. color palette. Remember – signature. Painting pictures with words and graphics And yet. Apple’s logo promises innovation. it can only allude. it is limited in its ability to express emotion and convey meaning.
Unlike a logo. Where the real potential lies This understanding of words and pictures leads to a discussion about where the real strength for the potential of expressing the brand character is rooted. These are the realms of tone of voice and image style. Regardless of how well it is designed. consistent experience. it should be used proudly and prominently. The good news here for brand managers is that brands can very often be given new life by changing visuals and tone of voice. You don’t really notice the change unless you do a direct comparison of before and after. These logos. As we can see. this weakness lies in their universality. if not most brands – they remain a largely untapped resource. Is this the result of a designer who does not understand branding? Is he or she acting like a prima donna. Still. And for both. Tone of voice and image style are neglected and undervalued in many. it is not in the few lonely words of the wordmark or the simple and graphic device of the symbol. you can shift with subtlety and modernize without obviously changing. it is a common rallying point and a source of pride – it’s familiar and they relate it to their experience. or does playing down a poorly executed logo make strategic sense? That all depends on the brand platform and whether or not the logo is sending messages counter to the brand’s stated positioning. There is nothing to stop a competitor from knocking off a successful brand’s style. the problem of association and portability also exists with graphics. not unlike a child growing steadily but imperceptibly before your eyes. history. you can shift with subtlety and modernize without obviously changing. it doesn’t take much to tell the real McCoy from the poseurs. This is where the picture part of the logo. it may appear nothing more than a few bands of color. Great logos are not always great due to their graphic form. They felt that the amateurish logo was better hidden on the back cover so it wouldn’t rob the skillfully designed report of its professionalism. If the logo affirms the position. not unlike a child growing steadily but imperceptibly before your eyes. as well as employees who deliver the brand promise.Painting pictures with words and graphics An additional problem with the name is its portability. graphics. a logo is not unlike the flag of a nation. The power of tone of voice and image style is the ability to tell stories: one verbally. By retaining a logo and evolving image. image style and tone of voice have a weakness. Another strength of tone of voice and image style is that they can change and evolve over time with more ease than a change of logo. As a graphic symbol. the other visually. have become great because they have imprinted themselves on the minds of the viewer. when working on annual reports. Still. So. a word has no meaning if you don’t understand the language. don’t always cross cultures. But like everything else. and achievements. do we need to change? I recall. and carry associations and expectations. even when of questionable beauty. if a brand has a truly distinct and honest style of expression. You don’t really notice the change unless you do a direct comparison of before and after. can help make up for the technical limitations of written language and allow the logo to carry some meaning when the name has no association. The power of a logo needs to be built up over time through repeated. it’s appropriate to minimize the logo and use other visual elements such as images. To the nation’s citizens. Another strength of tone of voice and image style is that they can change and evolve over time with more ease than a change of logo. But to a viewer who has never seen the flag before. . It is easy to see how many now famous logos might end up in a contemporary designer’s trash after the first round of review. but the ideas it stands for. that some designers would attempt to keep a client’s logo off the cover if they felt the logo was bad. unlike pictures. Words. you can’t trademark a tone. to communicate the desired brand character. although not graphically stunning. By retaining a logo and evolving image. The real potential for expressing the brand character lies in where words and pictures can be used to their full power. although the picture part of the logo may be more universal than the name. This can be done without having to walk the political minefield of changing an organization’s sacred logo. These stories can create a much greater impact and resonance than a logo in expressing the character of the brand. and has no associations that relate to it. it can be meaningless. If the logo sends messages counter to the positioning. being far more universal. or typography. The viewer is no longer seeing the form of the logo.
A further evolution would be to refine or update the physical form while retaining major elements of the logo. The design of the logo should. At the time of launch. a brand can be given new life and vitality without ever touching the logo. This brand positioning should in turn be a reflection of the long-term business strategy of the organization. an organization must be prepared to deliver a new experience. reflect the brand positioning or platform. Moving a bit further. By refining the elements of the visual and verbal expression. both the brand positioning and visual expression need to be reviewed to ensure they are still aligned with the strategy. If not. where there is none. When a company carries too much baggage or negative perception. Often this approach accompanies a changing of the name. we often say that a new logo is primarily a signal of change. and the amount of change to the logo should be related to the amount of change within the organization. an entirely new energy can be created. it’s vital that the company has changed its business strategy. as well as positioning and expression. Refining the form of the logo while retaining major elements can be a successful evolutionary strategy. do we need to change? Apple has evolved its logo over time. When taking this revolutionary approach. If an organization’s strategy or positioning has not changed. On the other end of the scale.So. this may include adjusting the treatment of the logo without actually changing its graphic form. but has not altered the essential forms of the logo. within its graphic limitations. No one likes an empty promise. So. if the business strategy changes. switching logos may be confusing because it indicates a shift and creates an expectation of a new experience. they risk the appearance of whitewashing and deception. it’s appropriate to signal a complete overhaul by starting from scratch. you can trash everything and totally reinvent the logo. At Interbrand. . In many cases.
not just the logo. Knowing that brand expression can change with or without the logo. it is important to assess the entirety of the visual system. This is a no-situation for the designer. clients are disappointed because the work doesn’t invoke all of the emotional attachments they associate with their organization. And that’s why we’re here. in 2007 . is as vital as knowing whether to take an evolutionary or revolutionary approach. it remains just a graphic. Logos are very powerful symbols when people associate them with ideals.Seeing the bigger picture Seeing the bigger picture At times. This is a win-win situation for both clients and consultants – creating better. not to remain who you are today. Which is the tobacco company? A. When designers and clients together understand the role and limitations of the logo within the overall expression of the brand. isn’t it? Q. rebranded to Altria Group Inc. it will allow for a considerably less stressful and more productive process. People lose sight of the fact that the whole point is to grow into whom you want be. when presented with a new logo design. Because of this. Both Phillip Morris Companies Inc. because until the logo becomes associated with these experiences. When considering a rebranding exercise. then feels disappointment because it just doesn’t feel like them. changing a logo can be divisive and controversial. This is not unlike a person who gets a new haircut. more meaningful brands. The realization that rebranding doesn’t necessarily mean changing an established logo may lead your organization to start a rebranding program that they otherwise wouldn’t have considered.
and Rogers Communications.Christopher Armstrong Christopher Armstrong is Design Director for Interbrand’s Corporate Branding practice in Toronto. CAE.com Creating and managing brand value TM . Christopher has provided strategic design solutions for a diverse group of clients including Celestica.interbrand. www. RBC Financial Group. UPS Logistics.