One of the most common misperceptions about branding is that the logo is the brand. It is not. Far more meaning and importance is derived from a brand’s promises and customer experiences it creates. But logos do play a critical role in branding, serving as a unique and (hopefully) memorable signature element to the entire brand concept.
Creating a logo that is at once both simple and distinct, yet also relevant to the meaning of the brand is an enormous challenge. For many brands, in fact, the original concept for their logo is lost in the archives of company lore. What founding inspiration there may have been is only vaguely recalled or has become quaint. The global giant Shell Oil (now Royal Dutch Shell) got its name and logo inspiration in the 1800’s because “this small London business dealt originally in antiques, curios and oriental seashells,” according to their company web site. Closer to home, the ellipse and antenna-like extension that forms the basis of the Nabisco logo is actually an old European symbol for quality.
Some logos have seemingly obvious elements that often escape conscious recognition. When Federal Express changed its name to FedEx, the new logo contained a white arrow between the ‘e’ and ‘x.’ The arrow is a subtle message indicating forward movement and direct connection. That is, if you notice it. (Ever notice that the arrow in the Amazon.com logo runs from ‘A’ to ‘z?’ Me neither.)
But while a logo’s meaning can be hard to divine, some logos have the opposite problem –too many meanings, some added by folks who are well-meaning, but wrong, and some by others who are just being mean. In the 1980’s, Procter and Gamble was caught up in a controversy over their logo being some kind of satanic symbol. The accusations had about as much basis in reality as Donald Trump’s running for president, but they nonetheless had P&G’s PR team working overtime.
One of the most highly recognized marks in the world, the Apple logo, has become a classic example of revisionist design theories. By the way, the very first Apple logo did contain a tiny apple, but consisted primarily of an elaborately engraved image of Sir Isaac Newton sitting under a gnarled apple tree with an apple dropping toward his skull. Mercifully, this logo lasted about a year and was replaced by the now instantly recognizable profile of an apple with a bite missing.
Over the years, various theories have developed to explain the thinking behind this elegant symbol of what is now one of the most valuable brands in the world. Surely the bite from the apple must represent the “bite of knowledge” that Adam took in the Garden of Eden? Or it must be a play on “byte,” the smallest measurement of computer memory, right? Reaching a little deeper, some computer historians have suggested that the logo is a tribute to Alan Turning, an early computer pioneer, who committed suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple.
Alas, conspiracies are everywhere, even in logo origins; but as in life, few are true. The Apple logo is attributed to designer Rob Janoff, who designed it in 1977 while working for Regis McKenna, an advertising agency that had recently won the Apple Computer account. In an interview in 2009 with Creativebits.org he puts the theories to rest, saying simply, “I designed it with a bite for scale, so people get that it was an apple not a cherry.” He claimed to not be religious, and knew nothing of Turning, or even what a “byte” was. Oh well, nevermind.
The Apple theories range from the quaint to prophetic to a little bit creepy, but illustrate how challenging it can be to deliver a logo that conveys the meanings that a company intends and none that it doesn’t. Sometimes, even a clear and stable logo will have trouble adjusting to our changing culture as is the case with Sherwin Williams and their “We cover the earth” logo which has depicted a can of red paint engulfing the globe for about 105 years now. Unfortunately for them, their logo is now about as far from green as it can get and has begun to receive hate mail. Sherwin-Williams plans to keep the logo for now, but you’ve got to think it’s headed for a revise.
The lesson in all of this can be: don’t overthink your logo. Keep the design simple and explainable. Be aware that any kind of abstract mark may be misinterpreted. Test your logo ideas with potential customers or partners and get their feedback. And if your logo becomes the target of conspiracy theorists, you must be doing something right or they wouldn’t have bothered.