What’s Under the Logo?

In recent years, there has been so much focus on logos, mostly addressing the negative (Tropicana, Apple, Gap) that I feel compelled to share my thoughts on the subject as it relates to overarching brand strategy.  Most recently Starbucks, has come under fire for embarking on what I will later address as a sensible redesign, so it’s time we step back and look at how brands must approach these makeovers to ensure they are met with success.

There has been a lot of useless chatter out there, but one article I’ve found that I think does a good job of putting this all into context is a piece from Fast.Co design written by Steve McCallon called, “The Real Lesson of the Gap Debacle: Logos Aren’t Key Anymore”.  In this article McCallon, carefully makes the case that logos don’t matter, that what matters is that brands develop holistic social brand platforms to back them up (the guts underlying the cosmetics, if you will).  McCallon argues that the successful platforms will possess 5 key traits: Useful, Social, Living, Layered and Curated and he shares a wealth of examples from Nike+ and the Levi’s Workshops to YouTube and etsy themselves.

I totally agree with McCallon on this front: anytime a company is rolling out a re-branding, it must be accompanied by a deeper evolution of their products and services, otherwise it risks coming across as superficial.  However, what I do not agree with McCallon on is how he undervalues the importance of logos.  Allow me to digress.

We currently live in a society in which we are bombarded by information on a second by second basis.  As a result, the brain is forced to develop complex mental schemas for processing and responding to all of this data.  Logos provide brands with instant recognition in an otherwise chaotic world.  But more importantly, over time, these logos become associated with a variety of deep-seated, often aspirational character traits such as wealth, achievement, and creativity (Louis Vuitton, Nike, Apple).  With this in mind, we can begin to understand why when brands abruptly change their logo, it creates unrest in the human mind.  Suddenly a symbol, which over time has come to stand for so much, becomes irrelevant.  It is for this reason, going back to McCallan’s piece, that the cosmetic changes must also come with deeper evolutions in a variety of areas such as customer service, retail experience, digital strategy, brand positioning and so on.

Getting into the recent news about Starbucks, the company, as I’m sure you’ve heard, removed the outer ring of the logo, including the words “Starbucks” and “coffee”.  With this act, they (rightfully) join an elite list of iconic brands that are instantly recognizable.  Starbucks clearly made the move as an indication that the brand is beginning to not just explore, but act upon new business ventures, many of which they’ve been testing for some time.  As support, the AP reported this:

Starbucks sees other changes ahead under its new banner: it’s testing a system for customers to order and pay for coffee by mobile phone. It’s seeking a way for rewards card holders to earn points buying Starbucks products at grocers or other stores. And it’s considering offering beer and wine at night in some of its cafes. Starbucks also suggested it is looking at new food business opportunities, though company officials would not disclose details.

Case and point for the argument above, coming from one of the greatest brands in the world.  They did not redesign the logo to save on ink (as many have comically said), but rather as an initial step towards a deeper evolution of the brand that will, over time, provide their loyal customers with a better experience and a greater wealth of products to choose from.

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