Why Brand Icons Last
Have you ever played a brand logo quiz? One in which you’re shown a logo – or part of one – without any text and asked which company it belongs to. If you have, you’ll know that some brands make it easy. You see the flowing hair of the Starbucks mermaid, or the crisp, evocative shape of the Apple apple and you know instantly, before you’ve even had time to think about it.
Some have even become so iconic that they are artistic inspiration and canvases in themselves.
That’s because those companies have carefully developed icons – be they characters or food or animals or shapes – that are distinctive, unique. They also say something about the company, however abstract it might be. Apple’s apple evokes the clean and crisp experience of eating them, reflected in their design habits, for example.
To some the corporate devil, Starbucks’ logo nevertheless has an intriguing story behind it. The three founders hired Terry Heckler to come up with a logo for them. Rather strangely, he came up with an image based on a medieval Nordic woodcutting. It was a bare-breasted, two-tailed mermaid. The original logo used to look like this:
You might be able to spot the problem with the old logo. At first, explains CEO Howard Schultz, complaints were ignored. “Bare breasted and Rubenesque, [the mermaid] was supposed to be as seductive as the coffee itself,” he explained.
The real problem for them came when the logo was put onto delivery trucks. While permissible as a small circle on the side of a cup or – at most – on a shop sign, the erotic nature of the mermaid became a bit too garish when splashed metres big on the side of a lorry.
They compromised by draping the mermaid’s hair over her breasts, but eventually the logo morphed into the striking green and white image we know today.
But what all these changes over the years have done is create a logo that hints at a wider story. If you knew nothing about this story but looked closely, you might be wondering what that crown is, or what the hell she’s holding in both her hands. Visually and aesthetically, it’s striking enough to be a strong logo in itself. But the idiosyncrasies and quirks developed over time give it a rich history, implied but not revealed. And that makes it interesting and highly memorable.
Let’s take another example. The somewhat bizarre Michelin Man. If you’re wondering how this became an iconic brand mascot, you’re not alone. But he’s a mascot who has stood the test of time.
In 1894, the Michelin brothers were presenting their products at a stand. They noticed a pile of tyres and said “look, with arms and legs it would make a man.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the years, the Michelin Man has undergone many changes. Many argue that this is one of his strengths as a brand character, that he can morph and shift with the times. At times in his history, he’s looked tough, evoking a robust set of a tyres that won’t yield to the wear and tear of the road. At other times, he’s been a jolly character with a grin on his face.
Indeed, originally the Michelin Man – then known as Bibendum – was a drunkard who ‘drunk up’ obstacles in the road.
Perhaps it’s these aspects that makes the Michelin Man so enduring. Like us, he changes mood and attitude. But he also has a consistent character, a personality. And, of course, that recognisable white tyre body.
In many ways, it’s personality that really makes a brand icon stick out. Brand logos and mascots say something about their company. Sometimes, this is created wholesale. Rob Janoff’s original rainbow apple logo is now legendary in the logo world.
The shape is clean, aesthetic and distinction. And, while the colours today might be more reminiscent of the LGBT communities, originally Janoff’s design was intended to take the harsh, utilitarian reputation of computers and make it light, approachable and friendly, and to emphasise Apple’s multi-colour display.
The logo says something about Apple as a company and about their products, while also being a distinctive and good-looking shape.
But some of these brand icons draw on already-existing themes and motifs. For instance, websites like Ninja Casino draw on the popular image of the ninja – stealthy, clever, adept – to highlight the fact that their website does not require an account, so users can play ‘stealthily’.
All of these things and more contribute to the reasons why brand icons, logos and mascots stand the test of time. And why others don’t.
It’s vitally important for businesses to get their logo right. They can be changed, sure, as many of these examples have done over the years. But by that point it might be too late. Logos need to forge an image in the customer’s mind that’s not only recognisable, but also likeable, and that doesn’t fade away quickly. Investing in the time and money to come up with a good brand is almost never wasted.
So, will your brand logo be the next to be imprinted in our collective unconscious minds?
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