We communicate with symbols. The letters “C‑A‑R” aren’t an icon of a car, or a picture of a car. They’re a stand‑in, a symbol that, if you know English, brings to mind a car.
Nike spent billions of dollars to teach millions of people that the swoosh is a symbol of human possibility and achievement, as well as status and performance.
And, if you’re a designer, the typeface comic sans is a symbol of bad taste, low status, and laziness.
A hundred years ago, semiotics was in its infancy. It wasn’t something done by a billion people a day, every day, as we market to each other online. Now, our ability to do this with intent (or with naïve intuition) can make the difference between success and failure.
What does this remind you of?
Busy people don’t care about your work as much as you do. They’re not as up to date as you are, or as aware of the competitive landscape or the drama behind the scenes.
We scan instead of study.
And when we scan, we’re asking, “What does this remind me of?”
This means that the logo you use, the stories you tell, and the appearance of your work all matter. Your words resonate with us, not only because of what they mean, but because of how they sound and how you use them.
It’s not just the stuff. It’s even the way you set up the room for your company off‑site.
If it reminds us of a high school cafeteria, we know how to act. If it’s a bunch of round tables set for a chicken dinner, we know how to act. And if there are row upon row of hotel-type chairs in straight lines, we know how to sit and act glazed.
We don’t care about you, or how hard you worked on it. We want to know if it’s for us, and if you’re the real deal.
This is semiotics. Flags and symbols, shortcuts and shorthand. Do the flashing lights at an arena rock concert change the way the music sounds? Perhaps they do, because they remind us we’re at an arena rock concert.
When we hold a newspaper, it feels different than a tablet, or a comic book, or a Bible. The form changes the way the words sound.
A chocolate bar presents itself differently than a chemotherapy drug.
When we walk into a medical office that feels like a surgeon’s office, we remember how that surgeon helped us…even if this office belongs to a chiropractor.
And when the website is designed with GeoCities and flashing GIFs…If you remind me of a scam, it will take a long time to undo that initial impression.
That’s precisely why so many logos of big companies look the same. It’s not laziness. The designers are trying to remind you of a solid company.
That’s the work of “reminds me of.”
Are brands for cattle?
What’s your brand?
Hint: it’s not your logo.
In a super‑crowded world, with too many choices (more than twenty kinds of toner to choose from for my laser printer, and more than nineteen thousand combinations of beverages at Starbucks) and with just about everything “good enough,” you’re quite lucky if you have a brand at all.
A brand is a shorthand for the customer’s expectations. What promise do they think you’re making? What do they expect when they buy from you or meet with you or hire you?
That promise is your brand.
Nike doesn’t have a hotel. If it did, you would probably have some good guesses as to what it would be like. That’s Nike’s brand. If you have true fans, the only reason you do is because this group has engaged with you in a way that signals that they expect something worthwhile from you next time. That expectation isn’t specific; it’s emotional.
A commodity, on the other hand, has no brand. If I’m buying wheat by the ton or coffee by the pound or bandwidth by the GB, I don’t have any expectations other than the spec. Get me exactly what I got yesterday, faster and cheaper, and I’ll pay you for it.
How do we know that brands like Verizon and AT&T are essentially worthless? Because if we switched someone from one to the other, they wouldn’t care.
If you want to build a marketing asset, you need to invest in connection and other nontransferable properties. If people care, you’ve got a brand.
Does your logo matter?
It matters less than your designer wants it to, but more than the typical committee realizes.
If a brand is our mental shorthand for the promise that you make, then a logo is the Post‑it reminder of that promise. Without a brand, a logo is meaningless.
Here’s a simple exercise:
Make a list of five logos you admire. As a consumer of design, draw or cut and clip five well‑done logos.
Okay, here’s my prediction: each one represents a brand you admire.
Almost no one picks a swastika or the clever glyph of the bank who ripped them off. That’s because logos are so wrapped up in the brand promise that we imbue them with all the powers of the brand, ignoring the pixels involved.
Yes, it’s possible for a terrible logo to adorn a fabulous brand (complicated mermaid, anyone?). Many of the best brands have no identifiable or memorable logo (Google, Sephora, and Costco come to mind).
No, you shouldn’t phone it in or be careless. No, you shouldn’t choose a logo that offends or distracts people. Yes, you should pick a logo that works in different sizes in different media.
But mostly, pick a logo, don’t spend a ton of money or have a lot of meetings about it, and keep it for as long as you keep your first name.
Excerpted from This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See. Published with permission from Penguin Publishing Group.