One of the qualities of a truly iconic brand is the transcendence of language: the above three logos are immediately recognizable without an accompanying wordmark (these are the logos for Target, Pepsi, and Apple). When done successfully, brand icons of this caliber can be understood around the world to speakers of any language. This advanced level of familiarity in the minds of consumers means that your brand’s symbols have truly penetrated the marketplace, and therefore represents the pinnacle of branding. So how did these brands get there?
The High Cost of Familiarity
I first began thinking about this word-free brand symbolism when I noticed the above logo, used by a certain ubiquitous soft-drink purveyor. This, of course, is a Coca-Cola logo (it’s one that the brand uses in some secondary contexts). Coke has accomplished the considerable feat of branding the simple shape of a basic household object: a bottle. The shape’s outline combined with Coca Cola’s red color instantly strikes the brand’s impression in your mind – even without their classic script logo.
Coke – much like Nike and its transcendent Swoosh – has achieved this potent level of familiarity primarily through years of multimillion-dollar marketing and advertising efforts. Design plays a role here, but this advanced level of familiarity is only possible with the spending power to get your logo imprinted in front of millions of eyes, over and over again. It must be thoroughly integrated into the visual landscape of television ads, grocery store aisles, and mall shelves over the years – even decades. It’s expensive to be this well-known.
Designing for Transcendence
The pictorial icons that we use in airports are so effective because they can be understood by speakers of any language. This is a primitive level of iconography that humans have used since the first time a caveman used a stick to scratch the outline of a buffalo in dirt. The same kind of symbolism gives the Apple logo its strength: the icon of the apple is synonymous with the brand name, so the logo can say “apple” without language (read more about the meaning of the Apple logo). Even a baby can recognize the shape. This is called a pictograph – a pictorial representation of an idea.
In rare cases like the Apple logo, this kind of symbolism makes sense. Design blog The Fox is Black (logo pictured above) also employs an icon that is synonymous with its name. But most brand names aren’t suitable for a pictograph: there’s no pictorial icon that says ‘Vanity Fair’ or ‘Sony’ without employing text. At least they haven’t been designed yet.
Even without a Pepsi-sized advertising budget, designing with elemental, iconic thinking can go a long way. Remember that the Nike Swoosh was a brilliant stroke of design conceived by a college student for a mere $35 before the brand was a household name. It’s that kind of intelligent design – that which communicates with clear, bold visual language – that can strengthen the voice of any brand.