Visual branding: Context is key

November 6, 2009

Well-established companies with strong recognition face an interesting challenge when they seek to redirect or revitalize their brand. Change needs to be signaled and a new message is called for, yet there might be considerable value in preserving the existing brand mark. It’s a conundrum: how can a brand identity be redirected without also changing the company’s mark? The answer is to look not at the mark itself, but at what surrounds it and supports it: the context.

It’s not just symbolism alone
Central to the understanding of “brand identity” is the idea that symbols do not exist in a vacuum. A symbol requires carefully constructed context for it to convey its intended meaning. Likewise, when seen under differing contextual circumstances, the same symbol can mean different things. An excellent example of this is an internationally known brand, John Deere. The central symbol is, of course, the familiar leaping deer silhouette. But the same symbol is used in equally familiar ways that have nothing to do with the company: it also appears on deer crossing road signs. Yet, in the mind of the public, there is no danger of confusing one with the other. The context surrounding the symbol clarifies its meaning.


Even without the company name that is an integral part of the complete John Deere identifier or the small additional “DEER XING” sign that often appears below the road hazard warning, the two representations of a leaping deer are clearly understood for what they are, despite being based on the same symbol. We know what the deer crossing sign means, but why? It has to do with past experience and cultural association. Just as symbols can have many different meanings in isolation, context itself is based on association and exposure. We are able to immediately and instinctively identify the deer crossing pictograph as a road hazard sign, but only because we already associate the sign’s shape, color and where signs like it appear in our environment with road hazard warnings. It would mean nothing to a person who lacks the necessary understanding of the context – say, an indigenous South Pacific islander who has no idea what animal is being portrayed, nor that a yellow diamond means “road hazard.” Yet to someone living in the Americas, its meaning is obvious even if that particular sign had never been seen before.

Context that goes beyond the identifier
Exposure and familiarity are also important factors in creating context. John Deere is as recognized for the color of its products as it is for its logo. Green and yellow farm machinery is so closely linked to the company that it’s immediately identifiable as a John Deere product from, literally, a mile away. Context and resonance can also be imparted by language that is closely associated with the symbol, with the effect of increasing the memorability of an identifier. In the case of the John Deere identifier, there are powerful echoes both with the company name and with its tagline (“Nothing runs like a Deere.”)

Symbolism plus context: both are needed
We’ve discussed how context is an integral part of an identifier’s meaning. Therefore, it needs to be crafted properly if the correct message is to be conveyed. It is important to understand that context, like symbology, does not exist in isolation. While the elements surrounding the central symbol have a vital role to play and are specifically designed to provide the contextual support needed to convey meaning, they must account for pre-existing associations. So, the meaning of a brand mark and an understanding of the brand come from symbolism that is given relevance by context. Context, in turn, is driven by association with known concepts and/or repeated, widespread exposure over time. Without properly crafted contextual elements to give it meaning, a new logo design is nothing more than “art for art’s sake.”

How context can drive a successful re-branding initiative
A new identifier that does not go hand-in-hand with a clearly communicated business idea that gives a new understanding of the brand can easily leave the public confused. Yet, the reverse is not necessarily true; companies have successfully revitalized their brand expression without changing their mark, by placing it in appropriate context. Because of the importance of context in conveying meaning, it is a very powerful tool to redirect and possibly reinvent a brand expression – dramatically influencing and changing perception, and making a new statement about the company. All this can be achieved while keeping the valuable brand mark intact. A prime example is the case of one of America’s largest insurers, Travelers. Established more than 140 years ago, Travelers has a rich history that is a key part of its brand identity. The familiar red umbrella symbol appeared in advertising in the 19th century and became the company’s official brand mark in the late 1950s. Travelers recently re-acquired the treasured red umbrella symbol and faced the need to announce to the world that Travelers was indeed back and stronger than ever. Having learned the lesson of the symbol’s power, the company realized the need to approach rebranding in a way that would leverage and celebrate the red umbrella (and the legacy of solid, longstanding service and protection that it represents), rather than reinventing it. BrandLogic created a complete, new visual language that echoes and supports the umbrella across the entire company. The design approach thus elevates the symbol and makes it the centerpiece of The Travelers’ identity.

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Everywhere you look in Travelers, whether it’s printed pieces, in advertising or on the Web, the umbrella theme is there, providing continuity, unity and cohesiveness. This pervasiveness highlights another important use of context and association in conveying meaning. Contextual elements can carry over into other uses of a symbol and serve as a powerful reinforcement for the brand message. Some of the Travelers television spots, for example, show the umbrella’s shadow before showing the umbrella symbol itself, conveying a clear message of overarching protection.

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The overall result of the effort has been a strong revitalization of the company and its perception. In a very short time, Travelers has regained its status as a very strong, recognizable brand. It is a household name once again.

The complete package is what really matters
What we aimed to demonstrate here is that much more goes into building a strong brand identity than a symbol or logo alone. The mark has to be seen in context, tightly integrated with a strong set of brand values and a clear statement of brand promise. By understanding and creating context, a brand mark and the whole brand package can be given increased relevance that resonates strongly with the marketplace.

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