Underwriters Laboratories: Extending A Certification Mark

September 13, 2006

It may be the original certification mark. Turn over virtually any electronic device and youíll find some version of the UL logo someplace.† UL, Underwriters Laboratories, dates back to 1894 when it was founded, in part, to help manufacturers assure consumers about product safety (namely that the products wouldnít spontaneously ignite).

A manufacturerís motivation for using the UL mark is simple: to indicate to their end users a level of safety and compatibility that is at parity with or in excess of market standards, as evidenced by a rigorous battery of testing. The original UL mark is now just one of many in the non-for-profitís certification portfolio .

I recently heard a radio ad touting the virtues of the UL mark for safety by presenting a tongue-in-cheek story of buying inferior or unsafe products that failed to carry to UL certification. ìLook for products that carry the UL logoÖî

As far as I know, UL has never looked to communicate their meaning directly to the consumer.† The mark simply indicated some level of electrical compliance and that the device it was on wouldnít blow up ñ and that was really the end of it. †

So why is this non-profit spending money to advertise their mark? And why has UL turned its attention to things like floatation devices, burglar alarms and water quality? The answer may lie in the decreasing relevance of its original charter.† The UL mark was a symbol of a self-policing industry initiative that offers safety assurance so electronics manufacturers can sell more products to consumers.† Yet, if consumers have come to trust a certain base level of electrical safety in the market, UL may find itself superfluous.† And, if UL is indeed superfluous, electronics companies need not pay the fees to undergo testing and certification and earn use of the haloed mark.† And, UL would then cease to be.† So, the answer is to diversify.

UL certifies things.† And now it certifies so many things, consumers likely have no idea what any of the marks actually represent. The approach has created an interesting paradox.† UL has worked to increase its influence and relevance by diffusing a single powerful logo into a series of more targeted, less easily understood marks ñ requiring proactive communication to foster the a level of understanding commensurate with the original mark. †

At the end of the day, despite a range of descriptors like ìMarine,î ìGas-Firedî and ìSignaling,î chances are all people see and know is UL, a mark they have come to trust for over 100 years. As long as this trust is maintained, UL will have a good story to tell to its manufacturing constituents, enabling the marks and its testing programs to continue to proliferate

Jonathan Paisner - jpaisner@corebrand.com†

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