The no-name game

February 4, 2011

The recent fuss over Starbucks’ logo change has brought up an emotional and seemingly contentious design topic: the nameless logo.

The recent fuss over Starbucks’ logo change has brought up an emotional and seemingly contentious design topic: the nameless logo. The symbol alone. The typical branding “don’t” that certain companies proudly thumb their nose at. So, is the symbol without a name the ultimate state of corporate identity nirvana? The answer, honestly, is no.

I’ve had my share of clients ask when the new logo we’ve created will be ready to be used “on it’s own” or will state that they intend to do so within “a couple of years”. Some will use it as part of their criteria for selecting one from a broad exploratory: “I can see that one standing on it’s own”. The notion of the symbol so powerful that no words are needed certainly has an emotional draw to marketing and branding folks, and can explain why the reactions to the Starbucks logo evolution draws the extremes of either admiration or ire, depending on who you’re asking. But, as much as people reference it, or long for it, the nameless symbol is not an end goal in and of itself; it’s simply a perk, a nice bit of flexibility that years of strong branding practices — and marketing spend — can buy you.

But wait… from a design standpoint, aren’t there certain symbols that have the broad shoulders to do it and some that don’t? Are there some symbols that are destined to stand alone? Well, not really. A look at the ones that are being used alone successfully will tell you that simplicity is a common trait. But being clear, uncomplicated and easy to discern are traits that all great corporate identities share. The Apple and Nike logos, while strong, solid symbols, aren’t necessarily groundbreaking. But they certainly represent groundbreaking companies. And let’s not forget that they are also consumer product brands… there are definite benefits, and long-standing practices, of keeping badging simple when it comes to products such as consumer electronics and apparel.


So it’s not a design issue, it’s a brand issue. When people long for a symbol that can stand by itself, what they’re really longing for is a brand that has tremendous level of familiarity and a large and almost cult-like following of customers, allowing for creative license in terms of identity application. You build a brand like that, of course, by standing for something powerful and relevant, being consistent with the identity and the overall experience over time, and then being smart about when and how to evolve the creative expression.

More and more brands are exploring the no-name treatment. Chili’s, Target (like Apple, it does help when the logo is a literal representation of your name), Pepsi, Honda and McDonald’s have all started using the symbol alone in certain instances. Does it display confidence? Sure. Does it open up new avenues for creative application? Absolutely. Is it the ultimate end goal? No. It’s just one of the numerous ways that a brand can apply its identity in creative and engaging ways, perpetuating a meaningful and relevant experience. Brands such as Coca-Cola, AOL and JetBlue flex their familiarity in different, but equally powerful and interesting ways, using varying degrees of “organic” identity implementation, where certain elements remain constant while others can vary wildly.


So forget the fascination with the stand-alone symbol, and any notion of status (or hubris) that comes with it. Focus on the hard work of building a powerful brand that ultimately gives you the opportunity to push creative boundaries. The headache of figuring out just how to do that in new and relevant ways is a great problem to have.

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