Whose identity is it anyway?

Logos have become an oft discussed topic of late. First Gap and now Starbucks. With regards to Starbucks, Stephen Denny talks about how this push for simplicity in logo design is not always a good thing. Paul asks the question why do we feel so compelled to talk about such a small defenseless object? Tom  suggests Starbucks missed an opportunity with the logo – that rather than talk about the corporate strategy, they should have used it as an opportunity to tell a new story. One that mattered to their customers.

Which begs the question, whose identity is it? Does the brand own their logo and everything that goes with it, giving them free reign to change as their strategy suits them? Or do the customers own it and should have a say in when and how it changes? And how important is the logo compared with the total brand experience – all those touch points from the product and service to navigating often difficult customer service centers?

Marty Neumeier in The Brand Gap articulates it very well: “A brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” Thus it’s whatever image and experiences exist in the consumer’s mind. Which can certainly change on a whim. Freddie shares this sentiment in his thoughts on Starbucks’ logo change.

Now any of you who’ve navigated corporate approval processes know, in most companies, the end product is largely dependent upon how many people have a say – the more there are, the more sanitized the end result unless the company has a strong design philosophy baked into their culture. Or a very strong leader at the helm. So I really pity the team that asks its customers for design input. First, most people don’t think about the complexities of rolling out a new identity (nor should they) taking into account media (print, environmental, digital), culture (how that affects color choices, form, translations, etc.), existing infrastructure, heritage and costs to say the least.

I do think Starbucks did a good job on their change. It stays true to their heritage and is no shock to the system. It feels familiar. However, I do agree with Tom that they’re not at the level of Nike or Apple in which they can truly getaway with dropping their name. It’ll be interesting to see how the roll out goes – we’ll learn more then.

People around me often ask what a mermaid has to do with coffee. I tell them it’s a part of their heritage, but I bet many didn’t realize until this iteration what exactly that image was. Turns out it was inspired by the seafaring history of coffee.  And she’s the story teller so they say.

But why do some logos create such controversy? When Xerox rolled out their new identity a couple years ago, I don’t recall too many getting up in arms about their move from a pixelized ‘X’ to a stylized red globe.  Could be we’re not as passionate about printers and copiers as we are coffee and jeans?

Did anybody care when AT&T updated their logo? Other than they lost a lot of warmth when the Cingular Jack was retired, I think not – little love or attachment for the brand.

Would Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche or VW dare change their logos? I think we’d see a lot of chatter if they did. But I can’t see they have a need to do so as they’ve done a nice job keeping their brands current without needing a logo refresh.

For consumers, though, change makes them uncomfortable. And with a brand like Starbucks – one so many people frequent virtually every day that it’s an extension of themselves, it creates discomfort. I think any change would do so. They’re in a catch 22. Starbucks does a lot of things right. I’ve consistently appreciated how they connect with their local communities. And how when they recognized they strayed by focusing too much on growth, losing their heart, they found a way to bring it back. In the face of rapid change, people like to grasp on something comfortable, stable. They go into their past and get nostalgic. It’s a way of coping.

And as for a logo being that small defenseless object, while a brand is not a logo, the logo is a way to capture all of the meaning created by the collective experiences each of us has with a brand. So when we look at a logo, it means something personal to us – good or bad. It paints a picture in our mind of what we can expect when we interact with the people and company behind it.

So before you tinker with your company’s brand, take a good look at the emotional equity it holds. And don’t necessarily think the logo is the problem with a struggling brand. Look holistically at the entire experience. While you may be able to design a kickass logo and own the strategy behind it, you don’t own what it ultimately means to those who matter most. And that extra shiny new logo means nothing if the experience it promises doesn’t hold water.


  1. Sandra Parrotto says:

    Absolutely! totally agree – we have an emotional relationship with that logo… well said… “So when we look at a logo, it means something personal to us – good or bad. It paints a picture in our mind of what we can expect when we interact with the people and company behind it.”

    I would have a reaction to a logo change around any company that held particular interest for me. The Xerox logo that you shared, became markedly cleaner, graphically more appealing, but I didn’t have an emotional connection to it, so my views are dispassionate – detached.

    Perhaps the issue with allowing customers to have input on logos is their reactions result from a wide continuum ranging from emotional to detached. Input can have a team consider issues they might have overlooked but maybe the idea is to gather information on the emotional reaction to the logo rather than the “look and feel”. Just thoughts… thanks Patrick, always love your posts!

  2. Pat:

    A few thoughts on the above –

    1. Yes, the brand owns the logo. They are accountable for the decisions they make and managing the corporate identity is a big part of their responsibility. Not one you’d casually change, or change often (as you would packaging), but it’s part of their arsenal.

    2. Consumers “own” how they feel about your work, collectively. They judge your efforts, matching your words with their perception of your actions. The intersection is what the collective feels about your brand.

    3. Smart brands ask consumers to be art critics, but never to be artists. Test your (finished) creative executions against each other and against existing assets. See what they like and why they like it. Importantly, test against “real” consumers – not hand-raisers on Facebook or Twitter – because testing with the most vocal 6% is biased at best and dangerous at worst.

    4. Your internal approval process better start and finish with the data from #3. If “expert opinions” from senior management impact what a statistically relevant sample of consumers had to say, you’ve got the wrong management. Or you’re in the wrong company. One or the other.

    I think the SBUX logo change was fine. It’s simple, 1 color and fairly bland. I think the trend towards simplicity at all costs misses a lot of opportunity for “interestingness.” But I also think that consumers, in general, care much less than we do! Thanks!

  3. Great post and nicely written, Patrick – thanks for the mention!

    Your point that customers should not be asked about the logo design is a good one. While gathering input is always a smart thing to do, logos are just one piece of the puzzle and while critically important, they are just part of the overall branding strategy.

    If people are asked to put all their attention on the logo, early in the process as with Starbucks, they will surely get opinions, but the question is being asked out of context. Hence, I can’t imagine the feedback will be very helpful.

    I still expect that Starbucks will tell their “story”, but I believe it should have been done together with the logo announcement and perhaps a marching band or two. Since they chose to release the logo prematurely, it comes at us out of context, thereby reducing the whole thing to nothing more than a beauty pageant.

    I have my opinions on the logo design; of course I do — I’ve designed thousands of them myself. Aesthetically, I applaud the direction which I think is more graphic, but I would have done a couple of things differently for even more impact. Fine — but who cares? This is not the right question to be asking. If they did it right, we wouldn’t be focused so much on the logo itself and we wouldn’t be asking this question in the first place.

    Logos encapsulate the essence and spirit of a company in one simple, unique, effective icon. It’s difficult to know how well a logo does this until we know what that essence is.

  4. Simon Morris says:

    We should also be clear that a logo is not the brand so when Marty Neumeier said “A brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” he wasn’t referring to the logo but to the total brand expression.

    One of the key objectives of any organisation to stay relevant to consumers in 10 to 15 years time. So that means a very hard strategic decision needs to be made to identify when to evolve the brand or to undergo a revolution of the brand.

    in order for a company to make money within a competitive environment it is important to differentiate. one of the mechanisms to do this is through a total brand strategy. The logo is the face of that strategy.

    Starbucks is facing an emerging consumer base that has less and less time, so the branding and the logo needs to be less cluttered. So, it makes sense that the logo removes elements that offer little advantage. Colour and shape are the two things the mind needs to recognize the logo and the brand. so as someone is heading to work and they are scanning for a place that sells coffee then they glimpse the starbucks colour through the throng of people which ends up resulting in a coffee sale then the brand strategy has worked.

    I think this is a smart move for starbucks.

  5. Patrick says:

    Great points Simon. I completely agree that a logo is not the brand but comprised of the total experience. You have to differentiate. And often must evolve to remain relevant. I just think they somehow still need to connect their name with the icon – and look forward to seeing how they roll out the new logo. I like it as well and think they’ll do just fine.

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