Logos aren’t meant to sell products

  • Design
  • Sep 10, 2020

One thing you should know about me, I love branding. I could talk about anything and everything related to the idea of branding. So, when a friend reached out to me wondering if I had thoughts related to a recent study regarding logos published on Harvard Business Review, I said yes!

Here’s the summary of the study:

Great logos help sell products. But what kind of logo is right for your brand? Researchers analyzed 597 companies to answer this question. They discovered descriptive logos (those that include visual design elements that communicate the type of product) more favorably affect consumers’ brand perceptions than nondescriptive ones (logos that are not indicative of the type of product). They also found that descriptive logos are more likely to improve brand performance — unless consumers associate your product with sad or unpleasant things, in which case a nondescriptive logo is probably better.

While I appreciate comparing the effectiveness of a descriptive vs non descriptive logo as it relates to understanding and sales I don’t believe this is the ultimate test on how effective they are. Also, it looks like their study focuses on the visuals alone and not taking into account any supporting words or other factors. The effectiveness of a logo needs context as no one just looks at a page full of logos next to each other unless you’re a brand/design nerd like me haha.

The idea that a coffee shop should include a coffee cup so people understand the name of the brand more and that the brand would be more effective is bonkers, to me.

Look at Starbucks. Yes, they are very recognizable now but they started with a more complex mermaid and “Starbucks Coffee” was written along with it. A logo is more than the visual symbol.

Two more examples where I think this study falls apart: Nike and Apple (two of the most recognizable brands in the world now)

Based on this study and going back in time, Nike should have had a shoe or someone running to be more effective.

And Apple should’ve went with a computer screen? rather than an actual Apple? They don’t sell apples.

There’s only so many ways you can design a coffee cup. Nike is much more than a shoe or running company. Apple needed a symbol that everyone understood when it came to “Apple” in the very technical space of technology/computers.

The mission of Starbucks, Nike, and Apple was grand. The mission wasn’t a selling point. It was a cause, something bigger than them. It was their why.

Okay, let’s go away from recognizable brands for the time being…

Let’s use some known Iowa (yeah, I’m from Iowa and you may not know these) brands: Friedrich’s Coffee, Casey’s, and Ryan Construction.

Based on this study the following should be more true: Friedrich’s would be more effective if they had a coffee cup, Casey’s should have a slice of pizza and fuel pump together, and Ryan Construction should have a crane or bulldozer.

Instead, Friedrich’s has an older gentleman in a mustache, Casey’s has a rooftop with a weathervane, and Ryan Construction has a shamrock.

Friedrich’s is recognized as a coffee shop, Casey’s as a place to get pizza and gas, and Ryan Construction as… yeah a construction company.

You see a logo is just one element of an identify for a brand. There’s the brand messaging and the actual brand name that supports the logo.

I agree with this study’s findings but it fails to look at a brand making up several parts. The effectiveness of a logo does not equal the effectiveness of a brand.

To me, it’s what a brand does with the logo. How do they communicate what they do and what do they do to help support the logo to make it most effective.

I believe that logos are not for consumers. A logo is for the people behind the brand, the mission, the company.

Many plumbing companies have pipes and toilets part of their logo. Many heating and cooling companies use red and blue and flames and snowflakes for their logo.

How do you stand out? You understand that a descriptive logo, with evidence from this study, will make you better understood in a literal since and just logo alone without the name of your company.

The problem is these logos start to look similar and all of the sudden you’re not recognizable. Yes, you’re understand as a heating and cooling company but people don’t remember which one you are.

My advice is for brands to come up with a strong “why”. They need to focus more on their why than their what. Oh and “to make the world a better place” is not a unique why anymore.

Once brands have that, then they can begin to come up with a logo design that best represents their why while also thinking about the industry they are in.

It’s not about being understood. It’s about being recognized. My opinion is that a logo makes your brand more recognizable. How you advertise and market to your consumers is what makes your logo understood.

Remember Friedrich’s doesn’t have a coffee cup as their logo, but they have “coffee” in their brand name”. That’s the difference.

AND Casey’s has a rooftop with weathervane for their logo. The fact that they are a place with gas pumps with their logo next to them makes the understood.

My Summary

This study, to me, falls apart as effectiveness seems to be comparing many logo together on one page and having people decide which one they better understand. Of course, any logo that has a literal representation of the brand will be better understood (or in their terms.. more “effective”). Where I disagree is that in the real world how does one recognize your brand when they all look the same because they are all using a very similar logo to represent their brand. I suggest not to use scales of justice for your logo if you want to stand out. A logo needs to represent why you’re different. How do you feel or want to be different in the legal services industry? Why should people choose you, etc.? Answers to those questions are a better start to making an effective logo. Not whether to be descriptive or not.

Logos aren’t meant to sell. That’s what marketing is for. A logo is part of branding. There’s a difference.