Sometime around 1855, an unknown genius sat down to design a logo. It was a simple scarlet triangle – that’s it. But it went on to conquer the world.
The logo was plastered onto bottles of Bass Pale Ale, a mild bitter with a malty taste. In the coming decades, it snuck its way into an Édouard Manet painting, at least 40 works by Picasso, the novel Ulysses and a children’s book.
By 1871, the symbol could be found in even the most obscure corners of the British Empire, from the icy shores of the Falkland Islands to the tropical beaches of Mauritius. It’s the oldest registered trademark in the UK.
Though it’s less instantly recognisable today, the Bass logo joins the ranks of Twinings Tea, Levi Strauss & Co, Peugeot, Johnson & Johnson, Heinz ketchup and Shell Oil, which have all made it to their 100th birthday and beyond.
These legendary designs are in stark contrast to more recent logo disasters, such as that time Gap added a square to theirs – fans caused such a fuss that they dropped it after six days – or when the Royal Mail abandoned its 350-year legacy and rebranded as “Consignia”.
The new name was accompanied by a bland multicoloured swirl, to the great bewilderment of the public and at a cost of £2 million. They, too, quickly reverted. “It’s fascinating how passionate people get about certain brands,” says Alison Shields, assistant professor of marketing and law at Ithaca College, New York.
What makes a logo “sticky” – the kind of image that embeds itself in the public consciousness, instantly conjuring prestige, quality, or nostalgia? And why do others flop?
“We aren’t often asked to design a logo that will last hundreds of years,” laughs Michael Bierut, a partner at design consultancy Pentagram and the brains behind the logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“To my mind the basic theme of an enduring logo is simplicity,” he says. Clean-cut, abstract logos are more easily recognisable and they simply don’t date, he adds.
But while this is true of the Bass triangle, which could have been coined yesterday, it clearly isn’t the only factor. Though a blunder, Consignia’s swirl was minimal enough, while the elaborate icons of veteran companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola and Levi’s are positively Victorian. What’s going on?
Clean-cut, abstract logos are more easily recognisable and they simply don’t date
For a start, it depends what you’re selling. Take the tech giant IBM. Though their logo is just 61 years old, in such a fast-moving industry that’s positively prehistoric; when it was launched in 1956, the personal computer hadn’t even been invented.
This success story began in a New York showroom in the mid-1950s, where the son of the company’s president, Thomas Watson Jr., was perusing a selection of Olivetti typewriters. He was taken aback by the sleek, contemporary style in which they were presented and realised that design really matters. There and then, he vowed to drag his father’s company into the 20th Century.
When Watson eventually took over, he hired help in the form of Paul Rand, a celebrated graphic designer from Brooklyn. Rand spent more than a decade tinkering with the logo, gradually transforming it from a humble stencilled “IBM”, to a bold black version, then finally the black-and-white lined form we’re familiar with today.
He was ahead of his time in the tiniest of details. For example, he noticed that white stripes appear thicker when they’re backlit, such as on signs and tv screens. To counteract this he made the them thinner than the black ones, so that they appeared of equal width no matter where you saw it.
In the tech world, appearing modern is essential – no one wants to buy a laptop from a company rooted in the 1800s. They do, however, want to buy their drinks from one. “The Coca-Cola logo is arguably old-fashioned looking. But their customers are seeking some kind of authentic, real product so it works,” says Bierut.
The holy grail of any company logo is to become associated with nostalgia
In addition to the traditional, “ye olde” factor, the holy grail of any company logo is to become associated with nostalgia. “People really care about these brands – they often talk about them as though they’re people,” says Shields.
In recent years, companies have started to catch on to this, reverting to their original logos to encourage customers to get sentimental. For example, Kodak recently returned to their classic 1970s insignia, as did Nintendo, who went back to the red version millennials remember from their childhoods.
“This only really works if there’s been some kind of time lapse – you can’t have nostalgia for something that occurred last week,” says Shields. And it comes with its own problems.
The Royal Mail’s transition to Cosignia was supposed to signal a radical shakeup of the entire business. The company’s chief executive at the time, John Roberts, had grand plans to expand overseas and wanted them to be seen as more than just a company that delivers post.
If they had successfully rebranded, it may have freshened their image and revitalised the company.
But nostalgic logos can only be tweaked very subtly, with caution and care. “If you make it too different, the public feel it’s no longer their brand and they get upset,” says Shields.
Finally, a large part of the longevity of any design is luck. As any designer will tell you, the factor that ultimately determines how long a logo will last is the reputation of the company.
“Logos are really like empty vessels into which you pour meaning,” says Bierut. “You can make a more suitable vessel to hold it – without any holes, or a shape that’s appropriate for what it will hold, but in the end the meaning is the thing that gets applied to it over time.”
Bierut gives the example of the Enron logo, which was another of Rand’s creations. It’s a perfectly functional logo and obeys all the laws of good graphic design; it’s simple and mostly blue, which is seen in the industry as a “safe” colour for all occasions.
And yet, the emblem couldn’t save the company when it was enveloped by scandal in 2001, before going bankrupt. No matter what they look like, all logos are at the mercy of the company they’re affiliated with; they die with their masters.
At the opposite end of the scale, the insignia of a successful company may become one of the most widely reproduced symbols on the planet.
Like the Bass triangle in the 19th Century, Bierut estimates that the Mastercard logo – one of the designs his agency has created – has been reproduced billions of times: on shop windows, bank cards, tills, cash machines, apps and on the internet.
“I like to think that eventually someone will be digging on planet earth in the distant future and they’ll find something with that symbol on it,” he says. Now that’s longevity.
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