Are Logos Important?

What is it that makes a corporate brand identity? I used to think that this meant the logo, but the more I see and the more I practice the design of brands, the more I realize the logo enjoys exaggerated importance in the design of the brand identity.

Bad logos are either aesthetically unsuitable for the brand, or are simply unsuitable for technical reasons (e.g.: reproduction difficulties).

But if the logo isn’t outright bad, it can probably work well in the hands of a skilled designer. I’ve noticed that it’s novice designers who rely the most on a great logo to design good materials, where great designers can make mediocre marks work wonders for the brand.

This is because it’s the overall aesthetic that is created for the brand that really matters. In the end, the logo is really just a tiny aspect of the overall identity. I think it’s easy to see how this works when you start looking for it: have a look at your favourite brand design, how often does the logo really matter? While there will always be exceptions to the rule, you’ll often find that the logo itself has very little to do with the aesthetic given to the brand identity.

In fact, some of my favourite personal work has been done when I hastily applied the client’s logo as a last measure, because I hated the mark so much. I simply designed around it, and everyone was much happier for it.

Nerds, Geeks, and Dweebs in Tech Support

Recently my MacBook started acting up, so I took it in to the Apple store to have it looked at. While there, I realized that there’s a big difference in how different companies brand tech support.

Typically, companies take a kind of tongue-in-cheek approach to their tech-support departments. Best Buy has the Geek Squad. A private Canadian mobile tech support company is called Nerds on Site. Nerds, geeks, and dweebs all make frequent appearances in the names of tech support brands. While the derogatory names are intended in an endearing way, I can’t help but wonder what the effects of this branding is on the way customers relate to the brands.

NYC - Apple Store, West 14th Street - Genius Bar

At Apple, the tech support is called the Genius Bar. It’s a name that achieves similar messaging as the Geek Squad–that these people know their stuff, stuff that you don’t–but without the backhanded insult applied to the people that work there. I also think that this more positive branding prepares everyone, staff and customers alike, for a successful relationship. As a customer, your time with the Apple “Genius” is a little less antagonistic than your time with a “Geek” might be. There’s a more healthy respect in the relationship.

Open 9 Days a Week

I am forever fascinated with the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that brands use to strike the right tone in their communications. I love seeing little bits of whimsy in what can otherwise be a sterile landscape. Surprise and delight, I often say, are some of the key elements for building a memorable experience and eliciting passion from your audience.

Well, I don’t love it

I’ve had to present creative concepts before. While it can be the most rewarding part of the project, often the experience is completely deflating. That’s why I was so taken with this article in The Province that recounts the moment Nike executives got their first look at the now-iconic logo.

When the Nike pioneers caught their first glimpse of the black, curvy checkmark, the graphic designer who created it waited patiently for a reaction.

Nothing. Then, “What else you got?”

Carolyn Davidson, pushing back disappointment that spring day in 1971, pressed on. One by one, she presented a handful of sketches. But ultimately the three men circled back to the checkmark, her favourite.

“Well, I don’t love it,” Phil Knight said at the time, “but maybe it will grow on me.”

Dealership Fails in Last Mile of Internet Campaign

Because I’m trying to sell my car, I wanted to know how much it’s worth. Many dealerships have a deal with car appraisal engine Kelley Blue Book, so that you can get an estimate on your trade-in on the dealership’s website for free. It works as a nice lead-generation tool for the dealership: I get a free appraisal on my car, and they get my contact info to try to sell me a new car.

As expected, I got a follow-up email. Here’s the body of the email, verbatim:

My name is Dale internet and sales consultant if you are wanting to sell or trade your Lancer please give me a call we are always needing vehicles that are in good condition and we pay top dollar for trades also I have a young lady looking for a car like yours so if I can help I will be happy to thanks talk with you soon

So, the dealership (one of the “big three”) spends time and money developing its brand and Internet strategy. They build a website and create YouTube videos. Everything is just right. And then this email gets sent out …

These emails should be scripted and polished. It would only take a few minutes to clean up this introductory email, so why wouldn’t the dealership bother to do it? This writing shouldn’t make its way out of sixth grade. What qualities does this email impart on the dealership’s brand?

… also I have a young lady looking for a car like yours …

Sure you do. Sure you do.

This goes back to what I’ve said a few days ago: Employees have the greatest ability to shape the brand.

Photo, We Con courtesy of Boeke.

Brand Ambassadors: Your employees build the brand

This post at 37signals about how cutting corners can affect your brand—even if your customers don’t notice—is spot-on.

I’ve long felt that for most companies, the strongest influence on the brand is the employees. Employees deliver the richest experiences, with the highest fidelity. We form our perceptions about the brand so much more from our experiences with the brand’s workforce than through any other touchpoint. Marketing, advertising, and collateral don’t tell us nearly as much as does our interaction with the staff representing the brand.

The post (which is really worth the read) also includes this anecdote from a former employee of an Apple store:

I used to work at one of Apple’s retail stores and can totally affirm this. They do an excellent job of marketing to their own people, which just keeps the enthusiasm for the company at a constant high. And as I learned working at the store, enthusiasm is contagious; if the employees are excited about the product, the customers are going to be excited about the product as well.

You know what? I really get that vibe from Apple store employees. You can tell they’ve really bought into the products they’re selling, and that feeling rubs off onto customers. The story above contrasts quite nicely with this one about GM:

Similarly, many years ago I worked at GM headquarters. Walking into the office and trudging my way up to the cube farm—even in my daily tasks—you’d never know that GM made cars. I’ve always considered it the primary reason the American auto industry is falling apart.

If your employees aren’t enthusiastic about your product, experience, or brand, how can you expect your customers to be?

The lazy marketer can’t be bothered with sincerity

A printer I’ve used a few times over the years has been working hard lately to drum up new business. Someone there has heard of the rule that it’s easier to get money from people who already know you than it is to convert new customers. The company has been on a real blitz lately. Over the past month I’ve received multiple copies of the same email, and last week I received a letter—all with the exact same content.

I’ve reproduced the content of this marketing effort below, with some of the identifying information removed.

Good Afternoon Taylor Garries,

My name is [sales rep], assistant manager from [well-known printing company]. How is business going? I noticed that you haven’t ordered with us for a while and would like to do some more work with you.

I would like to update you on the following summer specials going on at [well-known printing company]:

[summer specials]

Although price is important, we know that service is much more valuable when it comes to printing. I would like to work with you on any print projects that you have coming up and I will be your dedicated rep and provide you with fast, reliable and high quality printing.

Taylor Garries, let me know when your next print job and let me quote you on it. You can contact me at [phone number] or email me at [email address].

Talk to you soon,

[sales rep]

This type of marketing is all about illusion. While I expect the advertiser to use a mail-merge form letter, I also expect the company to do a better job of creating an illusion that we genuinely enjoy a personal relationship.

The printer wanted the letter to sound like it really came from this person and was written specifically for me:

  • It’s addressed to me.
  • It’s written in the first person.
  • It offers me a “dedicated” rep.
  • It asks how my business is going.
  • It mentions the importance of service.

However, the vendor did a poor job with this mail merge and the actual content of the letter (grammatical errors notwithstanding). If you’re going to write a letter to sound like you’re personally sending it to me, take the time to make it sound like you’re personally sending it to me. When you get this wrong, you end up sounding like a Nigerian prince trying to get some help with money transfer.

The sloppy work spoiled the illusion, instead reminding me that we don’t have a personal relationship and that I’m being sold to as one of thousands.

People generally don’t write letters that start with “Good Afternoon Taylor Garries.” People also rarely specify the time of day in an opening greeting of the email: you wouldn’t know when the recipient might read it. The author should have used “Dear,” the less formal “Hello,” or “Hi.”

Using the recipient’s full name also sounds awkward. The advertiser should have used either “Mr. Garries” or “Taylor.” If you’re trying to build on the fact that a relationship exists—and presumably it is a good relationship—then you should go for the less formal option. Vendors that I get along with would usually write something like, “Hi Taylor.”

And then there’s one of the closing lines: “Taylor Garries, let me know when your next print job and let me quote you on it.” Again, did no one stop to ask how this would sound?

These small but telling gaffes conflict with the tone of the letter and become glaring errors in the eyes of the reader. The vendor should have polished up the content to ensure that it reads well after the mail merge.

But then, I received this exact form letter at least three times—from three different people. Even if the content was perfect, this would have ruined the illusion of any personal communication. The company should have scrubbed its distribution list to remove duplicates. This is the biggest chore, but it would yield the biggest payoff.

Alternatively, the vendor could have dropped the concept of sending a personalised letter altogether, rewriting the letter to be less personal instead. Don’t ask me how my business is going. Don’t write in the first person. Just send out a creative piece that engages me without tricking me. I’d much rather have received that three times.

The Body Shop takes on self-image

I stole this image from someone’s Facebook profile. Attached to it was the dubious claim that Mattel had sent a cease-and-desist order (possibly true) and had the posters removed from all Body Shop locations (unlikely). Whether this image bears enough resemblance to the Barbie doll to constitute trademark infringement warrants a whole separate legal discussion. For the sake of this discussion, I will assume that the story is true—because if so, it marks a tremendous blunder for both brands.

For Mattel, the company’s alleged demand to remove this poster does more damage than it prevents. The doll clearly isn’t an actual Barbie, but Mattel is now (even more) associated with perpetuating unhealthy attitudes in young women. I’ve seen this story passed around virally among the very audience Mattel needs to connect with the most—mothers.

For the Body Shop, any sign of capitulation would send a weak and dispirited message. Actually, the company probably has a pretty good case to fight for fair use of the image. But even if it loses, the fight is still worth fighting—especially if the Body Shop really wants to present a positive body-image message (a la Dove). When you give up without a fight, it says that you’re disingenuous about your branding efforts. You end up looking phoney, which is probably the worst thing you could do when trying to make money off an earnest message like this.

Of course, all of this assumes that the story is true, which I doubt—especially the part about Mattel “banning” the posters. A few minutes of Google-fu didn’t turn up much, except this New York Times article about the campaign from 1997. Aside from that, I could only find a multitude of blog posts, each one parroting the same story. I remain skeptical.

Vision, mission, and other lies

Let me get this out there right away: I hate mission statements.

Whether we’re talking about mission statements, vision, or some other business-school textbook buzzword, they’re all pretty similar. These statements should define the brand. In other words, they should provide a nice little explanation of the brand.

I hate them because they are almost always immense letdowns.

I recognize how these things are tackled: by a committee. Since such entities are intrinsically political, you end up with equivocal blocks of copy that don’t communicate anything. They don’t read well, and so they don’t affect the organization.

Noteworthy: Here’s a random mission statement generator.

Language aside, I hate mission statements because they’re often ignored—or at least stepped around when convenient. I think that the most powerful thing a brand can do is be genuine. Whatever you decide the brand stands for, do that. Live and breathe those qualities in every way you can. And most of all, be genuine at the cost of a dollar.

I’m not arguing for the abandonment of economics. I’m saying that when a brand is confronted with making a choice between being genuine or making a profit, it pays off to be genuine.

Your mission statement doesn’t mean anything until it costs you money.

Brand differentiation done really well

The Alamo Drafthouse is an independent cinema chain in Texas that has a strict “no talking, no texting” policy. Recently a customer was ejected from the theatre (no refund was given) for repeatedly texting during the movie despite warnings. She called and left a long, rambling NSFW message detailing her experience. And then things took an awesome turn:

The theatre has turned it into a commercial!

It helps that the patron doesn’t come across very well, so she’s easy to dislike. The theatre pulls off this execution brilliantly.

You can’t watch it and not love the vibe you get from the theatre. A quick perusal of its Wikipedia page suggests that the cinema does a lot of other really interesting things to build the culture around its brand, and to separate itself from the competition. I would love to visit these guys—they seem to really have things figured out.