When I was in college we used to sit around and talk about how it was the logo that defined a company. But since then I’ve come to the understanding that a logo is only a single part of a brand. As a graphic designer, I’ve worked with many small businesses who were looking to define (or redefine) their image, and feel that the way to do that was with a new logo. While painstaking detail and care must go into the development of the logo, the logo will lose its power if not set apart by a strong parallel branding campaign that reflects everything that the logo is visually.

First who, then logo

In Good to Great by Jim Collins one of the defining principles is “First who, then what.” The same is true for great logo marks. A great logo is the essence of the actions, ethos, and culture of the company it represents. Companies and organizations who are in tune with WHO they are are most successful in creating logo marks that represent them. Those that think that a logo will define them often have the greatest challenge in the design process. This is key: before you think about a logo, do the hard work of finding out who your company is. With the help of a talented designer, the design will fall into place, I promise.

Let me give you an example. About a year ago, I worked with the great folks at Breeden Homes, a local home builder in Eugene, OR. Breeden Homes has been building great homes for over 50 years, yet they were looking to redefine their business and refocus their brand. Before we sat down to concept their website, they had done the hard work of figuring out who they were, and who they wanted to be. They sought to center their business model in the emerging green market, while creating a culture and programs that focused on educating and engaging their potential clients. Because of the hard work they did in figuring out who they are, we were able to design and develop an amazing website to stand at the core of their brand collateral, without needing to spend a ton of time on creating a logo. Their brand is more than a logo, it’s an acculturated understanding of themselves that comes out in all of their visual design pieces.

That said, a great logo will encapsulate and express the very essence of a company. Because of this, the logo often acts as the center of a branding campaign which creates a visual image for a company, service, or product. The logo cannot exist outside of a company, and a logo should not exist outside of a well developed supporting branding campaign.

Know your place in your market

Exploring more on this topic I’d like to take a look at how a branding campaign is effected not only by the essence of the company, but by the visual standards for the industry as well. Visual identification clues the viewer into the ethos of your business, and also the framework of the industry it is a part of. For example, if you’re opening a  children’s clothing store you’ll naturally choose to use playful fonts, with primary color schemes. Why? because those are “standards” that visually represent that industry and your products. It would be crazy and unhelpful for a children’s clothing store to choose a visual identity reminiscent of banking. And, while a bank may want to appear approachable and friendly, there is still a need to balance that with a design that reflects safety and security.

The question then must be evaluated as to why industries have developed distinct visual identities. Oftentimes this is because an industry leading or industry innovating company has set the marker for the industry identity. This is the case, in part, with companies like Nike and Apple. Another reason industries begin to develop visual identities of their own is because of the demographic of their end user. In the Children’s clothing store example, their end user (parents/children) are perceptually drawn to primary colors and soft/rounded edges because of their environment, age, and developmental stage. This is vitally different from a sports apparel company whose end user is inevitably attracted to a dynamic, energetic, young and vibrant visual identity because it encapsulates their motivation for purchasing such apparel.
All in all, branding must take into account not only company ethos and product dynamism, but it must also be reminiscent of industry visual standards and reflect the target audience’s use of product and lifestyle (or intended lifestyle).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the words, “I don’t know, I’ll just know it when I see it” and shuddered. Logo design is just as much art as science. It involves an in-depth analysis of your industry and target audience, and a lot of soul-searching as a business to find out who your business is. This is why business planning is so important. Before you can “slap a logo on it” you have to know who your business is, and where it’s positioned in your market.

Happy branding!

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