Why Good Brand Identity Design Matters – Part 1
Part 1 – Why ‘looking good’ and ‘feeling right’ are so important
From the moment we wake up to the moment we sleep, we are surrounded by our favourite ‘brands’, the products we’ve selected to get us through our day, all of them represented by the brand identity that defines them. Why did we select them, and what has all this visual ‘power dressing’ got to do with it? Why isn’t everything just sold to us naked, in plain brown paper bags? Answer that question, and we understand not only why we need logos, but also why they need to look good.
Picture this. I’m in London on a study break, and it’s winter. I wake up in the morning in my cold flat, get out of my warm Ikea bed, and put on my Marks & Spencer fur-lined moccasins. I slip my thick Uniqlo hoodie over my pyjamas, turn on my Russell Hobbs kettle for a cup of PGTips tea, and spread my toast with a dollop of good old Marmite, from its nice round black jar. After breakfast I pull on my faded Levi’s jeans, my comfy Clarks Wallabees and my cool-looking North Face kagool. Then I cycle off to school on my trusty Brompton…
That just describes the favourite brands I use in the first hour of my day. There’s another 14 or 15 left to go! If I was back in Singapore where I work, the product names might be different, but the classic brands that populate my day would be equally familiar. My Yakun Kaya toast for breakfast. My Toastbox chicken curry for lunch. And my Tiger Balm heat rub after my evening shower, to ease away the aches and pains of the day. Aaaaaah:-)
I’m sure you get the point. In the developed world we literally can’t get through any day without these trusted brands that almost come to define our personality. Or at least, our lifestyles. As we said in our blogpost ‘What exactly is a brand?’, we mix and match our favourite brands in a way that reflects our own self-perception. They are a statement about who we are.
But why or how do they become our ‘favourites’? Why do we select them? A mix of reasons, but three really stand out. The first is the most obvious, and not much needs to be said about it. We choose them because we like the product, and it delivers on our expectations. The last two reasons are more subtle, and the clue lies in the subtitle of this piece. It’s about how ‘looking good’ and ‘feeling right’ works on the human psyche.
First of all, it’s about the sight and sound of the brand, which falls under the idea of visual and verbal ‘beauty’, or aesthetics. We all know brands by their names and logos, or ‘brand identity’ (to use the technical term) – those visual and verbal representations of the brand that are instantly identifiable, at least if they’re well-designed. A point I will come back to later.
The best brand identities look and sound good, and tell a story that draws us in and changes the way we think about the products they represent. In the case of a consumable brand, the packaging needs to feel good and maybe smell good too. These cues give an idea of what we’re going to get when we use the product, and create desire. If we then buy the product, and it delivers on those expectations, we form positive associations that we then invest in the brand identity. If our ongoing experiences are consistently good, those positive associations we invest in it simply increase, and secure our loyalty. It’s an escalating reinforcement. Which is why logos and names – and all the elements of brand identity design – are so important, because they come to represent everything we feel about a brand. And for that to happen, they need to look good, sound good and have both sensory and emotional appeal too.
The second point is related, in that it is also about the sight and sound of the brand. But it isn’t about looking or sounding good. It’s about looking and sounding right. In other words, it’s about authenticity – the name, the logo and the overall visual image of the brand has to be true to what it is. It must feel right for the kind of product or experience that it represents, and also, feel right for ‘us’. Meaning, it has the right fit for our self-image.
On this point, leading American designer Michael Bierut speaks of brand identities and their logos as being ‘empty vessels’ that customers of a brand pour meaning into, over time. This sounds a bit odd, because it appears to suggest that logos themselves are completely void of meaning. But he’s not really saying that. He’s just underlining that the symbols and shapes a designer creates in a logo do not mean much in themselves – they only mean something if the viewer or customer can easily relate them to the brand itself, rationally or emotionally. And that’s the point – they need to make that connection.
He said “A lot of what we see in logos isn’t really happening in the logo itself. It’s happening in our own minds. We invest brands with our own meaning”. As Marty Neumeier, author of ‘The Brand Gap’ put it, “A brand is a result. It’s a customer’s gut feeling about a product, a service, or a company. … They take whatever raw materials you throw at them [eg the logo] and they make something out of it. But they’re making it. They’re creating it”. Good point. Which is why it is so important that brand identity designers make these ‘empty vessels’ look right, reflecting all the right qualities of the brand, from the word go. So that we close the gap between what a brand really is in itself, and how it is perceived by customers and the marketplace generally.
The original Nike Swoosh drawing by Carolyn Davidson didn’t impress the founders of the brand very much at first, although it was accepted. But once it appeared on the first Nike shoe in1972, the Nike Cortez, the swoosh really took off.
For example, the Nike Swoosh. When it was originally designed way back in the early 70s, it meant nothing, although its visual kinetics were appropriate for a sport brand. At first the Nike founders didn’t really like it, because on its own, it looked kind of odd. They wanted something like the Adidas stripes, which they couldn’t have for obvious reasons. But the designer Carolyn Davidson put the swoosh on the sides of their cool sports shoe designs, and suddenly, it looked right. Then Nike boosted it with the genius of their marketing campaigns, like ‘Just do it’, and the swoosh came into its own. 50 years later, we don’t need anything but the swoosh to evoke the Nike brand. This simple shape totally represents the spirit and the attitude of Nike, and the perceptions of customers who love the brand.
The power of well-designed brand identity
So the famous saying ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ doesn’t work for brand identity! If you think of a brand name and logo as the cover of the book, and the product as the book itself, then you should absolutely be able to judge the product by its brand identity. Which is why Bierut also said, “A lot of [branding] is about being true to what’s in the package …people have to be given reliable cues to navigate their choices”.
Here Bierut is hinting at something very important about the psychology involved, which in large part answers the question of why we don’t sell everything in brown paper bags with no label, and we need those clever brand identities.
“Brands help people navigate the world. They help people understand if they’re making a good choice or a bad choice. … What really gets you through the day are those periods that are about routine and habituation and comfort. And one of the [ways] that brands or design shape the material world, is providing people with the kind of visual and experiential cues that help them work their way through an environment that’s complicated and potentially bewildering.”
From the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux to the symbols of our major religions, we’ve always created pictures or icons that symbolize the things that matter to us, and give us meaning. That is what logos and branding are all about.
In other words, human beings are basically categorizers, who need to label things in order to identify and prioritise them. From the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux to the symbols of our major religions and the flags of nations, all the way down the centuries we’ve needed to create pictures or icons that symbolize the things that matter to us, express our allegiances, and guide our choices. And that is exactly what logos, product names and ‘branding’ are all about.
The famous branding guru Paul Rand, the man responsible for the IBM, UPS and Westinghouse logos, once said that a good brand identity has to have “the pleasure of recognition, and the promise of meaning”. By which he means that, when you see a logo, there is something memorable about it that pleases and attracts you, and something authentic that you recognize as being true to the brand, and which gives it meaning. And then you are motivated to buy it or be loyal to it, when other choices are competing for your attention.
That is why successful brand identities and their symbols come to be worth so much. The Nike Swoosh alone, for example, was valued at US$15.28 billion in 2022, which represents roughly half the total value of Nike’s brand. All of which underlines why for brand identities, looking good, sounding good, and feeling right is so important.
Nowadays brand value is so important that it represents a huge proportion of the total assets of the world’s top brands. Brand identity is central to that value. In the case of Nike, the Swoosh alone was valued at US$15 billion in 2022.
How do we judge what looks good, and feels right?
But this begs the question – how do we judge what looks good, and feels right? We often hear it said that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, meaning that there are no objective standards for what is aesthetically pleasing. Is that really true, or could there be any criteria by which we judge beauty, or decide what ‘looks right’, that everyone recognizes?
In Part 2, we examine what these objective standards might be, where they come from, and how they all work on the human psyche to make us happy, and guide our choices.
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