The Contemporary Evolution of the Visual Identity Mark

Jacqueline Hill MDes | The Glue Sessions | Designasaw

Image showing a Visual Identity Mark – the Nike Logo – in situ
Photo by Thomas Serer on Unsplash

 

A recent work of mine addressed the elevation of major global ‘brands’ such as Apple, Shell, and MacDonald’s to a near religious status within present day society.

Today’s brands have a face and a soul made of an amalgam of calculated, curated, and philosophical attributes. ‘The face’ of the brand, is in large part the visual communication strategies and graphic and semiotic devices with the brand’s Visual Identity Mark (VIM) at its centre. ‘The soul’ of the brand is based on the intangible aspects, which includes brand value, essence, and its neo-archetypal persona and is delivered to the target audience via the brand’s ‘face’. Ultimately, it is all about creating an interaction or connection with the viewer/user.

Brand marketing has grown into a global practice and brands such as NIKE, Apple, McDonald’s, and Mercedes Benz, are now a part of the global everyday lexicon. They have moved from cultural brand marks to semiotic icons, universally recognized. A VIM aims to become a numinous vehicle, evoking the ethos of the brand whenever it is seen. It also, in recent times, must cross all cultural boundaries. As described by Wallace in 2001, a VIM is “one of the most salient visual elements of a brand”. A brand’s logo can be a critical tool for conveying associations between the brand and the self, which in turn helps people see the brand as part of themselves.

Visual identity means continuity because it testifies to the brand’s philosophies; cultural and social origins; and economic values. Continuity cannot be seen in this context as mere repetition of a brand’s visual identity but rather as a kind of ‘becoming’ with its own logic and directional sequence. As Flock observed “In more semiotic terms, identity can be conceived or perceived along the two axes of ‘system’ and process”. And it is vital that a VIM reflects the contemporary times in which it is used and viewed.

The communication intent within a brand’s VIM is delivered through a combination of separate visual elements. These elements contextualised the VIM and assist in generating the brand’s value and meaning to viewers/users. These include a word mark or letter – forms and a pictorial based symbol either in representational or abstract form. Some VIMs are a combination of these two elements, some are exclusively word marks or letter forms, and of recent times, some are exclusively pictorially based. VIMs that are a combination of these two elements, often engage a hierarchy of to the elements.

Brands such as Coca Cola, IBM, GE, and FedEx have utilize word marks exclusively for their VIMs. Due to the longevity and frequency of these type based VIMs, one could observe that these word marks have moved beyond being just letter forms and are now perceived as icons for the brands. Pictorially based VIMs allow for effective and diverse messaging because they can project a meaning other than their literal visual representation i.e. apple = apple; apple = health, Apple = technology. This allows the viewer/user to bring their own interpretation, natural or cultural to the reading.

However, the use of a specific alphabet, and in the majority of the leading globally recognised VIMs, that alphabet is Latin based, brings with it embedded semiotic inferences, which may carry negative equity in some of the new cultural market places. This analysis of a VIM and its overall role within a visual identity strategy is a part of a necessary investigation into an emergent trend in visual strategic language that has been engaged by Pepsi, McDonald’s, Apple, Nike, Shell and recently Master Card, since the turn of the millennium.

This new corporate strategy sees well-established word mark element of these global brands being completely removed from the original combination mark. It has resulted in a pictorial based icon/symbol becoming the lone visual communication marker for these brands among others. The brands who have embraced this new trend are long-established or even archetypes in their categories, and it is completely feasible that the removal of the word mark element from the VIM has not weakened their relevance or presence globally.

At the same time as this particular trend was emerging in visual identity and strategic design, a massive expansion into new cultural markets by leading brands was occurring. New doors were opening daily as political and economic paradigms shifted and softened with globalisation. And with these opportunities global brands adapted their marketing and communication strategies to affect an adoption and integration into the cultural and economic landscapes. Building a brand’s persona and relevance consists of a diverse range of considerations. It is a collection of meanings that aim to be relevant and culturally rooted. And these meanings must resonate with the culture in which the brand is embedded, to make sense and create value to the target audience.

‘Meaning curation’, as termed by Olbertooa (2014), equates to the activity of the shifting meaning of a brand. It is initiated by recognising emergent codes in culture and society that generate new meanings in a brand and help sustainably manage it. The introduction of a global brand into new, (non western) markets brings numerous points into consideration.

  1. Loyalty – if this is a newly accessible brand what degree of loyalty is there?
  2. What emotions or response does the brand’s VIM triggers within the new group of potential viewers/users in it’s current form?

The question must then be asked… How can a global brand, that engages a Latin based word mark, as an integral part of it’s VIM, be seen as a natural part of any culture/society, when so many cultures’ writing systems bares no resemblance to Latin based letter forms? How can that brand, be adopted into a culture when one of its key visual communication device is constant reminder that it’s origins are from somewhere else? The fact that two thirds of the world’s population shares only 12 native languages is interesting, but it is more interesting when it is realised that only 4.83% of the world’s population are native English speakers.

1.426 billion people via a selection of Germanic and Romantic languages utilise the Latin based letter-form for their written communication. While 3.192 billion people engage at least 8 – 10 other types of letter-forms for written communication. The spread of Latin based languages to 183 countries has it’s roots in the imperial past of nations such as England, France and Spain, where these languages originated.

Thus it could be perceived by users of other writing systems that the Latin based alphabet has a semiotic meaning with negative associations such as colonializing, of invader, exploiter, and interloper. The word mark element within a VIM may well be decoded as a reminder to the viewer/user within the new market, that the brand is foreign or the ‘other’. As stated by Olbertooa “Culture is the context that enables us to interpret and understand meaning of the text.” (Olbertooa, M. 2014).

The importance of establishing a symbolic association with a brand can be particularly critical in an environment in which viewer/users resent or even attack corporations that are perceived as faceless, and distant from the viewer/user’s self or cultural relevance. Hence the removal of the word-mark and the singular focus placed on the pictorially based element, such as the Nike ‘Swoosh’, The Shell ‘Shell’, and McDonald’s ‘Golden Arches’, possibly facilitated a more comfortable cultural adoption of these corporations and brands into the new global market places. MacInnes (1999) observed that a pictorial VIM is more effective in projecting a discernable personality and point of difference and generating a sense of connection with the viewer/user than the use of a typographic word mark of the brand name alone.

And according to Henderson, who has examined how viewers/users from different cultures perceive different VIM elements. “Symbols, in either a representational or abstract form, more easily signify a brand’s benefits and point of difference and transcend language barriers, than text elements.” Cultural branding equates to brands consciously engaging a cultural strategic direction of their meaning. (Olbertooa, 2014))

It could be suggested that the figurative reading of a VIM is a cultured event. The perception of readily recognizable images, in this instance, a VIM, is always achieved via a personal grid, specific to one’s culture that informs an individual’s reading of the world. (Flock, J.M., p.46). As Flock states, “What is essential here is to show that the figuration of a VIM provides it with a certain cultural ‘substance’ that resonates with a target audience and increases the efficacy of its denotative message.” So what are the implications of removing the word mark from a brand’s VIM?

To an extent, pictorial based VIMs are perceived as richer and more tangible representatives of a brand, than a word-mark alone. As observed by Swartz, ‘Symbols work better for brand differentiation’ (1983). A pictorial based VIM, tends to be universal and can be understood and decoded via many different lenses, and different cultures. It allows the viewer/user to contact with the device immediately. It speaks, generally of no divisions, of an ‘us and them’.

The removal of the established word marks and letter-form elements from the VIMs in itself constructs or brings an alternative meaning and thus creates an alternative connection and message to the viewer/user. It can create or reaffirm a connection/ dialogue.

Pictorial based VIMs, are effective and immediate communication vehicles as they condense the brand’s essence into a single image, and may move the brand closer culturally to the relevant market and or individual viewer/user. The conscious understanding and analysis of semiotics in communication strategy assists in placing a brand in context of the market, culture and society in which it operates. Understanding of brand context can generate new trends and consumer cues for a brand.

All of these considerations aim to generate an effective communication strategy that provides a realistic form of self-identification of the viewer/user to the brand. They operate as powerful communication vehicles for the brands, as they condense the brand’s essence into a single and immediate image. Abstract pictorial VIMs allow the brand to create a unique symbol that cuts through the visually over crowded market place without relying on the cultural implications of a specific ‘iconic’ image. For example, Nike’s ‘Swoosh’ VIM has now come to universally imply to the viewer/user globally, the notion of movement, freedom, victory, correctness, and ultimately, approval. Nike’s ‘Swooshsuggests superior physical form. (Goldman and Papson, 1998). Abstract VIMs such as McDonalds’ Golden Arches, the Pepsi Divider circle, and Nike Swoosh allows the brand to create a unique symbol that cuts through the visually over crowded market place without relying on the cultural implications of a specific representational image.

On the other hand, a pictorially based representational VIMs, such as Apple, the Twitter bird and Shell are immediately recognizable universal images and thus relatable to many different cultures. MacInnes et al (1999) discussed the communication strengths of a pictorially based VIM as being more effective in projecting a discernible personality and point of difference and generating a sense of connection with the viewer/user than the use of a typographic word mark of the brand name alone.

Although at this point it is important to acknowledge that via a sensitive, intuitive and appropriate analysis of font selection, the essence of the brand can be evoked in a subconscious manner. Brands even convey messages through the fonts they use, including the fonts they use in their word marks (Bottomley and Doyle, 2006). A logotype can acquire a representational feel and eventually become iconic in its role as brand identifier, for instance, IBM, Coca Cola, and Kellogg’s.

There is a school of thinking that pictorial /symbol based VIMs are perceived by the viewer/user as richer and more tangible representatives of an organisation / company than a word-mark alone. Symbols work better for brand differentiation. Swartz (1983). However, when discussing this evolutionary trend in VIMs with Bill Gardner of Logo Lounge (Hill, 2018), Gardner argued that the trend of removing word-marks from VIMs was not even a trend and that I think where branding starts to best adopt geographic culture when they replace the Latin letter forms for a ‘western brand’ with a more relevant alphabet. The meaning or name may still approximate the original meaning.(Gardner, 2018)

The key flaws in Gardner’s argument is that these leading brands no longer see themselves as ‘Western’, aiming to be perceived as global, relevant to a wide range of cultures and marketplaces. Thus by removing the Latin based letter-forms and any other letter forms from their VIMs they are attempting to create a cultural relevance in new, probably non western, market places.

The following is a very brief overview of some of the brands who have implemented this new design strategy since the turn of the millennium: Nike operates in 170 countries and has 30,000 worldwide employees. Non US based sales played a large role in the 42% increase in the brand’s revenue after 1997. The emerging markets of Asia and Latin America are becoming Nike’s primary growth engines with sales in Asia increasing by more than $500 million to $1.24 billion.

Apple has 500 stores across 22 countries worldwide as of December 2017. 272 locations are in the US and 228 locations are found in 24 countries globally, 13 of these countries have a Latin based alphabet, the remaining 9 countries have a writing system that is other. Rod Janoff, who designed the 1977 Apple VIM, commented about the VIM design “it was kind of iconic about taking a bite out of an apple. Something that everyone can experience. It goes across cultures.”

Interestingly, Bill Gardner commented on the semiotic assumptions of the current pictorially based Apple VIM, when he stated, “Apple’s logo represents the bite of knowledge that rolls into the old testament faith of Adam and Eve. I doubt that very many in a non-Judeo [sic] Christian country would make that connection (Gardner, 2018). However it is the iconic rather than symbolic meaning, that everyone eats apples is universally relevant, and possesses a fundamental semiotic connection. Gardner’s statement is reflective of Floch’s observation concerning how a figurative reading of a VIM is a cultural event, and is always achieved via a personal grid for reading the world, specific to ones culture. (Floch, J.M., 2000, p.46)

McDonald’s currently operates in 119 countries globally. Between 1940 and 1986 McDonald’s opened outlets in 43 countries, only 6 countries of these were non Latin based in their written language. The name McDonald’s featured heavily in the VIM during this period. Between 1987 and 2018 McDonald’s opened outlets in 78 countries, 35 of these countries utilising a non Latin based alphabet. The McDonald’s VIM reflects this shift with a slow but gradual removal of the word mark, finally arriving at the Golden Arches ‘M’ alone in 2006 as the primary visual id vehicle.

Very little research has been actually conducted in examining the relationship between VIM redesign and viewer/user’s perceived brand attitude. Importantly, Henderson’s study in 1984 was the first to show that visual elements of a brand can differentially impact consumer response.

Surprisingly questions concerning changes to established VIMs, both evolutionary and revolutionary in design strategy, have not received systematic scrutiny to date, although Henderson’ work in 2004 is the exception. Furthermore the research conducted by Walsh in 2010 recognized and demonstrated that changes in the visual design elements of a brand, such as the brand’s VIM transfer meaningfully to the brand as a perceived entity.

There have been no studies to date addressing consumers responses to the complete removal of word marks from established VIMs and the semiotic inferences attached to this form of evolutionary design. Through this discussion we can ascertain that VIMs which engage pictorially based symbols in either a combination or as a lone visual device, are more effective in creating a connection to a diverse range of viewers/users than exclusively word mark / letter-form based VIMs. How a brand presents itself to the world can be the difference between success and failure.

The visual style engaged varies according to a wide range of strategic considerations, which include the culture of and perception within different communities, and market places at a particular time. The context in which the VIM is used, and the semiotics and connotations of the VIM as well as the epistemology behind the visual design language effects the success of a brand’s VIM. As Flock observed “I have always argued for the theory that visual works can be revealed as objects of meaning without transposing them into text, ‘turning them into speech’.”

The trend of pictorially based communication vehicles replacing text-based communication has implied itself into far more than brand visual identity strategy with the extraordinary explosion of ‘emogis’ which are pictograms defining emotions, objects, situations, that are engaged everyday globally in personal communication. These pictograms allow individuals from a diverse range of cultures to communicate effectively with each other, despite being divided by different languages and writing systems. They provide an immediately shared recognition of universal images and the narratives that they carry.

Although this trend of removing word marks and letter forms from established VIMs may be limited to a small group of brands, as noted by Bill Gardener of Logo Lounge, just look at who these brands are. They are in most part the key members of the contemporary pantheon of brands, the global leaders in their categories. Ultimately, brands are looking for new ways to connect with viewers/users on a deeper level in order to maximize their identification and loyalty with a brand. Same, same but different.

 

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