Logos and other distinctive assets rarely have meaning

It’s not uncommon for marketing consultants to preach the need for a meaningful logo, something that communicates by itself from day one. Ries and Trout used to argue that brand names like ‘Head and Shoulders’ were much better than meaningless names like ‘Pantene’ or ‘Vosene’. We marketing people tend to take our brands, and logos, very seriously and tend to assume that consumers do too, but this is misguided out-of-touch thinking.

Brands, and their distinctive assets, identify – that’s it. They (potentially) ensure that people know it is you, not someone else advertising. They allow people to repeat-buy you, to see you on shelf.

Consumers rarely stop to think about whether the logo looks nice, trustworthy, or conveys any other connotation. Few people (outside of the marketing industry) ponder….

  • Why America’s largest most famous burger chain has a Scottish name ?
  • Why one of Australia’s largest banks is named after a word that means to steal (nab) ?
  • What does purple have to do with chocolate ? And what do the words Snickers, Mars or Kit-Kat mean ? Why is Toblerone a triangle ?
  • What does IBM stand for ? What does the word Accenture mean ? Why is Google called Google, or Amazon called Amazon ?
  • Is HP Sauce sold by HP (computing) ? Do Walker’s crisps and Walker’s shortbread come from the same company ?

People don’t ask these questions because brandnames and logos are simply that. THEY BRAND THAT”S ALL. They stand for a particular company operating in a particular category. And getting consumers to even understand that requires very hard marketing work and lots of money and time. Consultants and designers who think that brand names, logos and other brand assets have any deeper intrinsic meaning are merely showing how poorly they understand real consumer behaviour, and commercial reality.


This isn’t to say that designers don’t put an awful lot of thought into logos.  For example see this video (I’m sure parts will surprise you).  This thinking is one of the reasons why brand owners tend to over-estimate how consumers use their logo.

8 thoughts on “Logos and other distinctive assets rarely have meaning

  1. Indeed, my friend. Carphone Warehouse has proved rather successful at selling mobile phones and other tech stuff (like computers) in the UK without selling any carphones for many years. How many people are confused or put off by the name of this retailer?

    Brands are not such complicated things to understand.

  2. Would you believe that’s the same reasoning Reggie Fils-Aime gave for the naming of the Wii – that as long as it was memorable and not easy to confuse with other names, any name was fine – no matter how silly.

  3. Brands are short-cuts to neuro-psychological ‘rewards’ – absolutely. To quote Philip Graves in ‘Consumer.ology’, ‘the greatest success a brand can achieve is to be selected without conscious thought’. There is, however, a need to understand the implicit meaning of codes eg colours, shapes, language, symbols because these are processed unconsciously and they do have ‘deeper intrinsic meaning’ (if that’s what Professor Sharp means here) and this can vary by culture e.g red in China is associated with joy and prosperity (brides wear red) whereas in the West it’s associated with danger, alert (‘stop’). Consumers don’t stop to think about these things but they do affect brand communication.

  4. Pingback: names can be cool – kum, shisha and george | 101-words-press

  5. Hi Byron,
    Interesting thought.
    My instinct tells me your principle would apply in certain circumstances, but I’m not sure it can hold as a universal truth.
    While it’s true that brand names are quickly deprived of their meaning as they become widely known (de-semantization), the interesting thing is to consider what marketers should do when launching a NEW brand.
    Do you think brand name and logo don’t play any role in communicating why the new brand is on the marketplace? Can you provide more evidence of that?
    I’m with you that existing brands just have to remind consumers of their existence (“I’m here, buy me!”), however for new brands I would presume it is also about providing them with something beyond, in order to intercept their attention and break the autopilot of the habitual sub-conscious decision making process.
    Therefore, I suppose at the beginning a meaningful brand name (plus logo, graphics, colours etc.) MAY (I repeat, MAY) play a certain role in this process, especially under certain conditions, e.g.:
    – the new brand creates a new category (redefining the boundaries of existing ones) and/or proposes different usage occasions
    – the new brand is not heavily advertised, etc.
    Net net – if I were to create a new brand, merits being equal, I would be inclined to prefer a brand name/logo with a meaning (provided not too narrow), so long as it contributes by all means to driving emotional and/or cognitive attraction, hence purchase acts.
    Happy to hear your views and get more evidence about how universal your principle can be considered.

  6. Reblogged this on Fascinating Marketing and commented:
    There is no point in finding meaning in Brand Communication Assets, simply because consumers don’t care.

    Why does this cow appear in the beer ads? Why not?
    Why use a chicken as an ambassador for a milk brand? Why not?
    Why use this no-meaning name for a brand name? Why not?

    • Hi Thanh Lâm,
      Please read again Phil’s point (as well as mine) above.
      It is not just about what consumers consciously care about. It is also (and especially) about what happens subconsciously in their minds. It is also about the IMPLICIT meaning processed quickly and subconsciously (and subject to cultural evolution) that may have effects that we do not fully understand today. We should actually engage more and more in this area of research, which is actually already providing us with very interesting new findings through the marriage of psychology and economics/marketing.
      Yes, this is truly fascinating!

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