Do we all love the Nike logo because it’s inherently a great logo or do we love it because we’ve had good experiences with Nike shoes? How about the FedEx logo? The Apple logo? Chanel No. 5?
Conventional wisdom, or a trip to Times Square, might convince us that logos and imagery change the way we think about companies. After all corporations spend billions of dollars a year sending messages our way to convince us that their offerings are the tops. (this spending is in addition to the cost of designing and creating their actual products)
But consider this alternate explanation by Michael Bierut in his excellent piece The Mysterious Power of Context. He uses the example of how the word CHANEL is written in a very plain, sans-serif font that is, frankly, quite boring on its own. But placed within the context of a Chanel bottle and our accumulated experiences with the perfume, the logo becomes powerful.
Bierut suggests that we love the logos only after we’ve become accustomed to them, saying that it is the context in which we engage the logos that matter. I think Bierut is exactly right and it leads to a larger point: experience precedes branding.
Our first contact with a logo, if for a brand we aren’t familiar with, has little associated context. Therefore, we have no associated feelings with the logo and we won’t react strongly. We probably won’t notice it, we may react a little bit, but whatever our feelings about it will soon be overwhelmed by any direct experience. As our context changes over time, as we use the products and associate our experiences with the brand, then our feelings about it change as well. Bierut says:
‘In the world of identity design, very few designs mean anything when they’re brand new. A good logo, according to Paul Rand, provides the “pleasure of recognition and the promise of meaning.” The promise, of course, is only fulfilled over time. “It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning,” Rand wrote in 1991. “It derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolizes.’
This has huge implications for design! Our perception of something (brand) is influenced primarily by actual experience. So, we won’t give a second though to the Starbucks logo until after we’ve tasted their fantastic coffee, or experienced the brand in some other way. If the coffee was bad, then we would react negatively to the brand. These inter-workings are complex, but in the end branding is dependent upon how our experience goes.
It could be argued that the logo and style of the brand affects the way we think about it, and could convince us that the brand is better than it really is. This might be possible, but most people simply don’t have time for that. People realize when they’re being duped, and if they have a bad experience with a product, no matter how great the packaging or branding is, they won’t stick around long enough to be convinced otherwise. In fact, they might resent the product all the more because of its duplicity. There are thousands of brands out there with the potential to be considered great, with logos to match, but they just aren’t giving people the experiences they want. So we end up using FedEx, Nike, Apple, and Chanel as examples and not them.