Less Logos: The Shift from Brand Logos to Brand Stories

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on Apr 26, 2017 5:27:39 PM
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Less Logos: The Shift from Brand Logos to Brand Stories

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On June 12, 2005, Steve Jobs, the legendary boss of Apple computers, addressed the students of Stanford University: “I am honored to be with you at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”

The first story was the bildungsroman of Apple’s founder: The archetypally rags-to-riches tale of a poor kid who was left to his own devices and who, more or less by accident, enrolled in a typography course (it was thanks to this training that the Mac became the first personal computer to have a bitmap font). The second was a story of love and loss: The legend of how the first Macintosh was created in his parents’ garage and then, over the next ten years, the success story of Apple and Jobs’ meeting with his future wife, with whom he would start a family. But, no sooner had he won than he was the hero excluded from his own success. He had to leave the company he had founded. The third is a story of death and resurrection: Steve Jobs miraculously survived a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. At the end of his story, the hero recovers his health and wins back the company he founded and which he would lead to new success. Steve Jobs ended his short story with the advice he had read in a children’s magazine as a boy: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”  Without that kind of powerful storytelling, the famous Mac logo is just a partially eaten apple.   

Logos, while still relevant, seem to have lost center stage in brand strategy. Brand logos have not disappeared, but they have arguably lost their dominance.  Brands can no longer speak through symbols alone. Brands now talk to us and captivate us by telling us stories that fit in with our expectations and worldviews. But when exactly did this transition take place and why?

Brand Logos as Symbols of Traditional Outbound Advertising

It’s no accident that the transition from brand logos to brand stories coincides with the shift from one-way broadcasting to two-way online media—a shift also linked to the transition from outbound to inbound marketing. Traditional outbound advertising practiced in the proliferate dissemination of images: Versed in a language of signs and slogans, logos and labels, outbound advertising strategy bombarded consumers in a deluge of brand imagery. Digital media has amplified this tendency, turning outbound advertising into an avalanche of messaging that has left consumers in a desensitized and distracted state of information overload.  We can only process some much information.  The more logos we see, the more unlikely we are to notice them.

Ideally, a brand logo, should carry some significant signifying weight.  Like a company’s own “national flag,” a logo represents complex colocation of values, practices, and emotional investment.  In other words, as symbols, brand logos attain singular meaning. However, the meaning of a brand logo also hinges on its status as singular. The very concept of a “brand” finds its origins in branding as burning (the two words once had the same meaning).  As a marker of identification, a brand did not simply stand as label for a thing; rather, brands, like tattoos, assumed significance as permanently inscribed as indelible parts of the thing itself.  A brand logo is designed to retain this same aura of fidelity.  Logos, like fingerprints, are meant to confirm and authenticate the “genuine” identity of a brand. 

The Fall of “Logocentric” Brand Marketing

Yet, the logos aura has waned in recent years.  Traditional advertising strategies—alongside the more fundamental experience of living an increasingly image-focused and mediated world—have cultivated a culture of skepticism toward brand logos. As the title of marketing guru Seth Godin’s book cynically puts it: “all marketers are liars.” Godin’s cynicism taps into a deeper cultural ethos.  Instead of providing a window into a brand, logos are often perceived as masks intended to obfuscate reality.

Looking back, this kind of skepticism seems to have reached a kind of breaking point in the 1990s.  At the close of the decade in 1999, two of the year’s most popular books—Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing—launched incisive attacks on the ethical problems of traditional brand advertising.  The popularity of both titles speaks to the ways in which decades of over-exposure to image-heavy branding strategy had cultivated a pervasive ethos of fatigue and skepticism among consumers.

MTV’s founder Tom Freston issued a warning in 1998: “You can beat a brand to death.”  Brands were sick. Serious questions were being asked about their future: “It can take 100 years to build up a good brand and 30 days to knock it down,” complained John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance president in January 1999.  Branding evangelist Tom Peters wondered: “How much is enough? Nobody knows for sure. It’s pure art. Leverage is good. Too much leverage is bad.”

Kevin Roberts, CEO of the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency and author of Lovemarks agreed: “Brands have run out of juice. They’re dead.”  Nike was a victim of its own excessive fame, and Wall Street commented that it had “outswooshed itself.” So can a brand’s fame plateau, and then begin to depreciate and lose its influence? According to James Surowiecki, brands do indeed wear out: “They’re becoming nothing more than shadows. You wouldn’t expect your shadow to protect you or show you the way.” Worse, awash in a flood of advertising imagery, brand logos were not simply reduced to meaningless signs; rather, brand logos risked being perceived as signs of meaninglessness itself: Caricature-like symbols of an empty, postmodern image culture that trades perceptions for substantive value.

At the same time, the shift from one-way broadcasting to two-way, interactive online media means consumers now had access to alternative forms of information about a brand identity. Companies no longer serve as the exclusive, authoritative sources behind the value and meaning of their products.  And the rise of online media means that brand logos can no longer stand on their own as the singular symbols of a brand’s meaning.   

From Global Brand Logo to Localized Brand Stories

Certainly, stories have not completely replaced logos.  Unlike stories, logos still communicate across languages and cultures.  Brand stories now draw on mythical archetypes to achieve a similar universality.  Yet it is precisely the global reach and putative universality of the brand logo that makes brand stories all the more meaningful to consumers looking to identify with brands on a more personal level.  It’s no surprise that the rise of brand storytelling has co-emerged with marketing’s shift from global to “localized” or “glocalized” brands: Global brands marketed in narratives that speak to culturally localized needs and values.

Brand Marketing as World Building

In short, the shift from traditions of “logo-centric” branding to brand stories corresponds with an era marked by emergent consumer expectations. Even the most utilitarian products can no long longer get by on features and "use value." Certainly, the value of a product has arguably never been a matter of pure ultility.  Consumers have likely always sought purchases to answer more intangibly emotional needs—needs such as the desire for identification, self-expression, trust, and purpose. Brand stories, however, offer something yet more powerful. As Disney discovered long ago, brands are doorways into worlds: Brand stories provide consumers paths into fictional spaces. Among the most successful recent example of brand storytelling, The Lego Movie serves as both example and parable of the new branding: Marketing no longer involves messaging; the most effective branding involves building brave new  worlds of immersive experience.  The shift to storytelling simply serves as the strategic means to this larger end.

Questions?  Comments?  Feel free to reach out!  

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Topics: Brand Identity, Brand Story, Brand Development, Brand Strategy

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