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The Whiteboard: Finding hidden meaning in logos: The intentional and not so much

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Tucked neatly into the FedEx logo, between the “e” and the “x” is the shape of an arrow, formed by the negative space between the two letters. Once you see it, you can't miss it from then on, though I must admit it took me a few years to realize it was there.

The Amazon logo uses a swoopy-shaped arrow that doubles as a depiction of a smile, presumably of a happy customer whose shipment has arrived quickly from the online retailer. But the arrow also originates in the “A” of Amazon and ends at the “z,” suggesting the breadth of the products available through its mammoth online system.

Some logos have not-so-subtle messages in them, like the “31” that is readily spotted in the Baskin Robbins logo. Some require explanation, such as the three ellipses that form the Toyota logo. These are meant to describe the heart of the customer, the heart of the product and the heart of improving technology. All right, if you say so.

The center of the BMW logo represents a spinning propeller, which is a reference to the brand's roots in aviation.

But what happens when people see other meanings in a logo that weren't necessarily intended to be there? The bite out of the Apple logo is often described as symbolic of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. That would make sense and add a biblical reference, but the designer of this iconic shape has maintained that his only motivation was to show the scale of the fruit shape to be that of an apple, not a smaller-sized cherry.

Far more sinister was a long-running controversy over the Procter & Gamble logo, which, beginning in 1850 and lasting until 1995, depicted a man-in-the-moon face with 13 stars, all contained within a circle. Over the years, the art was revised, until in 1930 the man's hair was given more curls as part of an overall design makeover. This logo continued in use for decades, but some creative misinterpretation began to take its toll. Rumors gained traction that the top and bottom curls were actually the horns of Satan and that the devil's number “666” could be seen elsewhere in the logo.

Wing nuts, conspiracy theorists and ex-spouses aside, people will imagine meanings that aren't really there in life and in logos. The question becomes what to do about it.

Procter & Gamble tried dismissing the rumors for years, pointing out how illogical they were and that the true origins of their logo had originated when brands were known as much for their imagery as for their name, due to high rates of illiteracy among consumers.

Finally, in 1991, they straightened their moon man's hair and eliminated the offending curls in his coiffure. As the rumors persisted, driven in part by competitor Amway, which P&G successfully sued, Procter & Gamble revised its logo to simply “P&G,” its already well-established nickname.

If the world's largest packaged goods provider can be harassed into changing its logo because of utterly false urban legends, what chance do smaller brands stand against real or imagined elements that crop up like weeds? The answer may be “not much.” Like the example of the arrow in the FedEx logo, once you have a perception that something is represented in a logo, whether it's a misinterpretation or not, it can be difficult to dismiss it from your mind.

I've seen letters in a logo misperceived as daggers, and wildflowers described as weeds. Even though only one or two people ever commented in this way, it placed doubt in the minds of managers for both brands and led to revisions to their logos. The psychological reality of creating a logo is that any part of the design can become like a Rorschach inkblot test, where the meaning is strictly in the mind of the beholder.

Because these perceptions are so subjective, it is impossible to do much more than suggest that if you feel you can defend the logo against the criticism, or that you can simply ignore it, by all means do so.

But if the criticism, no matter how unfair or unfounded, becomes a distraction, change may be the best course of action, as it ultimately was for Procter & Gamble — although the latest version of its logo now contains a thin crescent shape reminiscent of the moon, but facing in the other direction. Touché, P&G!

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via www.taylorbrandgroup.com.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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