Logo Versus Brand (and How You Can Control the One, But Not the Other)

The web is full of lists. “10 Ways to Get Fit Now,” “101 Photoshops Tips for Turbo-Tacky Text Effects,” “20 Underrated Mildly-Deformed Movie Villains”. We can’t get enough lists. But if I see another list of “Like, Totally Awesome Logos” I think I might cry.

The problem with these lists is that logos don’t do anything outside the context where they exist and the environment where they live. A logo in a big list of other logos is simply one more visual cue to identify something. It’s not a brand, it’s just a logo. Logos, in and of themselves, are far less important than we think they are. 

With no context of what the represented company, organization, product, etc. is or how that logo is supported by typography, colors, standards or more importantly, culture, people and ideas, logos are fairly worthless. A logo can be described along the lines of “a combination of letters and/or graphics arranged in a distinctive design used to identify something in advertising and promotion.” They are a calling card, a big nametag. Some of them are ugly, some are beautiful, some are clever. With the right strategy and personnel, a logo is easy to manage, use and/or implement. In most cases, we directly control the destiny of your logo in terms of how it makes its way into the public eye. “Reproduce no smaller than 50.8mm,” “Use Pantone® 17-2031 TCX for print,” “80lb text weight with raised lettering for letterhead”. We’ve got our visual identity on lockdown, so we’re good, right? We’re like, totally branded.

A logo may communicate modern, friendly, and professional but the people who interact with our brand may see unclear wayfinding signage, a poorly-navigable website or, perhaps worst of all, lackluster customer service. Even if you hired a professional designer who picked the “right” typefaces, the bold complimentary colors and the coolest award-winning letterhead ever, all the logo in the world can’t change someone’s impression of you because everything meant to support your logo actually says the opposite about you. 

Do you ever wish you could hear what other people are saying about you when you’re not around? Those are the conversations that define you and your brand. Did you catch that? You’re not in complete control. Your brand is who you are, what you do. No amount of standards, guidelines, rules or forbidden phrases will reign that in completely. 

A brand is built from perceptions, impressions, experiences — all of which happen in the mind of someone who isn’t us. How can we possibly think we can control that? Your brand has a life of its own the minute you interact with people for the first time. We can do our best to direct the conversation, to be transparent and open, but we have to admit (revel in!) the fact that our intentions in creating a brand are often irrelevant in the way that brand will be interpreted by others. You may have turned the ignition, but you’re just along for the ride.

Your brand should be ever-changing. Branding endeavors should understand and implement strategies that acknowledge the relative smallness of the logo in the overall take-away impressions of what we do. By all means, have a great logo. Make people jealous. Win awards. Be Big Chief Awesome Logo. But more importantly, make sure you’re actually living up to what that logo conveys in all your interactions.

Brands, branded, branding — the terminology is all wrong for what we need to be doing. If we want to be effective in our brand-building, we can’t approach it as an attempt to sear our message onto unsuspecting people (whether they like it or not). Branding like that is only skin-deep. It doesn’t add value to others, it imposes our rigid view of who we are onto them. It doesn’t involve anyone else. It isn’t interactive (and how can anything survive right now if it isn’t interactive?) 

If our strategy is so dogmatic and inward-focused, we’ll always be limited by what we perceive ourselves to be. In turn, we’ll burn those same limitations into the people we’re trying to reach. We’ll never grow beyond the initial mark because we’ve choked all the life and possibility out of our brand by dogmatically trying to define it as a static, fixed thing. That disrespects, diminishes and seeks to manipulate people by shaping them into our image when we should realize that they’re the ones defining us.