Logos are like ideas are like songs


This article by Michael Johnson and its’ CR Blog comments got me thinking about how to separate out the amorphous blob that is brand/identity/logo/icons/brandmarks/visual language into terminology I could get my head around.

People much smarter than me have defined the various permutations in numerous different ways, but I’m offering up a version here that makes sense to me, i.e. simple and relative to pop music (‘cos everyone knows about pop music).

Logos are not identities and visa versa

In the CR Blog comments, Lee Davies (who works for SomeOne) said “One could argue this article is referencing identities with flexible logos/icons/brandmarks. Not flexible identities.”

This distinction between the logo and the identity got me thinking, and soon agreeing with his assessment in my own comment, “If these are flexible logos(etc) rather than identities, think of someone like Nike who have one of the classic ‘monolithic’ logos. The very fact that their logo is the only thing that’s fixed allows them to be arguably more adaptable than many of the identities in the article.”

So, if you use Nike as a handy example, their logo has anchored work like this this and this to the same brand even though the identity has shifted each time (to appeal to different audiences etc). 

In terms of Nike as a brand, Wally Olins describes all brands as having 4 senses: product, environment, communication and behaviour. Each of these things goes to create an overall brand, but I’m talking here about what the visual elements are that make up a brand. Two of the elements, then are logo and identity.

Logos are like ideas are like songs

When you have an idea, it’s usually a kind of pure sense of what something should be, untarnished by the process of pulling it out of your head into the real world. It exists as a clear mental marker in the same way that a logo signifies a company. You look at the Apple logo (or any of the big ones; FedEx, McDonald’s etc) and you know the shortcut for what it’s trying to communicate to you. That’s because Apple have spent a lot of time and money planting that shortcut in your head as an idea.

Rory Sutherland talks about heuristics in marketing

As for how ideas are like songs, think of the happy birthday song. The first 6 notes overheard pretty much anywhere in the world would let you know that someone in the vicinity is celebrating their birthday. Doesn’t matter if it’s being sung by a world class Tenor or being farted through a kazoo, as long as it carried the tune you’d still know someone somewhere was having a birthday.

Which brings me to my next analogy:

Identity is like execution is like production

The song ‘Hurt’ was written by Trent Reznor. It’s been covered by loads of people from Johnny Cash to Leona Lewis and connotations may have shifted slightly, but it still remains the same song.

And it sounds completely different in each version despite being exactly the same song underneath. This is down largely to the production (instrumentation, effects, mix etc) and the people singing; it’s how the idea of the song was executed.

 When you execute the same idea in different ways you end up with the Nike ads. They’re all communicating the same sense of sporty cool (with the same little Nike swoosh shortcutting your brain), but as far as design goes they’re completely different visual styles; completely different voices.

Great, so you’ve sorted out some terminology. So what?

Well, I was struck when listening to ‘What am I to do blues’ by Skip James how bad the recording is. It’s obviously because it’s old as shit and there wasn’t any way of getting a better quality recording, but for me the poor quality only makes it sound better. I love how the piano notes all crush together onto the wax disc it’s recorded on. It sounds real, authentic, immediate and alive. It wouldn’t have that timeless quality of being trapped in static if you heard it with complete clarity. 

Then when I was listening to Pavement (‘Loretta’s Scars’) it occurred to me that they’ve deliberately swamped the vocals, mashed the guitars and obfuscated the song. And it still sounds brilliant, but by choice rather than by accident.

When you can separate out the production from the song, the logo from the identity and the idea from the execution, you get a better idea of how to reverse-engineer their relationships.

An example of this in practice is how the sound of Motown was invented. That defining soul music sound was created because they wanted the songs to still sound good on small cheap car radios – so they loaded them up with lots of brass and a thumping backbeat. They worked backwards from their audience to get the proper execution to deliver the songs as effectively and memorably as they could. And, as we all know, it seriously bloody worked.

So thanks to the wonder of self-publishing, it’s all straight in my head now and you’ve just learned something you already knew.


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