Most people assume they need a logo that ‘means something’ when the reality is that logos can’t really communicate anything much in isolation. Logos are simply symbols, part of a graphic corporate identity that remind and reinforce stakeholders of an organisation’s corporate personality. In fact they’re pretty well meaningless unless the organisation they represent already stands for something in the mind of the person looking at it.

Thus to an extra-terrestrial visitor the familiar Apple symbol would, in itself, be meaningless – or at best just a hi-tech representation of a common type of earth fruit. But to most of the earth’s inhabitants it succinctly communicates: technology, premium quality, fashionable and easy to use. Likewise the ambiguous BMW badge means: advanced engineering, style, performance and success, to the average contemporary consumer. And the bold blue and yellow on the Ikea store fascia has come to represent: functional good value and unpretentious everyday living.

This is because it’s not the logos themselves that count, it’s what they stand for. Corporate identities and organisational brands actually exist independently of the logos that are used to represent them. Effective logo design is all about understanding branding.

So what is branding? A way of understanding branding is to think of brands as ‘promises’, implicit promises in the minds of stakeholders. The promise that an organisation makes to all its stakeholders that serves as the basis for managing its relationship with them. So when your BMW breaks down as you drive away from the car showroom you will feel rightfully indignant that a brand, that prides itself on technical superiority, has let you down badly.

So it’s the brand that’s meaningful, not the logo. Strong brands are a focused purpose for an organisation that drives the way staff behave and the decisions that the organisation takes. The brand promise shapes how the organisation communicates, how it markets and delivers its services. If you’ve got a brand, then you’ve almost certainly encapsulated your brand promise in a clearly articulated organisational ‘Mission’.

People often get confused between ‘Visions’ and ‘Missions’, but they are quite distinct. Visions are ambitions, what the organisation hopes to ultimately achieve. Missions on the other hand are promises, what the organisations intends to do to achieve its ‘Vision’. Perhaps some of the blame for this confusion can be laid at the feet of the infamous Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk who, on behalf of the futuristic Star Fleet claimed to: “be on a five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before” In fact Captain Kirk’s Star Fleet mission was something of a hybrid Vision/Mission. ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilizations’ was actually Star Fleet’s Vision (what they wanted the Enterprise to achieve). The Enterprise’s Mission (its promise) was actually ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before”

But to give the writers some credit this composite vision/mission did contain a pretty clear promise for the Captain and his crew. There was to be no skulking around in the known solar systems. Their mission (promise) required them to go ‘off the map’ and, by also including the adjective ‘boldly’, it also contained a strong ‘value’ for good measure!

Great brands are built on missions that propose change to the world they operate in and the key is not to talk in terms of the organisation itself but in terms of what difference the organisation will make to the world. Until you understand your organisation’s brand and have a clear brand vision and mission (and shared behavioural values) it’s pretty difficult to develop an identity to represent the organisation. And that’s why so many organisation’s get their logo’s so badly wrong. Whether you are a corner shop or a global corporation, designing an appropriate logo requires first and foremost organisational self-awareness and development of a clear brand strategy.

Article by Chris Welton of RDW Creative.

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