Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Decline of the Transcendent Corporate Brand

Have you ever stopped to consider what makes a logo look “corporate”? The bold strokes, smooth, sweeping curves, and abstracted forms that have no connection to anything are meant to say, “Please think of my business as the ultimate in big and important.” Other aspects of the corporate style of presentation, from the perfectly straight lines everywhere to the impossibly clean carpets, are meant to reinforce the idea of transcendence. It is as if the corporation is the new god, ultimately unable to be reduced to, or limited by, anything in the physical plane of existence. Perhaps that’s what corporate executives want to believe, and perhaps that’s why they keep commissioning new corporate-style logos.

It turns out there is a problem with this trend. Well, there is a theological problem, of course, but more than that, there is a marketing problem. Consumers, it seems, are starting to see the “corporate” brand as having a meaning of its own. “Corporate” is like someone who never chose a major field of study in college, so it lacks credibility when it comes to any kind of specialized knowledge. There is something vague and noncommittal about a logo that is just as much at home on a soda bottle as it is on a sewer pipe.

This matters more with some products than with others. When consumers are looking for a product that has important physical or emotional attributes, they are more likely to trust a logo that suggests something physical.

And so, now we are seeing scenarios as unlikely as big corporations hiring teenagers with nylon-tip pens to design logos for environmentally friendly food products. It turns out that just putting the words “Environmentally Friendly” under a typical abstract-looking corporate logo has about the same credibility as, well, the BP logo. But if you hire a artist to spend days creating a logo and other supporting graphics using actual physical materials (or a computer simulation of them), you can create a brand that says, “we pay attention to the work we’re doing,” and the message becomes more believable, even though it’s still the same big corporation in the fine print on the back of the wrapper.

The recent story of the Gap logo failure is easier to understand when you see it in this context. The Gap’s parent company spent most of this year researching the proposed new Gap logo. In tests, everyone agreed it was more modern and more commercial than the old logo. But it was too corporate, too abstract. It offered no hint of what business “Gap” was in. Nor did anything in it hint at the ideals of comfort, freedom, and detail that the Gap brand has traditionally represented. Just the opposite — it looked as if it might have been “designed” by someone taking a photograph of a store name in a mall directory.

After a flood of complaints, The Gap abandoned its “corporate” logo after just a week. It’s gone to a subtly streamlined version of the old logo, the one that has a gap between each two letters. That gap is a physical detail, it specifically fits the name, and it’s possible to imagine a meaning for it, so it isn’t the transcendent logo the company was looking for, but the physical details suggest the kind of specialized knowledge that the transcendent approach denies.

There is another reason why corporate branding will be declining in the decade ahead. It is no longer so distinctive. A person with no design training and an ordinary computer can create new graphics with a corporate look by trial and error in less than a day. I designed the logo parody shown here in about 20 minutes. Teenagers can now create a corporate look for their startup businesses, and after a few years of this, the actual big corporations will have to look for a new way to stand out.