Forget your logo. Sign with words

How smart brands are using language to brand themselves in a way simple images never could

Over the last few years, Chipotle has had great success with its Cultivating Thought campaign, which places quotes and short stories from famous authors, comedians and thinkers on the eatery’s bags and cups. Through the simple but expert use of words, the project has allowed people to gain a better understanding of what the brand is all about more than images or a logo alone ever could.

The overwhelmingly positive reaction the campaign has elicited from the public begs the question: Why aren’t more of today’s brands taking the opportunity to integrate language directly into their logos and brand systems?

Chipotle’s example may be extreme, as most brands can’t call on the likes of Jonathan Franzen to speak for them. But when done correctly, incorporating words into your design identity is an ideal way to communicate directly and connect emotionally with your consumer.

Of course, with the advent of social media, brands are talking more than ever. But most are not building strong messaging built from words directly into their branding design.

While image-based design can certainly give the viewer an intangible sense of who you are as a brand, words can speak more clearly and make a more immediate impact. I would argue that today’s brands would be well advised to take things a step further than Chipotle, and incorporate words directly into their logos, or allow them to stand in for their logo itself.

In fact, two of the most enduring and beloved logos in the world do just that. Take Milton Glaser’s classic "I Love New York" logo. This simple, elegant marriage of words and symbols holds as much weight today as it did in 1977 when the designer was called upon to re-brand a struggling, crime-ridden city emerging from the brink of bankruptcy. With just a few letters, New York was made lovable again. Through the passing years, the logo has become so ubiquitous and its promise so fulfilled that it’s hard to even remember there was a time when people really didn’t love the place.

Another timeless example is Nike’s compelling "Just Do It," which the company often employs alone as a logo or in conjunction with its iconic swoosh. The swoosh alone is a powerful branding tool, as it says "Nike" to millions around the world without saying a word. However, by adding "Just Do It," the effect is multiplied. Feelings of power, triumph, dedication and fearlessness are all evoked, with three simple words. Without words, the swoosh is just a stand-in for the name of a brand.

And yet, there seems to be a fear among today’s marketers to put words out into the world on behalf of their brand. Perhaps it’s the permanence of words, or the weight they carry. We’ve all seen the backlash that a misguided tweet from a brand can bring. As the ancient Latin proverb states, Verba volant, scripta manent — spoken words fly away, writing remains. When you write something and release it, you have to own and commit to it. I think this is a good thing, as it can force brands to hone their message and truly focus on the story they want to tell the world.

It’s time for brands to get over this fear and start incorporating more language directly into their outward facing branding, from ads to packaging, and particularly into their logos.

Here are some of the advantages of a language-centric branding platform:

  • Words can grow with you. The beauty of words is that they can evolve along with a brand. They are often most successful when used in a responsive and dynamic way. Logos no longer have to be fixed forms — they can stay recognizable while still being updated with fresh language. Keep the process fluid and your brand system open to future iterations of your story.
  • Words can bring about beautiful visuals. Beyond being a great foundation for design, words instantaneously evoke in the mind of the reader an array of images that are translated through personal interpretations. Allowing the viewer to produce their own mental imagery can bring about a more personal connection and a stronger reaction than spoonfed images.
  • Words make us human. People don’t communicate with each other through branded imagery. They talk. Let words humanize your brand, and bring a range of emotions to the relationship with the consumer.
  • Words are funny. This might be the most important reason of all. Humor is one of the best ways to build affinity between brand and consumer. It’s what makes people want to connect with you, and come back for more. The same way you like to be welcomed with a smile in a store, a brand that displays lightness of attitude is more attractive.

Perhaps it’s time to throw out the old saying "Show, don’t tell," at least as far as design and branding are concerned. Let something other than a symbolic logo speak to the consumer. Brands should announce their personalities clearly and let words do the talking.

Thierry is creative director and partner at international branding firm Base Design.

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