Choose a Logo

Me: I work at a branding agency.
My grandma: What is that? Branding?
Me: We make logos.
My grandma: Oh, like the Swoosh?

Nike’s symbol has its own Wikipedia page. Similarly, Coca-Cola’s name cannot be spoken without conjuring up that distinctly swooping, calligraphic logo. How both companies chose their respective logos may surprise you. And the moments of doubt they experienced will change how you think about their logos. Design has an incredibly personal impact. But the truth is that design doesn’t have to be strictly “good” in order to change lives, inspire you to get a new tattoo, or get you elected to America’s highest political office.

Nike is more than the largest and most successful brand of shoes, sports equipment, and clothing. It’s an icon. In 1963, University of Portland track coach Bill Bowerman and mid-distance runner Phil Knight teamed up to import low-cost high-tech running shoes from Japan, providing an alternative to the German-dominated athletic shoe market. In 1970, they changed their company’s name from Blue Ribbon Sports to Nike, after the Greek goddess of Victory. With Nike, they started to design and manufacture their own shoes using a proprietary waffle outsole.

Ten years after they started Nike, they went public. And six years after that, their revenue surpassed $1 billion for the first time. In between, they made what is now the most iconic endorsement deal, setting the template for ideal celebrity product sponsorship. Michael Jordan’s Air Jordans were released in 1984. This took Nike from a specialized product innovator to a Brand with a capital B.

But that’s not the real story. The real story is that in 1971, Knight hired Portland State University graphic design student Carolyn Davidson to design a logo to put on the side of their shoes. She was paid $35. Although the company went on to award her 500 shares of Nike stock in 1983 (worth $1 million today), their low evaluation of her work when it was originally produced poses a vital question: Was the Swoosh worth more than $35 when it was made?

“Well, I don’t love it,” Phil Knight said of the Swoosh at the time, “but maybe it will grow on me.” Now the Swoosh is recognized by 97% of Americans.

In 1998, Nike was embroiled in a series of calamities: plummeting stock prices, layoffs, questionable labor practices, and an overall image problem that included the erosion of fashion and sports cred. Timothy Egan of The New York Times said that the swoosh had “become emblematic of all of Nike’s troubles.” They were considering getting rid of it. At the time, Nike executives believed that the over-saturation of the Swoosh was tarnishing their anti-establishment image.

No amount of streamlined messaging from Nike could defray the brand’s negative public perception. And their unsophisticated application of the logo only amplified the negativity. Their identity crisis shows exactly why the Swoosh’s value is tenuous. Because if your company conducts itself poorly, public perception will plummet and your branding will stand for that plummet. A symbol’s meaning is almost always out of your control.

Getting rid of the swoosh would have been like putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm. Instead of rehabbing their image starting on the surface, Nike went deep. Phil Knight issued a statement saying, “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse…I truly believe that the American consumer does not want to buy products made in abusive conditions.” Nike raised the minimum age of their global workforce. Today, Nike continues to be transparent about their working conditions and regularly publishes reports on its labor practices.

Now, Nike looks a little different. They started with a renegade, underdog sensibility, but no one would perceive them that way now. Not at their size and strength. So they have shifted, embracing their identity as a leader. But they’ve kept the same swoosh. A symbol’s meaning is created by perception.

Tom Geismar and Ivan Chermayeff have designed some of the most memorable identities in the past 50 years, including those of NBC, the Library of Congress, and Chase Bank. Reviewing the Chase Bank identity creation process in their book Identify: Basic Principles of Identity Design in the Iconic Trademarks of Chermayeff and Geismar, they discussed how difficult it was for their client to shift from its complicated and traditional logo to its contemporary design. Now that the Chase Bank logo is synonymous with that bank’s efficiency and reach, it seems like the inevitable choice.

“People can transfer their positive associations with a company onto even the most simple and abstract designs, even if it’s utterly foreign at first.”

It’s that transfer of positive associations that we’re after in our work.

Design is a battleground for cultural significance. Nowhere is this clearer than in the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton’s H squared off against Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again hats. Clinton’s branding was smart, but her team had doubts along the development process, too. That was revealed in campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, released by WikiLeaks in October 2016. In a critical moment that every designer will recognize, Clinton’s team was asking for more concepts. Wendy Clark, a campaign advisor, gave this impassioned defense of the window mark. That defense hinged on this:

“To be clear, a logo can communicate and aid attribution of qualities, but it is not a proxy for the messaging of the campaign until they are relentlessly connected and delivered, repeatedly and consistently. That’s when brands take on meaning.”

Wendy Clark was brought on to advise during the campaign because she used to be a marketing executive at Coca-Cola. Her experience there undoubtedly shaped her sophisticated understanding of branding. Coca-Cola is, after all, an iconic American brand.

John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola in 1886 and engaged his bookkeeper Frank Robinson to create the product’s name and logo. Robinson chose the name because “the two C’s would look well in advertising.” Pemberton used the name in the product’s early advertisements. Those advertisements feature the first Coca-Cola logo, a simple serif type treatment.

In 1887, Robinson made the script logo. Before it was trademarked, the logo appeared inconsistently for years. Red was used intermittently for the next few decades, till the 1940’s when it became more of a standard brand application. In 1969, they used a secondary brand extension called the Dynamic Ribbon device, a swooping line that borrows the design language of the main logo. From that point on, Coca-Cola’s identity was firmly rooted in that logo and its language, and every iteration includes some combination of those elements. This includes the Share a Coke campaign, which uses common first names rendered in a derivative of the Coca-Cola font.

A successful logotype “balance[s] the character of the name itself,” according to Chermayeff and Geismar. Coca-Cola is successful. The aesthetic quality of the word forms comes through. Even the sonic quality of the name seems rendered in design style. Frank Robinson was absolutely right. The two C’s do look well in advertising. Coca-Cola has never strayed from this.

Except in 1985, when Coca-Cola launched New Coke. This move was in response to what is now an unthinkable scenario: Pepsi was outperforming Coke. Coca-Cola’s market share was down due to the rising popularity of diet sodas and alternative beverages. In supermarkets, Pepsi was clearly ahead. And blind taste tests revealed that consumers preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi.

New Coke was not just new packaging, it was a new formula. Blind taste tests run at Coca-Cola HQ showed that consumers preferred the new formula to the old and to Pepsi. But that’s just it. They didn’t see the packaging.

The New Coke backlash was so swift that Coca-Cola put their original formula in its original packaging back on the market within three months, calling it Coca-Cola Classic. New Coke was phased out. This was a dark spot on the history of the company. So dark that even Fidel Castro commented on New Coke at the time, calling it “a sign of American capitalist decadence.”

Why did people react so negatively to a drink that objectively tasted better? They took Coca-Cola’s name and packaging change personally.

Coca-Cola was consistent in its packaging design for almost one hundred years. Its formula may have shifted over that time, but its packaging did not. That relentless consistency created a real bond.

Coca-Cola’s branding was deeply woven into American culture. Its impact was influenced by its design because its design hinged on a confluence of naming, product, and aesthetic. In this way, the brand was an experience, not a drink. Its ubiquity ensured that this experience was democratically accessible. And the combination of dogged market reach and sophisticated branding with history made Coca-Cola a mode of personal identification. Buying Coca-Cola said something about who you were. And buying New Coke said that you were a decadent American capitalist.

A psychiatrist whom Coke had hired to listen in on customer hotline calls told executives that some people sounded like they were “discussing the death of a family member” when complaining about New Coke.

The confluence of naming, design, and product in the case of Coca-Cola is a powerful example of branding’s psychic imprint. And the New Coke backlash reveals that a logo can engender generational affinity that can precipitate earth-shaking grief when compromised.

This is the impact of design, messaging, and perception.

While we consider Nike and Coca-Cola to represent some of the smartest brand design today, the fact is that what makes them powerful is repeated use, personal and historical association, and entrenched cultural meaning. While their secondary extension design and product lineup show how smart they are as companies, their logos show how meaningful they are as brands.

How could Phil Knight and John Pemberton recognize the psychic impact the logos they chose would have on America and the world? They chose a vessel and poured meaning into that vessel. The strength of both logos lies in the choice.

Choose a logo.