Battle of the Mega-Brands
The actual American landscape of the 21st century is not all that different from the satirical parody depicted by the opening titles to HBO’s Silicon Valley, which depicts the San Francisco Bay Area awash in a sea of corporate logos. Branding is everywhere, and being inundated with corporate marketing in both our public and private lives has become a commonplace phenomenon that we have passively resigned ourselves to.
When it comes to visual branding, like anything else in life, there will always be good and bad. However, among major corporations with effectively unlimited budgets and huge teams of top talent coordinating across multiple offices to strategize and execute their visual identities, a bad logo can become a puzzling eyesore for us plebeians who are forced into consuming these images as we move through our daily lives.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to turn my critical designer’s eye to the world of mega-brands to rank the winners and losers in terms of identity design, according to my humble opinion:
Apple and Nike are old standbys when it comes to examples of successful large-scale branding, and for good reason. Their simple, iconic marks communicate volumes without any wasted ink. The logos are minimal but appropriate and haven’t changed much over the years because they haven’t had to. They’re unforgettable. Their simplicity allows the visual brands to be malleable and evergreen. It’s a bit cliché perhaps, but these are still two of the best.
The FedEx logo is the darling of Design 101 professors for its famously smart use of negative space. But what has made this otherwise dated typographical mark age so well isn’t necessarily the hidden shapes, it’s the effective design system built up around the mark to accommodate all of the company’s offerings (Ground, Freight, Express, etc.). The bold chunky letterforms in the mark make a perfect canvas for color, and its designers constructed a subdivision-differentiating color system that is both utilitarian and visually exciting without losing any impact.
Citigroup has another remarkably simple but effective corporate logo that gets high marks from me. The banking giant formed in 1998 from a merger of Citicorp and Travelers Group to create the largest financial services firm in the world. Paula Scher’s logo brilliantly combines the visual language of both parent brands into one super efficient and watertight mark, even maintaining a nod to Travelers iconic red umbrella in the new logo.
The company famously paid Scher and Pentagram a multi-million-dollar fee for the logo work, which she allegedly sketched out in full on a napkin during their initial meeting. This stands as proof that a successful and effective corporate logo doesn’t need to be a work of art, it just needs needs to work, and that the value of a logo should be measured by its effect rather than the hours spent creating it.
The contemporary Google brand gets a spot in the top five primarily because Google has managed to succeed where so many other dot-com-bubble brands have failed: taking its series of ridiculous, cringe-worthy 90s logos and transforming the visual brand into something modern and cool without throwing the rainbow-hued baby out with the bathwater. Other surviving companies from this era like Ebay, Amazon, AOL and Yahoo have attempted rebrands with the same aim and come up notably short.
The company is called Burger King and the logo is a burger. The letters are a burger, and by that I mean THE LETTERS ARE MEAT, PEOPLE. Accepting that unsettling fact for what it is, I still find this logo to be quite messy. Some letters are round and bubbly, some come to sharp angles, and some are a bit of both. The bun is glossy like an early-2000s iPhone app icon, and there is a tiny registered trademark symbol orbiting around the bun at an alarming velocity. Considering that BK consistently puts out fun, creative marketing efforts and advertising campaigns, the meaty abomination representing the company seems especially undercooked.
This banking giant certainly isn’t investing much of its billion-dollar profits back into their design department’s budget. In this logo disaster, we get two terrible flavors of misaligned typography bisected by a sort of… boomerang? The glossy disc/blade/sickle that is careening toward your eyeballs doesn’t relate to the name or message of the brand at all, and—outside of my personal fantasy interpretation that it represents the Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of banking executives reminding them to always wield their great power justly—it is 100% extraneous.
I hate to kick poor Yahoo! when it’s already down, but the company’s beveled and embossed Photoshop logo was conceived of less than five years ago. This anemic, purple rendition replaced a notably whimsical serif mark. Sure, Yahoo! managed to class-up some of that juvenile zaniness, but even for 2013 standards, this mark is way past trend and only looking worse with each passing day.
There are certainly things I like about the latest iteration of Amazon’s visual brand. It has strong conceptual underpinnings that visually support the company’s two main brand value propositions: that Amazon has everything from A to Z, and that it offers an unrivaled customer experience, implied by the hinted smile.
While that is all well and good, the execution of these ideas is what landed this mark on my personal naughty list. An arrow can take many forms, so why Amazon chose an arrow with such a remarkable resemblance to the male anatomy is a mystery. While it is no fallacy that Amazon is “the everything store,” perhaps the phallus is the one thing they should have omitted from their inventory.
Secondly, this logo functions rather poorly in extension, which is especially unfortunate considering that Amazon’s current business model seems to be thrusting its iron into every imaginable fire (retail, music, video streaming, cloud computing, original content, pharmaceuticals, reading tablets, grocery delivery and social media, to name just a few). Given the impressive roster of sub-brands within the Amazon family, perhaps designing its logo around a system for maintaining brand continuity would have been a smart move. If it had, it could have avoided sub-sub-sub-logo disasters like this one.
One complicating factor of branding on a massive scale is the need to appeal to a wide audience without alienating anyone. While some mega-brands still do stake out a unique visual position and stick with it, others seem to fearfully tiptoe around the concept of branding in the face of the broad cross-section they need to speak to.
These play-it-safe giants end up with blasé, forgettable brands such as Walmart’s, which is nice enough but otherwise unremarkable. The color palette is shared by thousands of businesses, the typography is pleasant but banal, and the radial mark is reminiscent of countless others in the corporate branding world. Looking back through past iterations, it seems that Walmart was able to become the largest retailer in the world without ever having much of a discernible brand to speak of. So perhaps a policy of just not rocking the boat is the closest thing to an identity the company has.