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Symbolic Language in Branding - Logos and Beyond

Throughout history-- from cave paintings to hieroglyphs-- humans have used symbols as a means of communication and understanding. These visual cues signify to us a meaning, message, or identification of something. In branding, this use of symbolism can signal the values, function, and identity of a company. Once a set of symbols becomes ingrained in someone’s mindset, they act as a visual shorthand to convey messages quickly and effectively to consumers and clients.

In branding, the most obvious form of a symbol is the company logo. But even within the basic concept of a logo, the imagery used can hold all kinds of clues as to a brand’s values and identity. Take the company Nestlé for example: their logo depicts a mother bird feeding two chicks within a nest, and the name Nestlé is also the German word for “little nest”. Although this was originally derived from the founder’s family name, the name and image of baby birds was also created to try and draw recognition to the company’s line of infant cereal. These symbolic cues were used to create an image of family, nurturing, and gentleness through the mother bird. When looking to branding (or re-branding) your own business, think of the values you want to exhibit, and consider what the shapes and symbols of your logo may mean.

Colour is another obvious way that brands convey their messages. Although the psychology of colour can be a complicated thing when taking into account cultural differences and significance, generational differences, and gender, there are a few standards that we see in North America when it comes to colour: blues are associated with calm, greens with nature, yellow with children, red with strength and power, pinks and purples with femininity, black with elegance. It’s not hard to think of some of the most recognizable logos and companies in the world and the clear colours associated with them, such as Facebook blue, Starbucks green, or McDonalds red and gold. While this isn’t to say that you can’t incorporate other colours in branding and creative applications at certain times, having clear color schemes is another way to cement a clear and easily recognizable image for your brand in people’s minds.

Font and typeface in writing from a company can also become strongly associated with a brand, in particular if this is incorporated in the company’s logo or tagline: think of Disney, Vogue, and Sony, all utilizing different memorable fonts to different effects. Sans serif is known as being clean and modern, with serif and type-face fonts feeling classic and book-related. While a slab or slab-serif font can often be seen for more industrial or mechanical companies, cursive script fonts can give an air of elegance or delicacy-- but be careful of over-using them outside of logos or small pieces of text as they can be hard to read, and that’s definitely not something you want associated with your brand!

But let’s get beyond the logo and think about other ways that symbolic language and shorthand can be used in branding. One manner of creating symbolic shorthand for your company is the packaging, tapping into the experience and feel of actually using a product as a marker for recall. One that immediately comes to mind is the iconic, curvy shape of the glass (and now mimicked in plastic) Coca Cola bottles: although bottles are not always used in every instance by the company, the image is recognizable enough that this bottle silhouette is often shown on paper cups to remind our brains of this visual cue. Apple is also a big company that focuses greatly on their “unboxing” experience, down to timing how long it should take for the lid of a box to slide off, and using the same smooth paper used in all their packaging (speaking of Apple, the layout of their stores is also consistent in their minimalist style, becoming another symbol for the company beyond their name and logo!).

While it may not be easy to always have consistent packaging for every different item a company sells depending on a variety of factors, other ways to keep things consistent and memorable is using certain tags, textures, or papers in both packaging and correspondence with clients and consumers for them to touch. As more senses are engaged, humans are quicker to recall. This means considering the smells, sounds, and the feeling of an item or location can be an extremely worthwhile endeavor to rack up even more cues and points of recall for consumers to connect with. If you’ve ever been into a Hollister store with their bumping music, dark lighting, wood-paneled labyrinth of rooms, and the scent of their perfumes abound, you probably remember it vividly and understand how the experience of the senses can be intrinsically tied to the experience of a brand.

But how do you come to get these symbols strongly associated with your brand? Through consistency! If you just try something one time, it’s not likely to stick. But on the other hand, you don’t want to do things the exact same all the time, utilizing rigid guidelines to the point that they limit growth and become, dare I say, boring. This is where using the same imagery, colors, etc in creative ways comes into play. Take for instance Starbucks: they have tons of different mug designs in many different styles, but all of them still symbolize the brand and experience of the company. Think of ways you can access all the same cues and values, but in new and exciting applications or designs, or work with designers to get your ideas off the ground. By looking for creative ways that you can use your company’s cues and symbols, you will create engaging visual shorthand for consumers to quickly recall your brand. And who knows, maybe one day yours will become an iconic symbol known worldwide!

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