Fast Company

How to Build an Unforgettable, "Smashable" Brand Identity (Hint: It's Not the Logo)

coke bottles

No, you don't have to tell me, because I know what you're about to say: your new product is brilliant. It's a game-changer. Problem is, you need a killer logo. Well, today, designers, inventors, and investors are facing a dilemma similar to the one that writers and artists have struggled with for decades: there's nothing left. Or here's another problem: if you do manage to create a jaw-droppingly clever or memorable image, rather than engendering widespread consumer recall of your brand, your Easter-blue palette risks looking uneasily similar to the Tiffany box, and your little black bull is a transparent rip-off of the one that dangles from the neck of Sangre de Toro red wine.

As far as the logo is concerned, to paraphrase Bill Maher, it's time for New Rules. Today, what counts far more than a puma, a monkey, or a snarling aardvark is the cross-sensory experience your brand offers. I'm talking not only the emotion, beliefs, and desires your brand evokes, but its feel, touch, sound, smell and personality, of which the logo is just one small part. Whether it's a soda can, a car, a doll, a fragrance, a smartphone, or laptop, your brand needs to be smashable, e.g., instantly identifiable via its shape, design, copy, contours, and even navigation. Aside from adolescents, who are always on the lookout for the coolest logos to set them apart from, or help them gain traction with, their peers, today for most consumers the logo comes in near-to-last place to other considerations.

Why? Well, various reasons. The first is, when we see a logo, our defenses go up and stay up. We fear we're being played, or manipulated. Not least, I might also add that subconsciously, a logo reminds us of our complicity with big brands, of our own shot-with-guilt overconsumption that helped drive the world's recent financial downfall.

The term "smashable" dates back to 1915, when the Coca-Cola company asked a designer in Terre Haute, Indiana, to design a bottle that consumers could still recognize as a Coke bottle, even if someone flung it against a brick wall and it shattered into a hundred pieces. Coke is a smashable brand. So are Guinness, Ferrari, Harley-Davidson and, of course, Apple (take a sledgehammer to an iPad and you'll know what I mean). Which suggests that the logo as we once knew and loved it--from Citibank's Scowling Umbrella (I don't know what else to call it), to Nike's Swoosh, to Starbucks's Whoever-The-Heck-She-Is--needs to be re-considered if it's going to play any role in future brand-building.

Let's do a little experiment: Erase the logo from every single one of your brand identifiers--products, stationary, signage. Close your eyes, now reopen them. Is there anything left? Would consumers still recognize those items as belonging to your brand? Look at your packaging, your copy, your colors, your design, your font, your spacing. Do any of them convey your brand's identity? Or without a logo are you adrift and bailing water?

Next let's examine your website. Again, by eliminating the logo, you'll embark on a fun (I promise) and instructive exercise that will relieve you of any stubborn logo-fixations that may still be nagging at you. It's one that will force you into acknowledging the value that every single one of your communication elements plays in defining your brand's identity. Okay, still hiding the brand logo, eyeball your copy, your graphics, whether your pages are spare or dense-looking. Do all these things convey what your brand represents? Does your brand have a personality anymore, or is it standing shyly and stiffly against the wall, hoping no one notices it now looks (I hate to tell you) like every other brand out there?

To wrap up, let's have a look at your navigation. By navigation, I'm talking about everything from the iPod's clicking wheel, to the ritualized twist and snap you hear when you open your favorite soft drink, to Amazon's simple, one-click button you press to buy books or download them onto your Kindle. In my experience, once consumers have used Amazon a few times, they get hooked on the site's simplicity and navigational ease (During a recent round of focus groups, by a long shot Amazon was at the very top of consumers' favorite brands.). Sure, the site stocks every book (and everything else) under the sun, it over-delivers, it undersells iTunes, its data-mining techniques are on the positive side of creepy, but I'm pretty sure that most consumers' loyalty to the company derives in large part from Amazon's incredible and intuitive ease of navigation.

We're creatures of habit. Once we grow accustomed to a certain way of shopping, running, eating, drinking, shaving, brushing our teeth, showering, dressing, or any of 100 other things, our methodology becomes our own. Like the familiar, well-worn route we take to our favorite beach or restaurant, habit becomes personal, automatic, and unconscious. In the same way, navigational rituals are a vital, whispered element of any brand's attraction. Having said this, human beings are supremely adaptable. Basically, we can get used to anything. If you've ever switched cell phones, or made the change from an Apple to a PC, yes, at first it felt obnoxious and foreign and even wrong. But once we became accustomed to that new environment--be it a trackball or a new, melodic suite of start-up and shut-down sounds--nothing else would do the trick.

So reserve a brick wall, cock your arm, aim, and begin smashing your brand. While you're at it, smash your website, to ensure your brand remains consistent via your web pages' navigation, style, ease, and/or special features. Now ask yourself: does my brand "own" this cross-sensory experience, from web to wireless to PDA, right down to the bricks-and-mortar product I'm gripping in my right hand? If not, your carefully crafted logo might as well not even exist.

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s “World's 100 Most Influential People” and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.

Read more by Martin Lindstrom: The 10 Most Addictive Sounds in the World

Top image via Lawrence Whittemore; small photo via thewhitestdogalive

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13 Comments

  • Maggie Macnab

    It's pretty simple. The brand expresses experience; the logo is a symbolic capture of that experience. At least it is if done right. The problem is modern culture have forgotten how to think symbolically and thinks it can throw money at an issue that has nothing to do with money. This leaves us with literal and rather hollow interpretations of what could be/should be an amazing experience of living on the earth.

  • MarK Bradin

    "Smash your brand"...this is what one of the world's most influential people has come-up with...brilliant!!!
    ...and Fast Company(ten years ago this was a good magazine) is publishing it as a profound strategy!!??  We are in post-enlightenment...we actually have stopped thinking.   

  • sue-ella mcdowall

    Enjoyed this article. I think we all have differing opinions of what a 'brand' means and we are moving beyond associated it with just a logo. Interestingly the originality of 'branding' was associated with 'stamping one's visual mark' onto an object to lay claim to it. Today, it has evolved way beyond this.

  • R. Murillo

    I will say that a strong logo is still extremely important, just as a strong brand name is still important. It would be foolish for someone to undervalue the effectiveness of a well-crafted, unique and memorable logo. Identifying a brand in a crowded marketplace will always include some type of singular mark. Whether the mark will be identifying by sight, sound, touch, or smell, it will still be functioning as a logo.

    But I do agree that a brand identity is now a wider array of experiences than it once was. That means the logo will have more support now.

    Also, I wouldn't consider any of the logos mentioned as particularly strong, they just happened to be supported by a strong brand. Good logos effectively communicate the brand core value on their own. Everything else included in the brand experience is made to support it.

  • R. Murillo

    I will say that a strong logo is still extremely important, just as a strong brand name is still important. It would be foolish for someone to undervalue the effectiveness of a well-crafted, unique and memorable logo. Identifying a brand in a crowded marketplace will always include some type of singular mark. Whether the mark will be identifying by sight, sound, touch, or smell, it will still be functioning as a logo.

    But I do agree that a brand identity is now a wider array of experiences than it once was. That means the logo will have more support now.

    Also, I would consider any of the logos mentioned as particularly strong, they just happened to be supported by a strong brand. Good logos effectively communicate the brand core value on their own. Everything else included in the brand experience is made to support it.

  • Leo Friedman

    Nevertheless, I also believe that a Company's culture and inherent identity has greater weight...the logo just becomes an added-value feature. Think Starbucks and Apple (just usng their logo), I think if a company builds a strong identity, the immediate result grants it "Smashable brand" status! it's not a unilateral process!

  • Amit Patel

    Great insight Andrei, totally agree. It makes me think about all the recent "re-branding" campaigns - Pepsi, Baskin Robbins, Gap (later changed back to the original).

  • John Creson

    Andrei is correct, that without clarity of intention or purpose a product/company lacks relevance. The brand is the sum of all parts, the experience one has, the way it looks and feels, the way it speaks/sounds, etc. It is through the individual parts that one creates a perception about a particular brand. Calling one out as more or less important seems curious. I don’t think Puma or Apple would say there logo is everything, but rather, one important part.

  • atimoshenko

    I'd put the focus a little differently. It is not that a brand needs to be multi-sensory, but that everything one does (including the aesthetics) needs to be an extension and manifestation of a clear, coherent, and, ideally, singular vision/purpose/philosophy.

    If you know your reason for existence, then for an effective language to flow naturally, all you need is a good designer. If you do not know why you're around or what makes you special, then even the best thought-out, multi-sensory re-branding will not produce any sustainable results.

    Contrast Coke and Pepsi...