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Manufactured Intimacy and The Logo Wisdom of Crowds

Suddenly, a change in a corporate logo becomes headline news.

Suddenly, a change in a corporate logo becomes
headline news.  Last week,
Starbucks’ decision to drop the words “coffee”
from its brand identity – announced with great caffeinated fanfare by Howard
Schultz  – generated a serious foam of journalistic attention. 
 

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Minimalism evokes confidence.  Starbucks doesn’t need anything more than the
“siren” – as Howard Schultz, the company’s founder, describes the iconic
visage.  (I’m sure his mythological reference
to irresistible lures is not accidental.) 
And apparently, Target doesn’t need anything more than it’s bulls-eye;
logo-watchers have noted that the company has dropped its name, without any
media hoopla.

Last year, by contrast, there were two disastrously ill-fated logo
reinventions, one for Tropicana 
and one for the Gap.

In both cases, howls of graphic distress were heard
from devoted fans of the brand.  And the media – delighted by the
spectacle of big companies making fools of themselves by alienating their best
customers through dumb changes – joined the ridicule.  Eventually, the companies capitulated and
returned to their old identities, their public humiliation offset, at least, by
the public display of brand affection demonstrated by outraged logo
fundamentalists.

 More telling than these individual brand decisions,
though, was the depth of consumer interest in, and response to, the manner in
which a company chooses to present itself to consumers, its aesthetic strategy.
After all, corporate graphics are an essential form of corporate manipulation.
 Type faces and logo designs are influential branding levers, artifacts of
non-verbal communication that reach deep into our brains to activate swarms of
neurons and trigger feelings of confidence, joy, modernity, or hundreds of
other emotions,

Given, then, that companies change logos for
calculated reasons of, well, mind control – or at least mind-shaping – you
might think that both consumers and the media would resent the sheer
obviousness of this.   That we’d get all huffy about sophisticated
attempts to create brand preference through bio-chemical skullduggery.
 That corporations would be called out for such brazen behavior.   

 Instead, while we may criticize a particular logo
transmogrification on stylistic grounds, we’re blissfully unaggrieved by the
intentions behind it. That’s because we’ve all become media insiders and
cultural critics.  We’re deep in the game.  We’re visual
sophisticates, if not logo groupies.  And
as astute observers of the marketing minuet we don’t mind being spun around as
the slippery corporate hand reaches for our wallet.

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 In fact, we enjoy as role as  professionalized consumers, both judging the
appeal of a logo – or entity that subvents it – and simultaneously being
persuaded by it.  When logos become expressions of creativity that are as
worthy of comment and critique as a movie or museum show – and many museum
shows have become nothing more than collections of corporate statements,
viz the Guggenheim exhibit on the art of
the 
motorcycle that was accused of being a ramped-up BMW commercial – it signals
another blurring of
art and commerce. 

 Brands are using social media, in savvy and
meretricious ways, to create an illusion of interest in what consumers think.
 But of course, when Doritos asks us to propose their next Superbowl commercial,  or Vitamin Water asks us to name a new flavor, those are nothing more than transparent gestures
of inclusion that are motivated by the new conventional marketing wisdom that
consumers want to have a  “conversation” with the brands in
their lives.  

While some consumers may be motivated to engage with
brands through the manufactured intimacy of social media – whether from psychic
loneliness, actually affection for a brand, or the satisfaction of being
acknowledged – the companies themselves are using social media platforms out of
pure capitalism.  

There’s nothing wrong with that. Turning a logo change
– which used to be a private affair – into a public unveiling – is an
Oprah-like confessional moment.

We feel flattered at the inclusion,
and we’re anxious to offer our weighty opinion, even if deep down we know that
we are being totally, unmistakably used. 

 

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About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies.

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