The great logo debate

Few things in the world of corporate brands evoke more passionate debate than a new logo. And few meetings are as painful for the creative team.

“It’s hard to read. What font is that?” asks an executive, squinting at the screen upon which the agency have projected their latest iteration of the new company logo. “It’s type! Not font!” something inside me screams, while I work on keeping an appropriately neutral professional face.

The name is too small, the graphic too big. The colours are too dull, or perhaps too bright. And just what does that swoosh represent anyway?

Brand meetings are tough. Everybody has an opinion and emotions tend to run high. At times like these I’ve seen even conservative financial officers and deep-thinking strategists lose their cool. All over a few letters, graphic symbols and colours. Perhaps because the logo is the most visual representation of a brand, it evokes more gut reactions and personal turf wars than any other aspect of a company’s identity. Other brand elements like name and positioning, arguably at least as important, are less subject to debate.

Logo, an abbreviation of logotype, from the Greek word logos, is a graphic mark, emblem or symbol commonly used by commercial enterprises and organizations to aid and promote instant public recognition. Logos are either purely graphic symbols or icons, or include the name of the organization in a logotype or wordmark.

The problem is that the logo is not the brand, although most people think of it that way. The logo is the visible tip of the massive iceberg that is the brand, 80% of which is hidden below the surface. Who are you, where have you come from, how do you work, and more importantly, think? What are your values? How do your customers see you? All of these combine to create brand. A new logo does not a brand make, although it can go a fair way towards helping you build one.

Here is my take on the latest great logo debate: Merck, the world’s oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company, recently announced a global rebrand with the introduction of a new logo. Visually, it is as wildly unexpected as it is renegade given both the company’s historic stature and the conservative nature of the pharma business. “The previous logo was so pharmaceutical it basically wrote its own prescriptions.” I laughed when I read this blogger’s assessment, it rang so true.

Full disclosure: I worked for Merck under former brand identities that included Merck Lipha (France) and Merck Serono (Switzerland). I was part of a rebranding of the biopharmaceutical division, during which we valiantly tried to get the group to consider some out-of-the-box thinking on a new logo. The timing was wrong for that level of revamp, so we were obliged to colour within the lines – and work within a very restrictive set of brand guidelines.

Which is another reason why the crazy new M logo is so surprising. To see the staid, German group swing so far out of its comfort zone is to wonder whether Timothy Leary’s genes somehow got mixed into theirs. In other words, what have they been smoking?

On one hand you have to admire their chutzpah. On the other, it is one thing to go all psychedelic if you’re a brash young startup. With a 350-year history and a global business selling trusted medicines, Merck’s customers and investors may well ask themselves if this is the end of the Merck world as they’ve known it.

I question whether this is truly a rebrand or simply a new look. Merck, while claiming it is not the same company it was 10 years ago, has yet to make any real attempt to address some of its most basic challenges: namely, its name. Merck, which Merck? A quick Google search will give you the low-down on how the two Merck’s agreed to split the world following the war. Suffice it to say that from a communications point of view, the brand story was a daily nightmare.

And, just for the record, that typeface really is illegible.

What do you think of the new Merck logo?






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