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Ch 4: Defining the Use of Logos in Visual Brand Identity

The organization logo (also known as a “brandmark”) is the single most important VISUAL indicator of brand identity. Although the logo is not the brand (see Ch. 3), for some audiences (and particularly for some customers), the logo may be synonymous with the brand. As designer David Airey asserts, “a logoless company is a faceless man.” (Logo Design Love, 10)

Airey also notes that today, logos are omnipresent in customer experiences. He estimates that “the average American sees 16,000 advertisements, logos, and labels in a day.” (Logo Design Love, 2)

A good logo has meaning. Whether simple or complex, the meaning of the logo must be relevant to the audiences that view it.

Some logos may have obvious symbolism, such as the Target…well, target. On the company website (, the store name isn’t needed, since the symbol and name are identical.

Other logos may have a more complex explanation. Take Fed Ex, for example. This award-winning logo was created in 1994, at Landor Associates. (View the logo, and read an interview with the designer who created it, at The arrow inside the FedEx logo (look between the capital “E” and the “x”) might not be noticed immediately but it represents important attributes of the company’s service: FedEx moves things from here to there with speed and precision.

Side note from Jason:
In an interview with Bill Samuels, Jr., president of Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whiskey, I thanked him for his dedication to creating and maintaining a great brand. He replied, “My daddy always said that if you don’t have brand recognition, all you’ve got is great stuff. No one drinks great stuff if they don’t recognize it.”

Maker’s Mark is a wonderful example of not just a great logo, but a great comprehensive brand identity, with multiple visible components (all of which are intrinsic to product packaging). The red stamped seal–their logo–represents their “great stuff.” The red wax-dipped bottles are quickly recognized by bourbon lovers the world ’round, and the dripping wax is a distinct visual part of their brand. The Maker’s Mark logo, though, is much more than just a seal.

  • The “S” on the seal stands for “Samuels,” the name of the family that runs the distillery.
  • The “IV” denotes that Bill Samuels, Jr., is the fourth generation of master distillers in the company.
  • Although the company boasts (with corroboration in the Guinness Book of World Records) that it is the longest continuing bourbon distillery in the world, the three breaks in the circle around the logo represent the three times the company has been forced to stop production.
  • The star in the logo is for Star Hill Farms, in Loretto, Kentucky, where the business is located.

Taken as a whole, the logo and the red wax create an unmistakable, distinctive identity for Marker’s Mark.


The key values of the organization should be visible (or able to be intuited) at a glance when you look at the logo. Think about the Prudential insurance “rock,” or the CBS “eye on the world.” Even the Nike “swoosh” is not just an abstract shape; it’s a wing attached to the foot of a Greek god, and it represents “speed” and “victory.”

Not every brandmark has to be a symbol, but all great brandmarks communicate intrinsic values of the organizations they represent.

According to Airey, key elements of “iconic” logo design include:

  • Keep it simple: a simple logo will be easy to recognize and remember, and can be used for a variety of applications.
  • Make it relevant: the style and meaning of the logo must be appropriate and memorable for the client organization.
  • Incorporate tradition: the logo should represent key organizational values that will endure over time.
  • Aim for distinction: the logo should separate the client organization from its competitors.
  • Commit to memory: the logo should communicate its meaning quickly, since consumers may see it initially only in a quick glance.
  • Think small: the logo needs to adapt easily to small applications like a zipper pull or clothing label as well as large applications like billboards.
  • Focus on one thing: an “iconic” logo should have one key feature that makes it stand out.
    (Logo Design Love, 22-39)

Describing the logo in your brand standards manual

No matter what the meanings are for the logo you create, it’s important to explain these meanings clearly in the brand standards manual.

Take a look at the explanation of the logo for, a podcast and website focusing on positive advice for parents. In the brand standards manual prepared by Lorelei Buescher, pages 18 and 19 display the logo and explain its meaning in a clear, complete, and concise manner. (See

Multiple versions of the logo

Frequently, a designer who creates a logo may need to establish more than one approved version. All approved variations of a logo must be defined in the brand standards manual.

It’s common for organizations to have two full-color logos: one with a horizontal orientation and one that takes up more vertical space than horizontal. The American Red Cross logo (seen here) has these variations; both can be see on p. 23 of the brand standards manual (p. 35 of the PDF).

Other allowable variations may be related to the color of the logo; these will be discussed further in Chapter 5.

When you define approved logo variations, be sure to consider whether your logo may be inverted, rotated, shown both vertically and horizontally, or displayed in any other “unusual” situation that might be considered by your organization/client.

There’s no universal rule for handling variations of brandmarks. Your branding team has an obligation to consider how the organization’s logo might be displayed, develop a set of specific, pertinent rules, and then document these rules clearly and comprehensively in the brand standards manual.

For a good example of how to document acceptable logo variations, view pages 20-27 of the brand standards manual. Additionally, pages 28-29 clarify the possible choices that are not permissible.

Other approved marks

Besides the logo, your organization may choose to use other marks or visual brand elements with distinctive meaning.  The University of Cincinnati’s “ingot” is a small portion of the complete brandmark that can be used separately to provide additional visual unity and emphasis.  (The complete brand standards manual is here; the ingot is defined on p. 23 [p. 42 of the PDF].)

Other well-known organizations that use exclusive elements as a fundamental part of their visual brand identity include Nike’s “swoosh” and Coca-Cola’s “wave” (also known as the “dynamic ribbon device”).

Giving distinctive names to alternative marks and/or brand elements is helpful, both for claiming ownership of these elements and for clarity in documentation and discussion of the element. For instance, if the standards manual constantly refers to “the squiggly thing on the side,” it’s difficult for readers to understand (and may be difficult to take seriously).

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