From time to time, a firm will retire its logo and replace it with a newer version. This prompted us to wonder: why would a company, whose logo is instantly recognizable, want to make this change? To answer the question, we might have conducted a little informstarbucks-463689_1920al research, ferreted out the company’s graphic aspirations, and produced some anecdotal evidence. But we opted instead for a deeper dive and, to our surprise, found several fascinating studies as to why, through the years, famous logos have been subtly and even radically altered. The companies’ motivations ranged from legal necessity (Mozilla Firefox) to a recognition that even a name was superfluous where the logo was immediately identifiable (Nike, Shell). Our take-away was that branding – at the purely visual level – is a complex, ongoing effort to provide unmistakable cues that indelibly identify a company while excluding potentially negative hang-overs from previous cues. Logos attempt to guide the consumer’s interpretation of visual data.

One interesting study, “Logo Evolution of 25 Famous Brands,” was by a company that specializes in technology design. The idea, obviously, was that designers cannot understand today’s demands for graphic simplicity and directness unless they have a grasp of how these demands evolved. What commercial factors, relating specifically to the company and generally to trends in marketing, have motivated firms to pare down and otherwise alter their designs?

Of course, while the history of every logo is different – Coca-Cola inhabits a different space than Shell Oil – it is still possible to trace how these and other venerable brands introduced an altered aesthetic. Coke, for example, finally dropped the image of a bottle that appeared on its logo during the 1990s; the image was unnecessary. Shell evolved from a dull black-and-white rendering of a clam shell to the bright yellow and red sign that we see today, dropping the term “Shell” for good (after some on-again-off-again uncertainty) in 1999. In both cases, a design that was universally recognizable had ceased to be sufficient. That is, in somebody’s opinion change mattered more than continuity. The degree of change was no doubt a critical factor, and in both these cases it was substantial.

A business or commercial anthropologist (assessing data from cultural theory, semiotics, thematic analysis, etc.) could expand on the focus group studies behind these and similar decisions, which today would be augmented by neuroeconomics research into how we process data related to purchasing decisions. Logos strive to be the visual counterpart of how we situate a company in the marketplace; in saying less, they acknowledge what we already know; in saying it differently, they tweak our mental image of a brand. Variations across cultures add further complexity.

One of the most interesting cases is Apple. In the study cited above, the first Apple logo (1976) appears as a scene from the 1600s, where Isaac Newton discovers gravity when an apple falls on his head. That same year, however, it was switched to the current apple shape, which then went through further transformations that lost all coloration – even black. The big change, however, was in saying goodbye to Newton. Obviously, someone realized that the reference was rarefied (to say the least), and that even to those who got it the message would be obscure. Maybe there was a tenuous analogy between Newton’s ground-breaking discovery and Apple’s new device. But the smart money realized that for branding purposes, an apple with a bite mark was arresting. Any allusion to Original Sin notwithstanding.

Another study, “Why do companies change their logos?,” from Quora, offers several responses to this question. Here, one of the most interesting examples is Twitter. The original logo featured a bird that was stationary, with its beak pointed straight ahead. The revised logo was a bird in flight, who had even shaved his spikey hairdo and pared down his feathers to appear sleeker. This bird was ready for flight, more airworthy and definitely ready to ascend. The angle of its beak was now 45 degrees higher. When you think of Twitter, it is not just about the tweeting sound that birds make; it is also and primarily about sending a message that takes off at once. The new logo makes that point.

The Quora study also reminds us to think of the AOL logo, which was radically changed to suggest that something was new at a company said to be tired and yesterday’s news. Whether or not anything really had changed, consumers might be inclined to give it a second look. In other words, while logos turn their face to the world, they may also be a good signifier of what’s going on internally – in the case of AOL, a somewhat desperate attempt to redefine itself and win back market share.

Starbucks, on the other hand, which dropped Coffee and even Starbucks from its logo – leaving only an ageless Siren – is probably suggesting that we know its offerings are irresistible. In fact, the company is facing increased competition from artisanal brands, but the Siren stares out at the world unperturbed.

Designing logos is big business, as is their protection. They are intellectual property. We should care about their design, and about the changes that they undergo. That is, creating and maintaining logos requires a deep understanding of the business, its aspirations, and its exposure to a consumer base whose first impression is visual. In addition, the design process and protecting the design will increasingly require trademark law to incorporate an array of complex, non-legal disciplines.

For the lawyer, explaining these disciplines to a judge or trademark examining attorney might be difficult but nonetheless worthwhile. On the other hand, bringing the relevant concepts into play might complicate the arguments more than is necessary to achieve the desired result. A proper balance will be crucial. In the meantime, however, identifying experts who are knowledgeable in these disciplines will likely be a good starting point for any trademark attorney.

Fordham IP Institute