What’s in a name? Or a logo?

By on June 29th, 2012

On our first day in, Peter gave me a book to read called Designing Brand Identity, by Alina Wheeler, and I found the section on brand history fascinating.

Brands are much more than just their logos and names, though nowadays we tend to conflate them in our minds. Logos, especially, are imbued with meanings way beyond their graphic symbolism.

Consider the Nike brand logo. From that one swoosh, we see the entire company.  Our minds immediately think ‘Nike’, recalling ‘Just Do It’, and imagining Michael Jordan taking flight on the basketball court. We perceive the swoosh as indelibly linked to sports, a can-do attitude, running shoes, energy, health, and more. But when it was created, the company wasn’t even called Nike. Nike was simply the name of a line of shoes they were creating.

Blue Ribbon Sports took the name Nike from the Greek goddess of victory. The fact that I never actively made this connection baffles me. Me, someone who studied Greek history and art, who knows for certain that the Nike of Samothrace, one of the iconic sculptures of Greek classical art, is from the 2nd century BCE. The thought must have been at least in the back of my mind. Like, duh. Nike, or victory, applies easily to sports games, competitions, and also the “Just do it” slogan (which didn’t appear until 1988 thanks to Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy). This shows how much precedence the brand Nike has over the term ‘Nike’ in my brain. Isn’t it amazing that brands can operate on that level in your mind? ‘Google’ has entered our vernacular; we also ‘tweet’ and ‘facebook’. Wieden’s claim that brands are verbs has held true..

In 1972, BRS only payed about 30-some bucks for the iconic visual. The swoosh is an abstraction of the goddess’ wings, in essence, a visual derivation of Nike. But over the years, Nike has consolidated their branding to place this visual everywhere. You can’t help thinking about what Nike embodies when you see it. Its history of Greek classicism has become entirely unimportant; Nike refuses to rely on that connection to make their stamp on the world.

Similarly Apple lore tells us that one of the reasons why computers were named Macintosh, might have been for Jobs’ favorite apples: McIntosh, making it a completely random, un-related choice. Google may even have been the result of a fortunate type of the unit ‘googolplex’. But now these brands are household names with specific public perceptions. Google is a synonym for clean search and whimsy on the net. Apple is known for their sleek and well-designed products.

I don’t think these stories dispel myths and beliefs that a name is centrally important in developing a business. Although a clever brand name or a logo can help you, many of the things that make a brand lie outside of it, actually. Still, it could be the case that these examples: Nike, Apple and Google are the exceptions. But more often than not, I find that it is a funny, throwaway, not fully strategized name that becomes the household name. I heard Gilt Groupe founder, Alexandra Wilkis Wilkinson, speak once, and as it turns out, “Gilt Groupe” was also partial happy coincidence.

Some other sources: The Atlantic, Adweek, Stanford, Hubpages 1 and 2.

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