If the whole point of branding is to help your business stand out from the competition, why do so many companies choose logos that look the same?
A design colleague of mine recently made a comment that perfectly illustrates the problem with generic brand identity design:
“I’ve been attempting to watch a US TV series which happens to feature about 6 nearly-identical young men. They’re all tall, muscular, dark haired, aged 17-25. I cannot tell them apart. In a revelatory scene a young man appears on camera and is shown to be a murderer. I still don’t know who the murderer is. And this is why generic design is terrible.”
What is generic design? They’re overused concepts — indistinctive and cliché. If it can be made with or mistaken for clip art, chances are it’s generic. (I “made” the following logos using free clip art in under 5 minutes total.)
Why businesses choose generic logo designs
There’s a reason why something becomes cliché — it works. A tooth means dental, roofs mean real estate, human forms in a circle mean people helping each other and that’s what non-profits do and so on… There’s little chance that customers won’t immediately understand what the company does.
Businesses choose symbols like this because they want to be relevant in their industry, they’re safe and familiar.
But just knowing what your company does is not enough to tell your dream customers who you are and what they can expect from their experience working with you. A brand is not a functional thing (e.g. “I sell houses”); it’s an emotional thing (e.g. “My clients feel I’m warm and funny, which helps take the stress out of selling their house.”)
That is not to say that you shouldn’t use literal devices in your logo design. Strong logos often employ safe and familiar symbols, only they give them an original twist. That “original twist” is the ultimate creative challenge for a designer: “How can I take a literal concept and make it original so I can convey the spirit of this brand?” This is what we do, it’s how working with a designer is different from buying a logo from an app or a stock art site.
Here’s an example of a Mexican food-truck logo concept I created that uses a literal, generic approach with a twist. The hot peppers are hardly original as symbols of Mexican food, and the colors are totally stereotypical because they’re the colors of the Mexican flag. There’s no mistaking what this is! But, the typography and hand-drawn stems give the mark humor and cheekiness. This is not an elevated or sophisticated food truck for high-brow foodies, this is a fun place to grab a burrito on your lunch break.
Great logos are innovative as well as relevant. Maybe a little scary. Great branding usually feels a little uncomfortable (and SO EXCITING TOO!), because it means you’re setting yourself apart from the safety and comfort of what everyone else is doing. Branding = setting yourself apart.
The wrong logo makes branding more difficult
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a logo is not your brand. If anybody ever tells you otherwise, check to see if they’re trying to sell you a mediocre logo design at a high price.
You can have a generic, clip-art logo and have a very successful brand. You can have a beautiful, award-winning logo and fail to win clients over. Your brand is largely defined by the experiences of your customer.
But a logo is a symbol of your brand and it sets expectations, especially when people don’t know you. It embodies who you are and your promise to your customers. It can elevate, convey emotion, and give voice to what’s unspoken.
Here’s the key point: If your logo is indistinguishable from your competition, if it doesn’t help your customers remember you — “meh” or “which one are you again?” — that just means you’ll have to work that much harder in your branding efforts
How to get a great logo
It all starts with you becoming clear about your brand. And trust me, most people don’t start there — they start by thinking about colors they like and fonts they prefer. But doing the mental work of getting clear about what makes you you — the heart and soul of what makes you different — will help a designer create a logo that will embody that uniqueness. Also, try getting out of your comfort zone, be a little daring — this is how you’re going to stand out in a sea of sameness.