What’s in a logo? Cautious brands on the backfoot and social media fodder

By: |
February 7, 2021 8:35 AM

In the hyper social media-digital era, when minutest fails become the subject of trolls, brand specialists say a review mechanism is a must to protect the brand’s identity and image.

After Myntra’s incident, social media exploded with logos of various brands being decoded and criticised for being suggestive.After Myntra’s incident, social media exploded with logos of various brands being decoded and criticised for being suggestive.

By Reya Mehrotra

The world was thriving with Adam’s virtue until Eve untied his blindfold. And then, he could not unsee what he saw. When the world opened its eyes to Myntra’s logo — the letter M written with overlapping shades of pink and orange — after a complaint of it being suggestive, it was no longer representative of the brand but a woman’s legs (as suggested in the complaint filed in December 2020 with the Mumbai cyber police by Naaz Patel from Mumbai-based Avesta Foundation NGO). The brand acted quickly by promising a revised logo in the coming days.

But William Shakespeare would agree that if we asked today “what’s in a logo?”, it would mean much more than just the identity and essence of the brand, and would include a well-thought out exercise to rule out any possible objectionable design.

A reality that Harish Bijoor, brand-strategy specialist & founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, a brand and business strategy consulting firm, confirms. He says they run ink-blot checks on logos even before allowing roll-outs, “There is activism all around, and people are looking for the smallest reason to rile and ridicule. In such an environment it is prudent to do negativity checks on logos before they are put out.”

Bijoor says brands usually go through checks before rolling out campaigns or communications and even brand ambassadors before they are signed on for brands. He adds that the need for a review mechanism for brands has given bigger business opportunities to firms like his. “This is a new revenue stream that has opened up over the last couple of years for companies such as mine. We call it brand due-diligence practice. The idea is to get a neutral viewpoint that vets these items from political, social, economic, religious and environmental viewpoints.”

In the hyper social media-digital era, when minutest fails become the subject of trolls, brand specialists say a review mechanism is a must to protect the brand’s identity and image. Ambi Parmeswaran, brand strategist and coach and founder of Brand-Building, a brand consulting platform, says, “In this day and age you don’t want anyone to get upset with your brand, its symbol or its logo. This does not mean you retreat into simplistic approach to branding. It just means you have to be extra careful. In India we have been used to checking and rechecking brand names, symbols and logos in all the Indian languages. Now we need to add a few more filters to the process of approval. Better to be proactive about it than wait for a court case or a Twitter storm.”

Parmeswaran calls Myntra’s move a ‘sensible thing’. “The brand saw this getting escalated into a court case and decided to do a quick retreat,” he says.

Karthik Nagarajan, chief content officer, Wavemaker India, a Mumbai-based media agency, says this will usher in an era of caution for brands and lead to rise in brand consultancy firms.

He says, “Going forward, brands will need multiple perspectives to symbolisms. Some cultural symbolisms of the past might not age well and brands who are sensitive to changing audience perceptions will have to constantly review them with the present cultural lens. It is not just design, but a lot of what the brand stands for itself will undergo a rethinking. It is fascinating balance of risking years of equity you have built, for gaining the energy that a refreshed brand brings about.” Ashish Khazanchi, managing partner, Enormous Brands, does not agree with review mechanisms. He says one can’t control imaginations. “I agree people would be more cautious now. But brands need to stay away from sensationalist conversations. No one should, at any cost, incite the troll army.”

Myntra’s case is not a lone one. Logos have often come under the scanner for either being offensive or similar to other brands. For instance, who would have thought that popular burger brand McDonald’s would have a woman’s breasts as its logo? When in the 1960s, the brand hired psychologist and design consultant Louis Cheskin, he suggested breast-shaped arches to represent mother McDonald’s breasts as they would have a “Freudian impact on the subconscious minds of the consumers”. Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal reveals the idea.

Another popular logo controversy was between two major brands. In 1984, sportswear and fragrance line Polo Ralph Lauren of Ralph Lauren Corporation filed a suit against US Polo Association over trademark infringement. After a series of lawsuits and counter lawsuits, the companies remain in dispute till date over the use of the horsemen playing polo in their logos. While Ralph Lauren has a single player, US Polo displays two players in the logo.

However, sometimes some coincidences are meant to be laughed at. Audio streaming and media services provider Spotify India’s use of a Good Day biscuit as its logo on its Twitter handle in June 2020 was a meme fest. It so happened that a Twitter user compared Spotify’s logo to a Good Day biscuit design. The brand too responded with tongue-in-cheek humour and put up a picture of the biscuit as its profile picture with their Twitter bio reading “Even we can’t unsee it now”. Replying to the development, Brittania Good Day’s Twitter team said, “Thanks for sharing the spot-light with us,” referring to their name and put up a picture of their biscuit dissected as Spotify’s logo. “We can’t unsee what you did there! You’ve totally happified us,” they wrote.

In fact, when the news of Myntra controversy broke, food delivery portals Zomato and Swiggy were quick with their share of witty and sarcastic posts. “Spent the last 9 hours just looking at our logo,” Swiggy wrote, while Zomato posted a picture of their old logo, a spoon that comedian Tanmay Bhat and others pointed out looked like a sperm. The wrote, “Throwback to our old logo.” They also replied to Bhat that they were glad they managed to sneak by the censor board, referring to his show that came under the Censor Board scanner.
After Myntra’s incident, social media exploded with logos of various brands being decoded and criticised for being suggestive. Elon Musk’s electric car company Tesla Inc’s logo ‘T’ was pointed out by some as being representative of the male genital, automaker company Volkswagen’s ‘VW’ were labelled as vulgar, automobile manufacturer Renault’s logo, a cubical square was called out for being sexually suggestive, as was financial services company Mastercard’s, vacation rental company Airbnb’s and ed-tech company Byju’s. In fact, television network Doordarshan’s logo was pointed out as suggestive too.

Explaining the process behind a logo, Parmeswaran says, “It starts with the brand name, then the name is written in a particular font (logotype) and then a symbol that can be used as a short code for the brand is analysed. Marketers look for the right name that can be protected by copyright, an online domain name that can be bought. Once the name is finalised then comes the process of creating a brand identity. An impactful symbol and logo need to be able to communicate some aspects of the brand promise in a second or less,” he shares. He refers to the WelcomGroup symbol ‘W’ written as a namaste and the State Bank of India symbol that represents the common man and unity.

No doubt, Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, would have had a field day in today’s era with netizens donning Freudian caps and scrolling in search of hidden meanings. No wonder brands realise the hypersensitivity of today’s world and spread their message accordingly.

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