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The alluring, sophisticated ads in Vogue and Elle mirror the class aspirations of hundreds of thousands of avid voyeurs—but rarely their actual purchasing patterns. Many New York women walk into the famous retail emporiums on Fifth Avenue, look around, and walk out without a shopping bag sporting a famous logo. They then head to their favorite discount outlet to look for the same labels at a fraction of the department store price. Their “creed” is to be seen to be fashionable, but their assumption is “I can get it wholesale.”

Another example of contradiction is amusingly apparent in the way we look at automobile advertising. We often talk a good game about the importance of comparison shopping, checking the expert rankings on style, safety, and value, and then choose the one we “like” the best. For big-ticket items such as automobiles, the costly commercials (which the manufacturers mostly pay for) are not primarily intended to sell to new consumers but to validate the decision of those who have already bought the product. Because the brand exists in the consumer’s mind, not in the product itself, consistent validation is a key element of brand management.

Identifying the key visual experiences a target audience has experienced over time, balanced with an analysis of the most likely cues and codes linked to the emotional likes and dislikes that lie beneath the level of their consciousness, can guide the development of a proprietary visual language for a brand.


Douglas Hofstadter, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University, is the author of a number of acclaimed books about the mysteries of our minds. He is also a great believer in concocting analogies to help us comprehend how the mind works.

In his book I Am a Strange Loop, Dr. Hofstadter firmly states that we think by seeking and drawing parallels to things we know from our past. He says, “We therefore communicate best when we exploit examples and metaphors galore, when we avoid abstract generalities, when we use very down-to-earth, concrete, and simple language, and when we talk directly to our own experiences.” Twist this slightly and substitute “our consumers’” for “our own,” and we have a precise coda for brand warriors to follow. Can you recall, off hand, any commercial persuasion call to action more simple, concise, and yet powerful as Nike’s “Just Do It” Or GE’s old tagline, “We bring good things to life.” Or Hellmann’s mayonnaise tagline, “Bring out the best.” These metaphors are emotional and easy to understand.

The brand identity and environmental signage for XOHM, Sprint’s WiMAX wireless network, features a simple, bold pattern design representing communications through a graphic dot language. the environmental graphics were on display at the Consumer electronics association’s 2008 trade show in las vegas. (Design: Lippincott; Photo: ©Peter Aaron/Esto).


On the societal persuasion front, there have been many resounding calls to action that are branded by repetition. In the early days of communism, the imperative slogan of Marx’s and Lenin’s “Workers Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” must have been electrifying to the masses (and terrifying to the bosses). Christian fundamentalists often post signs along roadsides declaring a simple truth, as they perceive it—“Jesus Saves.” And, of course, most global religions, as isms, long ago settled on universally understood logos designed to act as powerful symbols for their belief systems.

The updated Hellmann’s logo is carried through all its products. (Design: Sterling Brands)


Dr. Hofstadter has another way of explaining the what, why, and how of the way we perceive ideas. “Human brains are constantly trying to reduce the complexity of what they perceive, and this means that they are constantly trying to get unfamiliar, complex patterns, made of many symbols that have been freshly activated in concert, to trigger just one familiar pre-existing symbol…The main business of human brains is to take a complex situation and to put one’s finger on what matters in it. To distill from a welter of sensations and ideas what a situation is all about. To spot the gist.”

This animation concept depicts the color bars used for tuning television monitors, which then mutate into the NBC peacock logo. (Design: Steff Geisbuhler, Partner, Chermayeff & Geismar Inc.)

And that is close to what creatives are trained to do. Of course, the “spotting” part must come first. The best brand warriors realize they must begin by exploring the complexities of what probably lies beneath a target audience’s motivation to respond to a design or a brand message. Then it’s their task to create the gist, a sensory concept that sends out the right signals. The gist is the key message, and developing it should come last. Sure, I know we often work backward. With a flash of intuition, we conjure a fresh idea. But it needs time to ripen, to be examined carefully, to judge whether the framing idea can communicate the value of the product’s tangible attributes through the alchemy of a fresh creative execution.


Adapted from Go Logo! A Handbook to the Art of Global Branding (Rockport)

By Mac Cato



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