The Real Reason We Love Some Brand Logos — And Hate Others

Wendy's recently rolled out a new logo in the hopes of updating the company's image and giving the brand a bit of a facelift. But sometimes the desire for a little nip and tuck can backfire. 

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The fast food chain Wendy’s recently rolled out a new logo, its first such change in nearly three decades. The name is still written on a slight angle, but the phrase “old fashioned hamburgers” is gone entirely. And while the red-haired cartoon Wendy looks similar, her shoulders — with Little-House-on-the-Prairie-style sleeves — have been cropped from the picture. The Old West-style font and curlicues have also been replaced with a borderless white background and handwritten-script font the company calls “contemporary and iconic.”

Updating to a more modern brand image is the most common reason companies give their logos a facelift, says Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. But sometimes the desire for a little nip and tuck can backfire.

A logo redesign is usually supposed to convey a message to consumers. It’s just that sometimes consumers don’t always hear the message. An attempt to redesign The Gap’s logo in 2010 kicked off such a furor that the company backpedaled before it even rolled out. A 2009 logo and packaging redesign for Tropicana orange juice was already introduced when consumers voiced their opinions loud and clear: They hated it. Parent company Pepsico ate the cost of scrapping the new look and reverting to the orange-with-a-straw and old-fashioned lettering OJ drinkers knew and loved.

Why do we get so worked up about logos? What’s going on under the surface that makes us respond the way we do to seemingly innocuous elements? And how can companies that spend bundles on branding consultants and focus groups still manage to get such a basic building block of their identity so wrong?

(MORE: Wendy’s Beats Burger King — By Rounding Its Hamburgers?)

Experts say there are a handful of elements that play a big role in how we feel about companies’ logos, even if we aren’t really aware of what’s driving our responses:

Color: Primary colors tend to be the most commonly used in logos, says Michael Walsh, associate professor of marketing at West Virginia University. “As consumers, we tend to process that stimuli more easily.”

“If you’re trying to fit in, you might use red or blue,” saysKarl Heiselman, CEO of brand consulting firm Wolff Olins. “If you’re trying to stand out, you might use magenta or orange.”

“In most of corporate America, the most common color will tend to be blue,” he says. “It’s associated with being kind of safe, but it depends on the category.” For instance, companies trying to project an environmentally friendly image might incorporate green into their logo, while red and yellow typically tend to be associated with fast-food brands.

Brands change or get rid of colors at their peril. For The Gap, shrinking its iconic blue background to a little box in the corner might have been intended to convey simplicity, but instead it made customers feel like something was being taken away from them, say Calkins.

(MORE: Why Some Brand Extensions Are Brilliant and Others Are Just Awkward)

Words: Increasingly, it seems companies can take or leave words — even their company name — when it comes to their logos. Federal Express shortened itself to FedEx in 1994, and J.C. Penney’s brand overhaul last year nixed most of the name, with the logo just featuring a pair of squares and the letters “jcp.”

“Humans think visually,” Tom Peters wrote in his book The Brand You. “A picture is really worth a million words. And great brands have readily identifiable icons – just ask Nike or Apple or Shell – strong simple images that connect with customers.”

Some newer logos get rid of the name of the products they sell entirely, often to avoid sounding dated or limiting the company’s scope. Starbucks dropped the word “coffee” from its logo for this reason, and Wendy’s de-emphasis of hamburgers lets it play up its salads, chicken and other offerings. The other reason marketing gurus choose to let pictures do the talking is that brands are increasingly global. Words might not always translate, but Nike’s swoosh or Apple’s silver Apple are universally recognized.

Font: Tradition-minded brands today tend to use fonts with serifs for their logos. “Serifs give a feeling of precision and formality,” Calkins says. But this trend, like others, is evolving. For instance, italics were all the rage a generation ago, but now they’re as outdated as Gothic script.

In the case of Wendy’s new look, “a more casual script communicates that it is informal and friendly,” Calkins says. That desire is behind the biggest trend in typography today: the proliferation of sans-serif fonts. New logos from Microsoft, J.C. Penney and Pepsi illustrate this. (The Gap’s aborted logo change also falls into this camp.)

There’s also the “Apple factor.” Experts say that marketers look to copy whatever elements they can in the hopes of replicating Apple’s enormous success over the past several years. That’s one reason why the round, innocuous letters that identify the iPhone and other Apple products seem to be everywhere.

(MORE: The Best and Worst Super Bowl Commercials of 2013)

Shapes: It’s not just the letters getting rounder; it’s the logos themselves. Walsh observes this in a 2010 research paper, writing, “Typically, roundness is associated with approachableness, friendliness, and harmony.”

This is another design element where Apple has had an outsized influence. In keeping with the tech company’s penchant for simple designs, borderless white space has become far more prevalent in logo redesigns of recent years. “In an environment where you’re getting screamed at and there’s an overabundance of logos, we all appreciate when there’s space around any communication,” Heiselman says. “To have the discipline to say less and be more generous with space is something I think people really appreciate.”

There’s also the question of whether images and lettering are placed on a straight horizontal line or on an angular path of some sort. “When you put elements at an angle, it conveys energy and life. And when things are straight it conveys more formality and solidness,” Calkins says. Wendy’s took care to preserve the “wave” in its name; like the hey-pal casualness of the font, it conveys informality and friendliness.

Because consumers are surrounded by the “noise” of advertising at every turn today, logos can sometimes stand out when they’re “quieter” and simpler. “In a hyper-cluttered visual environment you want to cut through that clutter,” Heiselman says. “An easy trick to do that on the street is to simplify.”