Classical Branding

I have a theory that every important concept can be explained through sword fighting. When I started working in this industry I was able to understand how new building products worked by comparing them to what I know about sword construction, and most swordplay technique can be understood from a marketing perspective as "advanced compliance gaining strategies". So I was very happy when I realized this weekend that fencing could help explain another aspect of marketing: logo design.

Corporate branding has been in the news recently as a couple well-known national brands changed their logos. Meanwhile, a recent episode of Duct Tape Marketing's Small Business Marketing Podcast focused on "Color As Branding Element". The origin of modern corporate branding through logos and colors has its origins in the classical tradition of heraldic coats of arms, which brings us back to fencing.

The group I currently fence with, the Society for Creative Anachronisms, delves into all parts of medieval culture, including, notably, heraldry. Most anyone who is in the SCA long enough will eventually have to design their own device, and must struggle with creating something that reflects their personality interests while being aesthetically pleasing - or at least interesting - enough that they are willing to be seen wearing it in public. There are Heralds available to help people develop their devices, and it is interesting how often their advice lines up with modern theories on corporate branding:

  • "The heraldic device originated in had to decide within seconds whether someone approaching was friend or enemy...Ideally, the result is simple, memorable, and easily identified."
    The primary use of modern logos is this type of identification. Hopefully people have more than a split-second to make decisions about your product on a job site, but this is still a useful guideline for evaluating a logo: will people be able to quickly and easily identify your product in the chaos of the job site?
  • "Since a device identified the man who displayed it, it was very important that no two men have the same device." This is the reason so many generic colas try so hard to look like Coke, and why Coke works so hard to dissuade them. Your logo loses much of its value if it is easily confused with another company's, especially if you both focus on similar products or industry sectors. A major part of logo design consists of studying the existing logo landscape, and making sure that new design you're so excited about will truly stand out as original.
  • "Good devices have as few charges [shapes or objects] and colors as possible. The best devices fill the...shield with one or three identical charges, and use only two colors." This gets back to the issue of simplicity. Imagine yourself at a trade show, trying to give a prospect directions to your booth. "Look for the big, red square" is a much easier direction than something involving several shapes and many colors. The major exception to this involves companies that want to incorporate full color spectrums into their design, but at that point "rainbow" or "multicolor" becomes the color descriptor.
  • "Good devices make it easy to identify each charge...And all charges are drawn as large as possible while still fitting in the space available." If people cannot easily understand what the shape is on your logo, they will create their own interpretation. And theirs may not be one you like. It is very important at this stage, and throughout the process really, to show your design to someone else. Don't tell them what it is; let them try to figure it out. If they get it wrong, redesign the logo.
  • "Good devices have high contrast between their parts. As much as possible, light charges (white, silver, yellow, or gold) are put on dark fields (red, green, blue, purple, or black), and vice versa. (Traffic and street signs all do this, to be as easy as possible to read.)" Again, this also makes it easier to describe the logo, and for others to recognize it. Our logo has charges and text against a white background for contrast, but violates this guideline slightly by incorporating two shades of blue. But for us that's ok; we are fine with people identifying our colors as "blue and red"; the extra color does not hinder recognition.
One of my Herald friends also recommends the "Other Side of the Room Test": can someone recognize an 8.5x11" print-out of your logo from across the room? Similarly, how does it look online? On a mobile phone? Printed in black and white? We rely so much on color as an identifier, but the logo still needs to hold up without it.

Simple. Identifiable. Unique. The characteristics of a good heraldic device and a good corporate logo. Once again, a difficult business concept is explained through swordplay.