In the world of business-to-business marketing communications, the use of symbols to connote brand attributes is a lost art. Pick up any 10 trade magazines and you’ll see what I mean. You can even pick up 50 if you want, but you still won’t find more than a handful of symbols that help make a branding statement.
The “missing bite” from Apple Computer’s apple logo helps convey the idea that you can expect something unconventional and different from them. Merrill Lynch’s bull says strength to an investor audience that could probably use some added strength on any given day. And John Deere’s elegant bounding deer fits nicely with their long-established “Runs like a Deere” slogan.
One of the most offbeat uses of symbology in business-to-business advertising is Owens-Corning’s adaptation of the Pink Panther character. In addition to the obvious color connection to its pink product (Owens Corning was the first company to trademark a color), the panther has given the company a fun, friendly image association for almost 25 years now. And, of course, this makes it a lot easier for retailers to sell Owens Corning insulation products to builders and homeowners.
In energy trade publications, you’ll find the attractive, but straightforward, Shell Oil pecten. Not only does this symbol link the huge company to its humble gift shop origins, but it also helps impart an environmentally friendly image in an industry where environmentalists are constantly on the attack. Shell has upgraded its pecten at least nine times since it was first introduced in 1904, each time making it more contemporary.
In his classic branding book, Strategic Brand Management: Building, Measuring, and Managing Brand Equity, Kevin Lane Keller warns against a recent trend to make brand symbols more abstract in this quest to be more contemporary. He tells the story of how Prudential Insurance had gone through 15 versions of its rock of Gibraltar symbol, finally ending up in 1983 with a stylized version that simply consisted of black and white slanting lines. Many customers couldn’t see the rock anymore, so the company quickly came up with a 16th version that was modern, but more clearly recognizable.
In the transportation field, I always think toughness and durability when I see the bulldog symbol on the front of a Mack Truck. Apparently, this is a case of an endearing symbol being suggested by customers because British soldiers in World War I told company representatives the blunt-nosed trucks reminded them of bulldogs as they dodged bullets and trudged through the mud in France on their way to the front with supplies.
(By the way, if you go to www.mackswimsuit.com you can vote for your favorite bulldog bathing beauty in the Bulldog Swimsuit Edition.)
Distinctive marks and symbols like these stand out in a vast, gray corporate brandscape. They are sources of pride for employees, and they help shape a company’s personality to the outside world. I just can’t figure out why more marketers haven’t picked up on this.
The only industry that insists on icons is insurance. It’s inundated, in fact.
Transamerica features its prominent pyramid-shaped tower. Liberty Mutual claims the Statue of Liberty. Allstate has good hands. Mutual of Omaha displays an Indian head. Snoopy is flying overhead on the Met Life blimp. Wausau is leaving on the next train (station), and AFLAC has gone quackers for ducks.
Sadly, the most famous insurance industry symbol now belongs to a finance company. I’m talking about the red umbrella that for many years was closely associated with Travelers Insurance Co. It seems that during that company’s brief stay with Citigroup, the red umbrella was abducted, and didn’t go along when the insurance business was spun off again in 2002. How very strange–wouldn’t it have been fun to be a fly on the wall during those conversations?
In his book, Keller talks about brand symbols as powerful ways to attract attention and enhance brand personalities by making customers like them. He mentions such prominent brand characters and symbols as the Keebler Elves, Ronald McDonald, the Jolly Green Giant and several you might not think of: Sprint’s clever use of a pin dropping to promote sound transmission quality and Memorex’s shattering glass to symbolize audio reproduction.
Maybe b-to-b practitioners should take a lesson from our consumer advertising brethren. Consider what Maytag has done with the lonely repairman character these last four decades: The company has become synonymous with dependability, that’s what.
And look how Michelin has evolved “Bibendum,” the tire-shaped boy first created in 1898. Michelin has modernized and upgraded its cuddly spokesman to transform its brand image from auto racing to friendliness and family safety, and has recovered nicely from its financial difficulties of the early ’90s.
Qantas Airways Ltd. has used kangaroos and koala bears for 50 years to symbolize the exotic attractions that might motivate people to travel halfway around the world.
Pillsbury has its Poppin’ Fresh doughboy. Starkist has Charlie Tuna. Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes has Tony the Tiger. Marlboro has its famous cowboy. For 40 years, Hathaway shirts had its eye-patched man.
Not only do symbols help customers remember a company’s products and services, but more importantly, they help us associate positive attributes that draw us closer and make it easier for us to buy those products and services. If used properly, symbols can focus our brand expectations and shape corporate images.
In this downsized, reorganized world where everyone is wearing more hats and handling more responsibility, it’s smart for marketers to do everything we can to make it easy for customers to remember a few simple reasons why they should like us and buy from us.
Brand symbols are one effective way to do this. If you’re not using them, maybe it’s time you got the picture.