David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

Defining iconic brands

Back in October, Computer Arts editor Nick Carson asked me to name three contemporary, iconic brands. Nick also asked what I think defines an iconic brand, if this has changed in recent times compared to classic brands of previous decades, and if a brand can be iconic without a great logo.

Here’s my short take.

IKEA pictograms
Image copyright: Jiho Park

My three picks: Google, Subway, IKEA.

The definition of an iconic brand

It should offer the “go to” product or service within its market, delivering what people think of first when they want what the brand sells. So if I’m looking for something online, I think of Google. If I want a quick sandwich made with care, I think of Subway. If I want to furnish a house without spending a fortune, then there’s IKEA.

Competing today is different from the past because where customers once had just a handful of brands from which to choose, they’ll now have hundreds, maybe thousands. To stay at the top, brands need to relate to their customers in ways that are more than just an exchange of money and products. A small part of the relationship can be as simple as the free tea and coffee IKEA gives family card holders, or as life-changing as the $50M+ that Google employees donated to more than 12,000 non-profit organisations.

Can a brand be iconic if it doesn’t have a great logo?

I don’t think Google, Subway, or IKEA have great logos. Some people might think they’re great simply because of the product or service that backs up the brand, and ultimately, that’s what it’s all about — the product or service.

But the visual identity plays its part, and most successfully when different elements interact. Google, for instance, paints thousands of feet of pipework in its data centres with the various colours used in the logo. But not just because it looks fun or cohesive. Each colour designates a different section of pipeline, so engineers know where they go and what purpose they serve.

Google data center pipes
The blue pipes supply cold water and the red pipes return warm water back to be cooled.

My answers were a small part of Creative Bloq’s post on 20 iconic brands, along with contributions from Ben Marshall (Landor), Michael Johnson (johnson banks), Paula Benson (Form), Geoff Philips (MetaDesign), Andra Oprisan (Saffron), and Kieren Thorpe (BrandOpus).

Related, from the archives: Remove the logo. Know the brand.

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8 appreciated comments about “Defining iconic brands”

  1. I’m glad I am not the only one that likes me some subway.

  2. I agree about IKEA and SUBWAY but I think the Google logo is iconic. I never saw such a powerful story about simplicity visually in most colorful form with precise font selection. It did set the trend of today’s web 2.0 design simplicity.

  3. I don’t think any if the logos are outstanding or particularly clever but the brands behind them certainly are.

  4. This was a very thought provoking little bit of information. I would never have thought about a brand being iconic that didn’t have what I considered to be a great logo. And I agree that IKEA, Subway and Google aren’t great logos, but between their simplicity and great marketing, they are easily recognized by most of us. (Though I might not agree with the idea of Subway being the go to place for a sandwich made with care — but, to each his own.) Anyway, you have given me more to think about — like I don’t have enough already! Thanks for a great blog and two excellent books.

  5. The current Google logo is definitely iconic. A significant improvement from the old thicker type face they used early on. Plus the doodles they come out with makes the brand so much more dynamic and enthusiastic.

    I think the Subway logo without the oval would stand pretty well.

    Talking about Ikea, there is a company called TheOne based out of the UAE. They’re quite a brand in the Middle East at the moment. Below is the first line from their about page.

    “Invented by Thomas Lundgren (after an angel came to him with a mission to save the world from IKEA),”

    http://www.theone.com/index.php/our-story/our-story-intro-about-us

    How’s that for a mission statement? :-)

  6. Definitely agree with Ikea. It is actually interesting to see how Ikea has kind of revived the idea of the all-day shopping experience from the past. You literally can go first thing before the show room sis open and have a real breakfast and socialize with other customer. Then the show rooms open and you can literally spend a day there. The other thing I notice is that they are not so much selling you products as much as they are selling a lifestyle which you really see in their “Life in XxY m/ft” display areas.

    Google to me has reached one of the pinnacles of iconic simply by the fact that their name has become a verb. You no longer “search for X on the Internet”, you “Google X”.

  7. That’s a great question: “Can a brand be iconic if it doesn’t have a great logo?”

    With a great answer, David!

  8. The Google piping is great – useful, branded and iconic.

Anything to add?

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