The Traditional Purpose Of Identity
Logos have come to existence for a reason; history has proven that identity systems can distinguish a product/company/service from another. I could put down my attempt at defining what a logo/identity system is supposed to do, but I think Mr Rand did a much better job:
A logo is a flag, a signature, an escutcheon, a street sign.
A logo does not sell (directly), it identifies.
A logo is rarely a description of a business.
Rand articulates that a logo’s job, first and foremost is, is to identify its intended target. Traditionally, this has mostly been done in a visual manner but it has not been limited to that. Auditory identifiers such as jingles (think Intel) have been used very successfully as well. We take in our natural environment almost entirely through a sensory manner so using our primary senses to create mental cues of a product or business makes sense. On shelves of department stores, strong visual branding and package design gives a way to stand out for new customers, familiarity for repeat customers and easier recognition for those who do not remember the brand name but remember the packaging design. When driving down the street, drivers are exposed to towering signs containing logos; allowing quick cognition of products and services. Most companies set in a brick-and-motar model need visual distinction because it is one of the few ways to get attention in a passive manner. The comparison of a logo to that of a street sign or a flag is both powerful and efficient in this environment. From my perspective, Rand’s description of logos as flags is why they have had such an important role in traditional business and such an unimportant role in the online environment.
Identity Becomes Informational On The Information Superhighway
Think about how you look for something online, specifically product-related. For myself, I will usually just search for the product name. If I do not know the exact name, I will go to the company website of the product’s creator by either: a) typing in the domain name into the browser if I know the company’s name or b) search for the company on Google and hope I can find it. If that does not work, I will go to an online store like Amazon and search for the product by category. My guess is that most people online have a similar pattern to this. No where in this process does a logo or identity system ever prove useful or relevant.
In the online world, traditional brand association methods are much less important. When businesses sell material products online, customers rarely see the company’s logo or package design for a product. All of the sudden, brand association is entirely informational; it is all about the name of the company and/or the name of their product(s). A logo for a company is rarely seen outside of the company’s own website. The impact of a logo on customers interacting in a text-based, informational environment is minimal.
The concept of identity is just as important online, just in different ways. Rand’s emphasis on identifying still remains, it just cannot be done as effectively in a visual manner online. Association and brand identity happens everyday online, just in a medium that makes sense to the format – informationally. The text-centric nature online makes name recognition important and domain name recognition even more so. A particular name could be perfect for an organization, but if it is difficult to spell and/or remember as a domain name, that is going to be extremely problematic. We still need to remember a business/organization, which is accomplished through identity – the difference is what we need to remember to get to the next step. Simply put, online brand identification is all about remembering what to type in the address bar.
Confined By The Existing Vehicle
No matter how media-rich the internet has become in the last 5 years, the web is an text-based information platform. We search for information with text, navigate through text links, provide information through text forms and consume content primarily by reading text. Bookmarking systems for most browsers are mainly text-based as well – favicons are the best most users can hope for. While arguably boring, the text-based model is highly efficient, accessible and has a quick learning curve. With this model, visual identity systems play a much smaller role for brand recognition. Web users rarely ever take in a brand’s visual identity unless they are actually on the company’s own site. This does not diminish the importance of branding once a user comes to a site, but its penetration is much narrower in scope than traditional, tangible brick-and-mortar organizations.
With the web’s lack of tangible space, the name and/or domain name of a site becomes all the more important for recognition. Brick and mortar stores have the advantage of taking up material space – meaning they can put up a big sign so people can see their store literally miles away. On the web, the equivalent just does not exist, so users better be able to remember how to get to a site on their own. Therefore, while a simple visual insignia can be extremely effective in a tangible world, it is going to be much less useful on the web.
An interesting exercise is to compare dot-com leaders to that of the largest global brands:
With the exception of Wikipedia (which, ironically, has the least prominent typography) and MSN to an extent, all the dot-com logos are essentially type treatments of their domain name. The type is legible and to the point. In comparison, the top global brands are significantly more visual in their execution. Additionally, the logos in the top brands are, as a whole, more refined than the dot-coms’ equivalent. This is likely the case for many reasons – most of the top global brands are extremely old and have had the time to spend on their identity. Those older brands also existed long before the internet, meaning all the brick-and-motar rules of the past applied. That said, many of the dot-coms on the list are some of the wealthiest companies in the world – so money is not always an issue. Perhaps, just perhaps, the logos for these dot-coms simply are not that important. Google will be Google, regardless of whether you put some shiny new insignia next to its name. What is important is that people know how get to their site. Hell, Google is a verb now – you cannot get a better identification for “search” than that.
What Does This All Mean?
This article is not intended to diminish the benefits of a good identity system for any organization, be it online or offline. It is not that a strong visual identity system unimportant for dot-com businesses, it is just much less important than things such as user experience, accessibility, content, and yes, the domain name. Online properties are working with a different set of variables and a different type of interaction with its audience. Rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars on an identity system for a dot-com, that money may be better spent elsewhere such as acquiring a the right domain name. To put it simply, if buying the perfect domain name is going to eat up your entire branding budget, buy the domain, set it in a solid typeface and feel confident you made the right decision.