Is the brand the logo? Is the logo the brand? Is a logo also a logotype? Is a logo a symbol? Is the wordmark the brandname? Is the mark the wordmark? Is the brand the corporate signature?

Confused? Unless your company is called Brand, answers to those questions don’t come easy. If you’ve heard those terms before but aren’t sure what their exact meanings are, you’re not alone.

The reality is that there’s no consensus as to what the above terms mean, or what is the proper nomenclature for the things we create. For an industry that considers problem-solving a key objective, design has created a confusing array of terms to describe its end products.

Unfortunately, the discrepancies in assigning the same meaning to those words is not just between professionals and clients, or professionals and the general public. It happens even among professionals! This is a problem, because it creates barriers in the exchange and discussion of ideas. A recent post by designer Andrew Sabatier serves as a perfect example. In the course of making excellent observations on the merits and viability of companies dropping their names and just using symbols, he has to go into great detail explaining what he means with every term he uses.

How did we designers get to this point? Do other professions share the same problem? Do musicians debate the meaning of “song” as much as we do with “logo”? Do mathematicians do the same with “number”?

I remember going through college and not getting a straight answer. Instructors used different terms. As I began working I noticed that studios were more coherent in their use of nomenclature. As confusion can result in extra work, the description of deliverables in contracts tended to be very specific.

In time, I adopted the language used by my peers at Landor, which I find very straightforward:

  • A wordmark is a visual representation of a company name composed of letters that read like a word, and stylized in a distinct way (typically through an interesting use of typography).
  • Symbol is a graphic element, and can be abstract or figurative. Monograms are a subset of symbols that use a letter or letters in a graphic way, but don’t read as a word.

And logo?

  • Most times, a logo is composed both a wordmark and a symbol (e.g., AT&T, Continental Airlines, Goodyear, Taco Bell).
  • Sometimes a logo is just a wordmark (e.g., Banana Republic, Crate&Barrel, Fedex).
  • A symbol by itself can become a logo (e.g., the Nike Swoosh, the Apple logo, Target’s Bullseye), but it’s very rare. Establish a symbol on its own to represent a company name requires time, patience, and massive amounts of marketing dollars.

What about brand?

  • All the experiences provided by a particular company, product or service create impressions in consumers minds. Those impressions (thoughts and feelings) constitute a brand. It’s part promise, part reputation, part personality.
  • Since it’s inside other people’s heads and hearts, companies try to influence it. Design is a vehicle for that shaping to occur.

A logo is only visual. A brand is not just visual. Why all the confusion between logo and brand then? Maybe because a logo acts as a reductive visual reference to a brand, and when a consumer sees a logo, it can trigger some of those thoughts and feelings for the brand it is referring to.

Sadly, I don’t see an effort by the industry to simplify and consolidate terminology. We are all after the new thing. I was surprised how various speakers at this year’s Brand New Conference argued that logos where not very important, it was “stories” that mattered. The most memorable slide of the day said that “branding is for cows, stories are for people.”

Topic for another post.