A Strong Logo = An Identifiable Brand

by Gaston van de Laar and Lianne van den Berg-Weitzel
Research shows consumers associate easiest with an abstract shape. It’s indefinable yet specific, such as the Nike ‘swoosh.’
You’ve selected the colors, the shape and the materials. The package design is taking shape and perhaps you’re even at the point of settling on the words. But is your packaging communications strategy complete? Some marketers might say “yes,” but those who operate the most successful brands know that one critical design component is missing.
The logo. And not just any shape or design will do. A great logo says it all about a brand. And new research from Claessens Product Consultants (CPC), The Netherlands, in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, shows a strong correlation between an effective logo and consumers’ ability to recognize and associate a brand with it.
An effective logo must be recognized when standing alone. It also needs to evoke the right associations in the consumer’s mind.
This makes the logo a cornerstone of a successful package design.
CPC’s research finds that:
- Consumers most easily recognize abstract logos. Specific, indefinable shapes—abstract logos—when used in an unfamiliar combination, generally display less complexity. This simplifies a logo’s reconstruction in the consumer’s mind and increases recognition.
-  Consumers recognize abstract logos faster than other types of logos. The human mind constructs a distinctive, more specific shape relatively easy. Logo recognition comes faster. This is what makes logos more easily identifiable when walking past packaging on store shelves.
- Abstract logos require fewer consumer “fixations” to achieve recognition. The research found that the average number of fixations on the logo was lower for abstract logos than for two other types of logos—descriptive and suggestive. The implication? Even with fewer viewings of a package, consumers recognize a brand easiest when the package contains an abstract logo.
-  Suggestive logos tend to confuse consumers. They were the least effective in achieving recognition. They fail to provide enough reference points so consumers can immediately name and identify them.
Shape and color
Creating a logo involves two key aspects: shape and color. A 1997 study by Claessens Product Consultants demonstrated that shape is more important than color in logo identification.
Although color aids in logo recognition, correct identification does not depend on it. Logos appearing in different colors or in black-and-white are as easy to identify as logos in their actual color combination.
This implies that a logo’s impact hinges upon its principal shape. But what makes a shape strong or weak? How can we define this quality?
To determine the answers, Claessens Product Consultants conducted a study on the quality of logos. The study defines a logo as a brand’s visually symbolic identifying mark (Coolsma and Van Dommelen, 1996).
Logos used in the study were taken from Rick Eiber’s book ‘World Trademarks: 100 Years’, a collection of logos grouped thematically. To ensure that none of the logos in the study were familiar to the participants, the ones chosen were not currently in use in The Netherlands.
Testing for a strong image
A preliminary study and two experiments were conducted to determine how a logo can help build a strong brand image. In the preliminary study, about 100 University of Amsterdam students validated the logos by dividing them into the three categories—descriptive, suggestive and abstract.
Students selected a total of nine logos—three that they believe are the most representative of each of the three categories. (See Illustration No. 1.)
Perception research specialist Verify Nederland conducted the two experiments. One focused on eye-tracking and the other on tachistoscopic tests, both closely matching reality in how consumers look at logos. We also wanted to know which of the logos consumers would remember best a few days later. So we conducted a follow-up test after the first Verify experiment, which respondents completed at home.
First experiment
For the first experiment, we told 326 consumers we were conducting research on many recently designed logos for products that would be launched in the market soon. We showed them the nine logos, one at a time. Each had been selected in the preliminary study. The respondents decided for themselves how long they looked at each logo.
Thirty minutes after this pre-exposure, we showed each member of the group six logos on a touch screen. They had seen one of these logos earlier. The other five were unfamiliar to them but along the same theme as the “target” logo.
Respondents were asked to select the logo they had seen earlier. Our experiment measured the accuracy of recognition and how long respondents took to select a logo. Next, 139 of the respondents participated in a follow-up test to measure logo recognition over time. Two days after our initial test, we sent a written test to their homes.
This test consisted of the same nine logos that Verify Nederland had shown them. The respondents were asked to indicate the nine logos they had seen earlier. The order in which the logos were presented within a field was changed. We wanted to ensure that recognition resulted from the logo itself rather than merely remembering its position in the field. We also sought to determine any differences in respondents’ ability to recognize suggestive, descriptive and abstract logos, both shortly after pre-exposure and a few days later.
The results show that consumers recognize abstract and descriptive logos faster and more easily than suggestive logos. Suggestive logos had a significantly lower correct identification rate (60.7 percent) than abstract logos (70.6 percent) or descriptive logos (71.2 percent).
In addition, consumers took longer to identify suggestive logos.
In subsequent testing, abstract logos emerged clearly as the best option. They were correctly identified by 74.8 percent of the respondents. This was significantly higher than the rates for suggestive logos (56.1) and descriptive logos (59).
Second experiment
In the second experiment, Verify Nederland conducted a so-called “tacho test.” A respondent is shown a logo for about 24 milliseconds and is then asked to what he/she just saw. A group of 215 respondents participated. Once again, we explained that they were assisting with research into some new logos for various products nearing market launch.
We designed this experiment similarly to the first one. The main difference was that we let the respondents view the logos for only 24 milliseconds. We measured each logo’s impact by presenting it tachistoscopically and then displaying it on a touch screen in a field of six logos. Next, we asked respondents to touch the logo they had just been shown.
The experiment measured accuracy of identification and the time respondents took to make their choice. We wanted to measure any difference in how well consumers recognize abstract, suggestive and descriptive logos when they could view them only very briefly. This approach mirrors the short time frame consumers have to view messages on packaging.
The second experiment underscored results of the first experiment. Abstract logos were recognized significantly more easily and faster than suggestive or descriptive logos.
Our study found that suggestive logos lack enough reference points for consumers to recognize them easily. They are often less distinctive than abstract logos, making them harder to remember and identify. Abstract logos scored markedly higher on correct identification after a very brief exposure. Why? They exhibit little complexity, yet they are unique.
Minimal complexity makes an image easy to digest and remember. Abstract shapes are often unique, avoiding confusion with other shapes. This increases the likelihood that consumers will identify them correctly. BP
The authors, Gaston van de Laar and Lianne van den Berg-Weitzel, are Strategy Director and Brand Intelligence Manager, respectively, at Claessens Product Consultants in Hilversum, The Netherlands. Their research was conducted in collaboration with the Faculty of Communication Science at the University of Amsterdam. Bregje Jansen, a student at the university, carried out the study as part of her master’s thesis.
Definitions of Logo Types
A logo can be designed in various ways. Claessens Product Consultants defines three types of logos:
Descriptive logos are shapes that are immediately recognizable; shapes that are familiar in our culture from their visual representation. Logo symbols in this group are easy to name and include common geometrical shapes (square, circle, etc.). The puma used by Puma is an example of this type.
The second category, suggestive logos, consists of shapes whose symbolism is more difficult to identify. A descriptive shape appears in a somewhat abstract way that makes it harder to associate a name with it. Suggestive logos include the Fjällräven fox.
Abstract logos have no generally accepted, familiar meaning. Specific, indefinable shapes are used in an unfamiliar combination. This makes it impossible to identify the symbol instantly.
The Nike “swoosh”—an abstract logo—is one of the most universally recognized brand symbols in the world.
Connecting a brand and product to a logo
Claessens Product Consultants’ (CPC) research provides an initial idea about one important aspect in the performance of brand logos—recognition. But what about the link between brand or product and logo?
In practice, this link always exists. But CPC wanted to determine how far its experiments could translate to the “real world” of brand communication.
Researchers conducted another test using the scenario of introducing a new line of skin-care products under the brand name Caress. They designed three packaging-dominant ads for the brand. The only differentiating element in each ad was the logo design.
CPC’s first study had validated all three logos, each carrying a “nature” theme. The advertisement was published as the back cover of Libelle—a popular women’s magazine—in the eye-tracking test that Verify initially conducted during standard research.
In all cases, consumers easily associated the advertisement, logo and brand name (minimum of 95 percent recognition, with an average of 111 respondents asked during each of the three test days). The advertisement clearly achieved its objective of publicizing the new brand and its associated logo.
Next, researchers presented the advertisements with the three different logos in “pixelated” form. That is, the image was presented in a highly distorted view.
An image presented in this way can only be constructed in the consumer’s mind if they recognize it from previous observation. The new study confirmed expectations—the abstract logo was the most easily recognized.