Opinion Series: How Icons Can Be Used to Power Brands

"If it makes sense to develop icons or symbols for specific brands, they need to firmly relate to those brands and deliver their values. Creating icons related to licensed properties and showing licensees how to fully leverage them helps to reinforce their emotive power with consumers. Both help brands to stand out from the clutter. They build relationships and that, in turn, builds equity. That’s how superstar brands are made."

Ted Mininni, President of Design Force, Inc., describes how icons can be used to power brands.

 

Marketers know that symbols or icons can help brands to achieve immediate recognition with consumers. Yet, how many are truly memorable? Famous icons like the Nike Swoosh, Apple’s Apple, Audi’s four interlocking Silver Rings, Starbucks’ Mermaid and McDonald’s Golden Arches are often cited with envy in marketing circles. They’re instantly recognized around the globe and represent their specific brands’ values as well as their brand promise, but there’s more. These icons elicit emotional responses and forge relationships with consumers. That’s where their true power lies. The relatively few that achieve this make superstars of their brands.

Note that many dominant symbols and icons have considerable heritage. Careful brand stewardship has helped them to achieve global recognition over time. But with so many brands populating every consumer product category, what’s the secret to designing iconography that will seize consumers’ attention? How can it encode brand values? And elicit an emotional response to build long-term relationships?

While consumer product brands benefit from the right kind of iconography, the argument could be made that licensed properties benefit most when icons are intelligently leveraged as “visual hooks” to draw in their fans. These visual hooks can help to unify the brand’s presence across numerous consumer product categories that are merchandised throughout retail environments. And that can build considerable brand equity for licensed properties.

 

Embodying the Brand

Before designing any iconography, a total grasp of the brand and its values are necessary since it leads to important insights. Specific visual and verbal brand cues that are integral to the brand have to be drawn out. Instead of designing a beautiful icon that doesn’t have any connection to the brand and its values, what can be developed to embody it sans any verbal language? Or very little verbal support that consumers can absorb in a couple of seconds? What is the most important attribute of the brand? How can it be visually embodied by an icon?

Once developed, how should the icon be implemented? How can consumer products and packaging be designed to maximize the visibility of the icon or symbol? Should it be incorporated into the brand identity as is often the case, or does it make sense to use it in other ways? That really depends on what kinds of products or services the brand offers, its positioning and whether it is a B2B or B2C brand.

We’re dealing with consumer product brands here. Think of the "flame" in Mattel's Hot Wheels logo. Does that signify the hotness of these die-cast toy speed demons, or what? Sleeping Beauty’s castle as part of the “Walt Disney Pictures” brand identity is another. It represents one of Disney’s most beloved animated films as well as a central landmark in Disney theme parks. Fantasy, storytelling and excellence in entertainment are the hallmarks of the Disney brand; all of it present in its iconography. How about the "straw in the orange" on Tropicana's packaging? Can orange juice be any fresher than this? While not incorporated into the brand identity, this is an effective icon; a terrific communicator of the brand promise. The same is true for the red bulls-eye; it’s synonymous with the retailer, Target. There is immediate recognition of these icons and no mistaking which brands they embody.

For licensed properties, icons can be used in multiple ways on consumer products and packaging to become visual hooks. For Hasbro’s “Littlest Pet Shop” property, the icon is a paw print that can be incorporated in ingenious, playful ways into consumer product and package design encouraging kids and parents to actively seek it out. The icon is standardized for size and shape and examples of how it can be used are illustrated within the style guide to help support licensees and their products, regardless of category. Ideas include clever representations of the icon in patterns and badges; as part of illustrations or as punctuation. An icon like this goes to the heart of the brand and its values and it elicits an emotional response from its target audience.

For sophisticated licensed properties with mature fans, a different approach might be taken, as illustrated in the first-ever licensing program for “Magic: The Gathering”, the world’s premier trading card game. The property has a cult-like following, so leveraging iconography in a manner that can only be understood and interpreted by hard-core brand fans reinforces the fact that they belong to an exclusive group. Some of the most compelling design elements on licensed consumer apparel are based on the “crest” icon found on every Planeswalker card containing the character’s loyalty number. These crest designs relate to each character’s magic power and they go to the heart of the brand because of their deep meaning and authenticity. They can be easily extended onto consumer products in many categories, as well. Wearing apparel with these symbols connects Magic fans to each other, letting them know with a secret nod that they’re all affiliated with this unique lifestyle brand as part of a special community.

Seasoned toy and entertainment brands do a good job of designing icons, whether they’re incorporated into their brand identities or not. Hasbro’s contemporized Furby brand is one example. The adorable, fuzzy Furby head appears behind the “F” in the brand logo in black; a stark contrast to the blue-outlined white lettering in the brand identity. The black wraps around the entire brand identity for additional impact. For Hasbro’s Transformers brand, the icons for the Decepticons and Autobots are high tech shields that clearly delineate the good guys from the bad guys. They are not usually integrated into the logo but prominent on consumer product packaging. The icon for Disney Princess is a diamond-studded tiara and it encircles the brand identity. What’s important about these icons is that they’re not only a brand identifier for their fans; they reinforce the brand values that are most meaningful to them. They’re terrific symbols that help build equity for these brands on licensed consumer products in countless categories.

Refreshed iconography may be in order when packaging is contemporized, as Frito-Lay demonstrated with its Doritos brand. By contemporizing its brand identity and interlacing it with a triangular-shaped tortilla chip in a much bolder manner, and unifying every Doritos segment with the new logo and icon, the already strong line clearly dominates the retail shelf as never before. Selective visual and verbal communication support the package refresh in a simple, effective manner.

If it makes sense to develop icons or symbols for specific brands, they need to firmly relate to those brands and deliver their values. Creating icons related to licensed properties and showing licensees how to fully leverage them helps to reinforce their emotive power with consumers. Both help brands to stand out from the clutter. They build relationships and that, in turn, builds equity. That’s how superstar brands are made.

 

About Ted Mininni

Ted Mininni is President of Design Force, Inc., the leading package and licensing program design consultancy to the consumer product and entertainment industries.

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