Keeping up appearances

Depending on its logo, a company can appear professional, friendly or just plain insipid. To be effective it must match actual and desired values.

Scottish Power’s is not trusted, but it is innovative. Legal & General’s is not innovative, but it is friendly. The Royal Bank of Scotland’s is not friendly, but it is professional. And the Liberal Democrat’s is not professional, but it is friendly.

These are not results of a brand image study, but the findings of a survey conducted by Corporate Edge dedicated to a critical aspect of a company’s identity – its visual symbol or logo.

A nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults examined 14 symbols used by major consumer organisations including high-street banks, utilities, hotels and political parties.

The survey was designed to isolate the symbol and identify any correlation between its intrinsic makeup – colour, shape and so on – and the values which consumers ascribe to it.

Previous qualitative research revealed that consumers are adept at deducing values from an organisation’s visual identity, which influenced their general perceptions of that company – whether or not they had direct experience of it.

Not all organisations use a separate symbol, for example Tesco, CGU and Marks & Spencer. But many do, whether it is an abstract symbol, such as NatWest, or an image depicting “real” things, such as Lloyds TSB.

To what extent can consumers recognise a corporate brand from the symbol alone? This is the basic test of a symbol’s effectiveness, built up through signage exposure and advertising over the long-term.

Table 1 shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that McDonald’s “Golden Arches” was recognised most out of the symbols used (93 per cent), followed by Halifax (69 per cent), Wall’s (50 per cent) and Abbey National (42 per cent). Survey results suggest symbols which use red tend to be more familiar.

Consumers were asked which of five descriptions – energetic, innovative, honest, professional and friendly – most accurately describe the symbol. An analysis of responses by those who could not identify the company the symbol belonged to gives a “pure” read of a symbol’s performance, uninfluenced by general company perceptions.

Tables 2 and 3 show how the 14 symbols ranked on two dimensions – professional and friendly. Few companies scored highly in both categories, with the exception of Abbey National. Unfortunately this symbol was seen as the most old-fashioned of all the symbols tested, suggesting the need for a revamp.

The two Scottish Banks scored highest on the professional dimension (Royal with 50 per cent, and Bank of Scotland with 49 per cent), followed by National Power (48 per cent) and Thistle Hotel (37 per cent). McDonald’s, Wall’s and the Liberal Democrats came last with 16 per cent, 14 per cent and ten per cent respectively. Dark blue, straight lined shapes and abstract patterns clearly assist the communication of professionalism.

A different pattern emerges for symbols perceived as friendly. Legal & General’s multicoloured umbrella was the most friendly along with McDonald’s (both 57 per cent), closely followed by Wall’s swirling heart.

Bright colours, especially red, yellow and white, are characteristic of the most friendly symbols. Real or near-real objects are more easily processed and so are swirls or curved contours.

The most effective visual symbols are those which support the values an organisation wants its brand to represent. When companies undergo a repositioning, a change of identity helps communicate the new desired values.

The survey indicates that symbols weighted around one specific value can affect perceptions of the brand generally. More “neutral” symbols, such as Nationwide and Forte, are not offensive, but do not transfer value onto the brand.

But the symbol can over-promise on values, leaving the organisation vulnerable through failing to meet perceptions. An example of this is the Liberal Democrat symbol (table 4), which has a different profile depending on whether or not respondents recognise it. The symbol is seen to be more energetic by the people who don’t recognise it. Being “energetic” is a desired value which the symbol is communicating, but the party is failing to deliver.

Organisations are increasingly realising the potential a corporate symbol has in supporting, or diminishing, the corporate brand.

Given the skill consumers have in deconstructing symbols and the sizeable marketing budgets involved, it is critical to develop a logo, and to understand what it communicates and how it matches the company’s actual and desired perceptions.

Factfile is edited by Julia Day. Corporate Edge brand strategist Andy Wilson contributed

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