A company logo may be the last thing cost-conscious CEOs focus on when they're looking to jump-start growth. Which is perhaps why it took more than two decades for White Mountain Footwear, a privately held shoe manufacturer based in Lisbon, N.H., to finally give its own emblem some serious thought.
"White Mountain was a 21-year-old company with an exceptional reputation within the industry, but we had almost no brand recognition with consumers," says David Froment, project leader for White Mountain's logo redesign, who joined the company in 1998. "We'd evolved far beyond what we started out as, and yet our look didn't say that. We were going through an identity crisis."
That predicament, Froment discovered, had everything to do with the disparity between what White Mountain actually was (a fashion-forward producer of upscale women's foot-wear sold under the White Mountain label) and the memory of what the company had been (a manufacturer whose low-key packaging was often mistaken for department-store private labels). To White Mountain's principals, the logo, a dated design of black-and-white block lettering, embodied the perception-versus-reality quandary the manufacturer faced.
Indeed, for companies large and small in the current brand-aware -- some would say brand-obsessed -- marketplace, logos are becoming important in a way they never were before. In a market churning with countless start-ups, a steady procession of mergers and acquisitions, and a seemingly infinite introduction of new products, companies -- and their wares -- have an increasingly difficult time standing out from the crowd. That's why branding is so hot. A company's logo can be a visual ambassador, one that goes on everything from business cards to delivery trucks. When used effectively, it can be the window into the soul of a brand. It develops an expectation of who you are, says Froment, and what you'll do for the customer.
In pursuit of just such a fix, White Mountain hired BrandEquity International, in Boston -- which has revamped the images of companies like Kodak, Staples, and Nantucket Nectars -- to visually align what White Mountain actually was with what it wanted to be. BrandEquity president Elinor Selame began with a survey of the company's customers, retailers, and competitors. What she found was confusion: retailers viewed White Mountain as a top-notch shoemaker, but customers weren't differentiating between the company and the retailer that sold them the shoes.
Part of BrandEquity's redesign process included a monthlong conversation with the client. "They made us question everything, our strengths and weaknesses, how we perceive ourselves, our target audience, and what we should just drop and walk away from," Froment says. Selame made it clear to the shoe company that its logo would become a visual representation of all that the business stood for and, if not carefully thought through, all that it did not wish to stand for.
BrandEquity unearthed the image that White Mountain wanted to broadcast: shoes that were fashionable, sexy, and elegant with an emphasis on quality. After five months of preparation and numerous iterations, the new logo was introduced: a stylized W that reflects the letter M, "like a mountain's mirror image in a lake," says Selame. The graceful white lettering, backed by a vibrant pastel blue, transformed White Mountain's look from stodgy to sophisticated.
The logo was uncomplicated but practical. It was as recognizable at one-eighth of an inch on a lapel as it would be blown up on a billboard; it was original enough to differentiate the company from its competitors; it was inoffensive enough to be implemented globally; and it could be animated for use on the Internet. "The logo can be your company's hardest-working employee," says Selame. "For a small company with a limited budget, the returns get higher each year you use it correctly."
White Mountain seems to have put its logo -- for which it paid BrandEquity a little less than $100,000 -- to proper use. In 2000, the first full year after the redesign, the company's sales rose 20%. In 2001, when most shoe companies' revenues decreased significantly, White Mountain's sales again shot up 20%, which Froment describes as nothing short of "miraculous." Now people are deliberately buying the brand, he says. And that makes the expenditure worth every penny.
Still, $100,000 is more than many small companies can -- or want to -- spend on a logo. But a logo doesn't have to cost that much in order to get results, according to Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York City office of the international design consultancy Pentagram.
Bierut says that almost any company can aspire to achieve the logo power of Coca-Cola, Fuji, or FedEx. The things that make those brands so powerful are freely available to anyone, he says. What they all have in common is consistency of use (meaning that the company uses the logo on everything related to the business), simplicity, a degree of good taste, and a product that creates a successful aura that fuels the symbol. "There are plenty of small companies that have fantastic identities," he says, "and plenty of big companies that have been ripped off by high-end design firms."
As Selame and Bierut know, most small companies that have effective logos and distinctive visual identities have one thing in common -- someone within the company who cares about how the business presents itself and who has the clout to make sure everyone in the company cares about it as well. "You don't need to look further than Steve Jobs and Apple to see how much a design-aware CEO can help a company," Bierut says.
"Manufacturers tend to think that the best marketing is simply producing a great product," says Froment. "That's not wrong, but it's all worthless if no one knows who you are."
Tahl Raz is a reporter at Inc.
Getting the Look
Six little secrets for coming up with a great logo without breaking the bank.
Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, an international design consultancy based in New York City, offers the following tips about logo design:
1. Be simple. Some of the best logos are the simplest. One of the oldest is the mark used by the Bass brewery: a red triangle. Target has made a red circle with a red dot in the middle seem the very essence of affordable, hip practicality. Now H&R Block is trying to claim a green square. It will probably work. Simple things are easy to remember and tend not to become dated quickly.
2. Leave it open. Don't try to make a logo that will explain at a glance the complete nature of your company. A logo that raises a question and is open to interpretation is better than one that attempts to contain all the answers.
3. Be relentlessly consistent. Companies that have strong graphic identities have built them through years of use. Pick a typeface. Pick a color. Use them over and over and over again, on everything. Before long you'll find yourself with an identifiable look and feel. That's more valuable than a logo, and anyone can afford it.
4. Don't be embarrassed about design. Things like logos and colors can be considered "cosmetic," and hardheaded businesspeople sometimes avoid focusing on them. But most design-driven companies got to be that way thanks to a highly placed advocate, such as Thomas Watson at IBM in the 1960s or Steve Jobs at Apple today. For a design program to work, it needs to be seen as important to important people. Care about it.
5. Get good advice. You can go pretty far with common sense. But sooner or later, you'll need to hire a professional graphic designer for help. The American Institute of Graphic Arts is the largest professional organization for graphic designers. Its Web site ( www.aiga.org) offers information about how to find and work with experienced professionals.
6. Don't expect miracles. Your company's image is the sum total of many factors. Sticking a clever logo on a stupid piece of communication gets you nowhere. Make sure that your company looks, sounds, and feels smart in every way, every time it goes out in public. That is actually much better than a logo.
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