How much does an app icon or a logo reflect your brand?

That's a question every small business owner needs to ask.

And, it's one an incredibly huge business needed to ask--particularly one with 134,944 employees and a market cap of $838.3 billion dollars (considered the world's most valued company ahead of Amazon and Apple).

I started my career at a startup leading a graphics design group and eventually a product design group. I once created all of the icons for a sign-making machine, back when Adobe products were in their infant stage. I fiddled over every pixel. Later, running a small creative agency, I met with clients and talked about very specific colors for logos--so specific that most people wouldn't even know the difference even if we showed them side by side. I know branding and design is not an easy process.

Recently, Microsoft showed me the new icons for Microsoft Office (shown above) just before the official launch. I have to say, at first glance I wondered what kind of lattes they serve in Redmond. The icon for Microsoft Word in particular has a color swatch design that's meant to convey the future of collaborative work but also looks a bit like one of those cards you use at Home Depot to pick out living room paint.

This is an incredibly difficult process in most cases, but I can imagine it's even harder for an app many of us use on a daily basis. And I get what they are trying to do--I've warmed up to the icons, mostly because I know Word is more than an app for writing documents. Say what you will about open-plan offices but the truth is that we are all hunkering down together around coffee tables and sitting on couches at work on a regular basis. I have meetings during the day when I'm mentoring college students where everyone is on a phone sitting on sofas by a fireplace. That's some crazy contextualization.

"Every time someone touches our icons, it says something about our brand," says Jon Friedman, the GM for Experiences and Devices Design at Microsoft.

He explained to me how the Office icons are something billions of users see on a daily basis. It's all about first impressions, but it's also about expectations. His team took an entire year to redesign the Office branding, focusing on the icons. He says users have expectations for what will happen after they see an icon or a logo.

The last time Microsoft updated their icons for Office was way back in 2013. I remember the icon changes all the way back to 2003 when Word started becoming more than a word processor, and even before that. The funny thing to me is that we tend to form this weird emotional bond with icons and logos. We know these apps, we use them constantly. We form a bond with FedEx or Starbucks. Friedman told me part of the challenge is in appealing to a wide range of users from all over the planet, not just U.S. customers.

There's a big takeaway here from any company trying to figure out branding.

It's more than an icon. There are factors like loyalty, trust, acceptance--basically, people see your brand as a friend. Customers have the same loyalty when it comes to car brands, coffee, and even where they purchase staplers at Target. You could say a big reason Amazon is so successful is because of loyalty. People get into the Amazon habit.

The question to ask is--what is your brand and marketing saying about what you offer to customers? And, is it saying what you really want it to say? This is a difficult, almost gut-wrenching process for many of us. Branding is not an exercise in picking colors and fonts. It's a more fundamental, guttural act. You're trying to manage expectations, what happens after the first click or the first glance. It's tempting to make that a quick process, but the truth is--if Microsoft took a year, how long should you take?

Published on: Dec 7, 2018