SxSW Panel Wrap Up

This month Bryan and I had the chance to speak on a panel at SXSW along with Christina Wodke of LinkedIn and Luke Wroblewski of Yahoo!. Armed with an inflammatory title, "Logos: Why They're Irrelevant and Can Actually Hurt Your Business," we went head-to-head in the same time slot with keynote speaker Mark Zuckerberg and managed to get a full house into Room 10 of the Austin Convention Center.

"Man, what a title! I just heard 3 designers pass out across the hall. But now that I've read it in its entirety, I think I can hear those same designers pulling themselves up off the floor and nodding their agreement with you." — Comment by Will from an article by Virginia Ingram reviewing the panel

Our panel started with a very brief history of the logo that set some context for web startups. Over a hundred years ago the logo emerged with a purpose: companies needed a way to differentiate their products from the 'generic' brands crowding the limited shelf space of local markets. Logos were about maintaining a trustworthy identity in markets where a company wasn't physically present to represent itself. The logo attached to the product gave companies a way to be recognized and remembered.

Today the web has reversed this trend. The URL is the great localizer, pointing everybody to the same destination online. Every site becomes its own corner store, leaving logos with less of a role, whereas the URL has taken center stage.

The URL Is Mightier Than The Logo

Phishing was one of the more dramatic examples to come up during discussion. Spam email can contain the logo of a reputable company like PayPal or eBay, but you have to pause and verify that the company speaking is in fact who we think. Will I take the action the email asks me to? First, I'll check the URL. If I don't recognize the URL, I don't trust the message.

The panel aso considered how syndication and digital distribution of content alter the importance of logos. When I can access a web site from my phone or read a blog from a web application, I lose touch with the logo as an identifier. I may not even encounter so much as a favicon, that vestigial remnant of the logo, during these experiences. With Twitter, for example, I have the text message number '40404' as an identifying mark. With a blog on Google Reader all I have is a byline and a link. The logo is not central to these experiences and yet I can still identify these positively with Twitter or the blog authors I read using Google.

One last key point is that in early stage Web startups, a logo is not central to success. Getting your product to market fast has to be your goal. Working with over 75 startups, it's been ZURB's experience that spending time on a logo early on is usually a waste of valuable time and a potential momentum killer. Instead of a logo, focus on your company's positioning statement, get your team on board with that goal, and then get your product in front of customers as fast as possible.

We think we're seeing some evidence that companies understand this today. A quick look at a lot of web startup logos reveals a lot of logotypes, essentially just font treatments with Photoshop embellishments. The logo isn't the focus of these companies, their product or service is their focus. Succeed or fail, they are in the market having conversations with customers, adjusting to the opportunities as they play out each day. Most successful companies, even ones with big, recognizable logos, have evolved this way. Yours can too.

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It has 32 comments.

Anton (ZURB) says

Well guys, It's a shame that we never got to cross paths and say hello while in Texas. It would've been fun.

We always have next year, right?

Anton (ZURB) says

I have some further thoughts on this now (and was reminded to come back here by Ryan):

I think that the advice here certainly seems sound, but the way that it's been written focuses entirely on businesses whose sole experience is web-based. I don't feel like this applies to a brick and mortar shops that rely on using identity (through printed collateral material and local signage) to expand their marketing and advertising campaigns.

Let's take Starbucks for example. How effective or successful do you think they would be without that fantastic mermaid logo?

Jeremy (ZURB) says

Anton, you're right that identity carries a different importance with brick and mortar shops that it does on the web. We tried to narrow the panel's focus to early stage web startups to send the message that a logo isn't key to your initial success. It can come later.

The Starbucks example is a good one. They transformed what a cup of coffee means, taking it from a cheap cup of joe and providing an experience people are willing to pay $3 or more for. What role did the mermaid logo play in their success? It played a small part in making their goods recognizable.

But it didn't play as big a role as the cups or cardboard jackets did for spreading the word and it certainly didn't matter as much as the experience of the shops themselves. They focused on their core and grew. The logo seems more like a foot note to that success.

And yes, let's definitely make sure to cross paths at the next SxSW.

Mark (ZURB) says

Anton: Good question. I would argue that they would be fine with their iconic green signage that reads "STARBUCKS." However, how infamous would that logotype be without first having the mermaid logo we have now?

For brick and mortar shops, it really is important to establish yourself, but everything doesn't revolve around a branded identity. Having great customer service or a stand out feature for a brick and mortar is still equally important. Signage is nothing without the right company, product, or service to go with it.

Anton (ZURB) says

Excellent points from both responses, thank you.

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