Logos and Unintentional Readings

The Hershey Company, unofficial sponsors of diabetes, just redesigned their logo. Below are the old mark, at left, and the new one:

Logos and Unintentional Readings

I have to admit that the simplicity of the redesigned logo surprised me. It seems to run counter to recent trends in identity overhauls in that it throws away the pretense of dimensionality for a more straightforward and frankly more sophisticated flatness. My initial reaction was that it’s a pretty successful bit of work, at least until I read the comments over at Brand New, a hub for discussions of redesigned logotypes.

The sentiment at that site is that the Hershey’s Kiss icon actually looks like, well, like something distinctly less pleasant that also happens to be brown-colored; and that the tiny silver flag, which is a distinctive element of the wrapper of a Hershey’s Kiss, comes across like steam rising from said unpleasant brown something. Not exactly the right connotation for a world famous confectionery.

This immediately calls to mind the mini-controversy wrought by Airbnb’s new logo, which at its debut was ridiculed for unintentionally suggesting various parts of human anatomy. That was a bump in the road for a company that is otherwise doing gangbusters, and like Airbnb, the Hershey Company is unlikely to see any long term fallout from this particular mishap.

Still it’s worth mentioning that there is a school of thought that argues that reading these unintentional messages into logos is unwarranted and even juvenile, or worse. Some argued, particularly after Airbnb’s debacle, that to see feces or genitals or any given unmentionables in a multimillion dollar company’s earnest branding efforts is a debasement of our discourse.

This line of reasoning mystifies me in that it’s an inversion of how we expect logos and branding to work. What is a logo but an abstract graphic symbol intended to evoke reactions in consumers? Which is to say that it’s the responsibility of any given corporate mark to invoke the connotations that its owner desires. Airbnb’s new logo was intended to connote the benefits of a global network of rentable spaces; Hershey’s new logo was intended to bring to mind the universally loved sweetness of its signature Kiss product.

And yet they didn’t do that, at least not solely. They inadvertently tapped into what are admittedly the baser parts of the human id, where bathroom humor rules and the finer points of graphic design are, presumably, absent.

Getting this kind reaction can be a real disappointment. So much is typically invested in these major overhauls—countless hours and dollars of research, iteration and refinement—only to be greeted by schoolyard cries. It almost seems like those of us who saw these unintentional symbols weren’t doing our jobs, weren’t living up to the expectation that we should all be grown ups.

That’s not how visual symbols work, though. Once a logo is forged and released to the wild, as it were, every interpretation is fair game. There will always be some folks who will see the worst in any logo, no matter how benign. That is unfortunate, but the interpretation of logos is not regulated according to some code of manners. People will see what they see, no matter how deviant it might be from a company’s branding strategies and aspirations.

More to the point, it’s up to the owner of a corporate mark—the company itself, and more practically the designers—to generate a logo that produces the reactions that they intend. If a logo comes across as unsavory—especially when that unsavoriness reaches such notorious heights that it’s written up in mainstream news outlets that are typically disinterested in the arcana of branding—it’s not the fault of the viewer, it’s the fault of the company. To say that the viewing public is being irresponsible is unrealistic. And in actuality it’s the opposite of what’s really happening; the company has been negligent in its responsibility to create a logo that conforms to its own intentions. Whether these logo mishaps were simple oversights or obstinate derelictions of duty, the fact remains that these brands themselves are responsible for the reactions that they inspired.


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