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Same but different?

Dealing with visual similarities in brand identities

SameButDifferent-FF3

During a recent branding project, a client saw that their new logo had some similarities with that of another business in their industry which used a similar shape (albeit in a different format).  The client wondered to what extent they should be concerned, and whether or not their logo should be changed.

Is this worth worrying about?

Visual similarities between logos can be a legitimate cause for concern.

Logos work by being distinctive – by consumers immediately recognising and connecting them to the brand owner’s name.  Logos anchor a brand’s messaging so that consumers add every exposure they have with a brand to their accumulated memories of that brand. This makes the logo a brand’s most valuable visual asset.

Clearly, then, it would be counterproductive if a brand were to give it’s marketing efforts to a competitor because consumers accidentally attributed their messaging to a brand that looks similar.

Why do similarities occur?

Logo design is both an art and a science. It’s a balancing act between expressing all that is unique about a brand with what works visually. The finished product is often a heavily stylised and simplified way of expressing a company’s core promise and personality.

Because logos are usually economical in their visual presentation, design-wise, there are only so many possible variations. When you add to this the huge number of logos in existence, there are bound to be logos that, to a lesser or greater degree, look alike.

To demonstrate this, my client and I typed ‘blue’, ‘circle’ and ‘logo’ into Google, and found three well-known logos that had elements in common (blue, circle and two capital letters).

All three logos

These logos can co-exist as they are all highly established and well-known. Consumers already understand what makes each of them unique, and are therefore unlikely to confuse one for another.

So this situation may well be tenable for three large multi-national businesses. But how and when should smaller businesses respond to the possibility of lookalikes?

Standing apart

There are a number of practices that will help ensure your logo is distinctive and lessen the chances you’ll be confused with another.

Best practices to follow:

  • Know your markets, competition and channels – any branding project should start with a solid overview of the areas your brand will appear and who the brand will be competing with (both direct competition and other brands who might indirectly compete for your audience’s attention).
  • Own a unique brand idea – the starting point for brand identity is a sound brand strategy and a unique proposition (the driving idea your brand alone will own). Use this proposition to inspire your creative.
  • Develop the whole design system – a logo is usually part of a brand’s broader visual system – colours, fonts, secondary graphics, images and so on. Used well, these will all help you stand out further from the crowd.
  • Timeless works best – avoid fleeting design trends. The ‘flavour-of- the-month’ approach may make you look contemporary (briefly), but is a sure way to look like many other newly launched brands.
  • Engage professionals (an obvious statement from a brand agency but valid none the less) – engage experts who know how to deliver results on realistic budgets. The budding design student or the $10 logo website is not the same as an in-depth programme that examines your brand’s specific challenges and opportunities.

Practices to avoid:

  • Plain or generic visuals – logos need to be distinctive and this is hard to achieve if designs use commonplace typefaces, colours or compositions, or are so simplified they could belong to almost anyone. Your logo should have something unique and interesting about it that belongs to your organisation alone.
  • Imitating the leader – brands can be tempted to visually imitate the leader in their category thinking this will gain them immediate credibility. This is short-sighted, can damage both brands and frustrate consumers.
  • Using similar imagery to a leading brand – using similar photography and graphics to another brand in your industry isn’t always the wrong move, but brand managers should be aware this makes distinction harder to achieve.

Deciding if two’s a crowd

No matter how well a new logo is designed, there may well be others that have something in common. The challenge is deciding if this will actually damage your brand’s performance.

Ultimately, your consumers are the judge and it’s their perceptions that matter. When confronted with a look-alike, there are some questions you can ask to gauge the extent of the challenge and assess a need for change:

  • will the similar brand be seen in your markets and channels, and by your audiences?
  • how many brands are there in your industry or category; are there so many competitors that some slight similarities will be unavoidable?
  • what is the size and market share of the competing brand; are they a significant player?
  • is the similarity significant, or is it a secondary item that isn’t immediately obvious?
  • do your audiences actually make the visual connection and can you test this?
  • what are the future directions, markets and audiences for both brands?
  • is your new logo an evolution that retains well-known and distinctive elements that have carry significant value?

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