A Brand Gone Bland

A few weeks back, I noticed something odd while driving down the interstate. Furniture Row, one of Colorado’s best retail success stories, had replaced the signs over their entire complex. They’re huge white rectangles with large, black, unmemorable type.

These things are awful.

Companies typically signify a stride forward with a project this size (eg. a shift in management, principles or the overall consumer value proposition). That may be what Furniture Row wants to convey, but I think they’ll be disappointed in how this plays out.

Let me explain.

A LITTLE HISTORY

Furniture Row is a very large furniture retailer in Colorado. They began as Pillow Kingdom back in 1974, but can now boast a national presence with stores in 31 states. Over the years ownership branched into new consumer-goods, investing in hot tubs, dining sets and sofas.

Furniture Row brands from 1997-2017.

By 1997 they had four stable and profitable businesses to their name, each intended to furnish the typical American household: Oak Express (1993), Sofa Mart (1994), Denver Mattress(1995) and Bedroom Expressions (1997).

All four companies were individually branded – different color palettes, different logos and typefaces, they even advertised independently.

LIGHTNING STRIKES

In 1997, someone had a stroke of genius. Management brought these companies together under one roof. Rather than four businesses with four leases, four advertising budgets and four times the overhead… they would operate as one: Furniture Row. Each unique logo remained on the building, but inside the stores were joined in one endless shopping experience.

BEFORE (Furniture Row 1997-2017)
BEFORE (Furniture Row 1997-2017). Click to enlarge. Credit: www.businesswire.com

The brilliance of this move employs a touch of deception. Of course, customers didn’t want to drive all over the city to outfit their homes and Furniture Row presented an opportunity to visit four specialists on the same block. For consumers, it offered a localized hub of industry experts, and was super convenient to boot. They didn’t know that all four were owned by the same folks until they passed through the doors.

Profits piled up and Furniture Row grew so large it even secured its own NASCAR racing team.

SOMETHING GOES AWRY

In 2018, things changed… Furniture Row steered its branding in an entirely new direction. I’m speculating here, but my guess is someone told management they could improve overall visibility, conserve advertising dollars and build brand equity by pushing one name instead of four. On the surface, a pretty smart move. I agree entirely.

What I can’t understand is the solution they’ve chosen.

It’s almost painful to look at.

AFTER (Furniture Row storefront 2018). Click to enlarge.

THE PROBLEM WITH BLACK AND WHITE

Furniture Row is composed of four buildings painted in earth tones. They fit the Colorado landscape and demographics like a glove. Heading into this year, each logo on the outside clearly explained what the consumer would find inside. They projected a warm, comfortable, inviting personality in an industry where people worry about being cheated.

This year, the company ditched those colors in favor of stark black text on a white backdrop.

This is a huge mistake if you ask me. Color is an emotional driver, primal even. Any renowned designer will tell you color is a seriously effective tool in marketing. If you’re switching to black and white, you’re either going to convey rock-bottom prices or extreme luxury. There’s really no in-between.

Furniture Row goes bland. Click to enlarge.

If they were working toward the budget angle, they succeeded. This new look harkens back to generic house-brands from the 1970’s and 80’s. Remember that aisle in the grocery store with nothing but white boxes stamped with a spectacularly plain sans serif type? They had enticing labels like “Beer,” and “Soap.”

Furniture Row must’ve thought this was a winning strategy because they’ve scrapped enticing labels like “Bedroom Expressions” for far less descriptive terms like “Dining,” “Bedroom” and “Living.”

Can’t wait to see how they brand their racing team this year – it’ll probably just read “Car.”

Luxury brands using black and white. Click to enlarge.

Compare this look to companies like DeBeers, Apple and Mercedes. They feature the color black – it’s crisp, formal and elegant. The thin white typeface dresses it all up even more. This is an expensive look, top shelf. If Furniture Row thought it was headed this direction, they’ve missed the mark entirely.

WHOOPS… MISSED ONE

You might have noticed that we discussed just three of the four companies being renamed.

The marketing team apparently felt it was best to leave the Denver Mattress brand alone because when you stand out front, you’ll see one blue sign amidst all the others. I imagine they did this to minimize costs and protect name recognition in the physical product line they’re shipping from coast to coast. Sales would probably fall off quickly if they began labeling their beds with a tag that reads “Mattress.”

The decision to break a pattern of consistency here is a little surprising. It’s another tenet of branding leadership chose to ignore.

KILLING THE BRAND

Even more stupifying, Furniture Row has opted to kill its last recognizable remnant, the company name. The words “Furniture Row” are now only visible on the vertical pillar out front. Everywhere else, it’ll just be called FR.

It’s a real shame, too… these guys have tremendous roadside visibility. Their new store signs must stand 20ft tall and can be read by cars zipping by at 80mph. But instead of welcoming folks to shop at Furniture Row, the signs read “FR|Dining,” “FR|Bedroom” and “FR|Living.” If you miss the pillar, you’ll have no idea what FR even stands for. Not very memorable, right?

A quick Web search showed that not all Furniture Row locations will be turned into acronyms, however. In other markets, they’ll use a silhouette of their storefronts as a logo, and dramatically reduce the size of the company name. I know from my experience shopping with Furniture Row that these are their buildings, but it honestly just looks like clipart.

The whole thing is very strange.

What do you think? Am I seeing this right?

Penguin Logo Review

This is the third entry in a series reviewing popular logos in hopes of uncovering what makes them so effective. The goal is to generate a solid understanding of design principles and better articulate our craft using “plain English.”

PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

Designer: Edward Young
Industry: Publishing
Adopted: 1935

BACKGROUND

The story behind this mark has been told one hundred times, but it’s a good one. According to Penguin.com, Founder Allen Lane sought to create “a collection of quality, attractive books affordable enough to be bought as easily and casually as a pack of cigarettes.” Early on, the team decided they needed a mark that conveyed this goal… something “dignified but flippant.”

Management sent a young employee, Edward Young, to the London Zoo for some sketches. He returned with a variety of penguin sketches, one in particular hit home. This lovable character has adorned every book Penguin has printed since 1937.

If you’d like to learn more, Bloomberg.com published a nice piece about the logo written by Belinda Lanks.

Image from Piet Schreuder’s “Book of Paperbacks,” 1981.

THE BASICS

In the simplest sense, the Penguin Random House logo depicts a black and white penguin, head turned sideways and watching the reader. In many applications, his body is centered within an orange oval outlined by a black stroke.

THE PENGUIN

Using a penguin for the original design was an inspired choice. Lane hoped his books would be widely available and appeal to the masses. And really, what animal dances the line between humor and intensity like a penguin? He’s pudgy and uncoordinated out of water. You can tell by the way he’s drawn that he wobbles when he walks. And yet – he stands before us on steady feet, wearing his tuxedo with an air of quiet confidence.

His lines are softened by round edges and this delivers a kind and affable first impression. He faces his audience in a naturally open stance, welcoming new readers but with his head cocked as if viewing the world through curious eyes… it’s wonderful.

In 2003, Penguin hired design-powerhouse Pentagram for some refinement. They squared up his feet, thickened lines for better legibility, and put the penguin on a diet. Each decision was made with concrete reasons to help the brand succeed in “real world” environments.

Here’s what Julia Sagar of Pentagram explained regarding his physique: “a 15 per cent thinner bird enables him to be made considerably bigger on the spine of a 100pg paperback.”

Good designers are always watching for stuff like that.

THE COLORS

Penguins are black and white, so it’s not surprising to see the bird drawn this way. For me, it speaks to the tradition of the industry. Penguin was new to publishing but would still make a reliable partner in business. This is mimicked by the black stroke around the oval – badges and shields are common elements for legacy brands.

The orange enclosure seems a nod to the consumer. It communicates the warmth, energy, and fun they’ll find on the pages to come. It’s not a color often used in commerce and that simply adds to its shelf presence.

Color plays a different role with the publisher that you might not know. To make things easier on the consumer, the color of each Penguin cover indicates the kind of book you’re about to pick up.

Red = Drama   Orange = Fiction   Yellow = Misc   Green = Crime Fiction   Blue = Autobiographies
Purple = Essays   Cerise = Travel & Adventure   Grey = World Affairs

Image credit: Penguin.co.uk

THE TYPE

The Penguin Random House name is spelled out in slab serif lettering. The slabs enhance readability and have been used in virtually every long-standing publication history has ever known. Psychology suggests that when reading long lines of text, the slabs naturally guide the eye from one word to the next. I’m guessing this choice is intended to replicate what readers will find when they open the book.

Wide, equally proportioned letters are recognizable with a full set of ascenders (d) and descenders (g). These are visual clues that help readers tell similar characters apart in a short glance. The type is think and creates contrast between the company name and the strong visual mark that often accompanies it (the penguin, of course).

SUMMARY

It would be foolish to believe that the quality of this logo has carried the brand to the top of their industry. But think about the role it does play… can you recall any other publisher’s mark without wandering over to your bookcase? A good logo comes to stand for your company’s principles – and it can help guide impressions until your product quality speaks for itself.

Penguin Random House nailed it. They had a clear idea of the kind of business they wanted to build, and they sought to find a mark that would convey their ideals. Getting it right on the first try doesn’t often happen, but it’s the goal we all ought to shoot for. Proper consideration and planning makes success far more likely.

Colgate Logo Review

This is my second entry in a series that reviews popular logos hoping to uncover what makes them so effective and unique. In the process, I’ll build my understanding of solid design principles and better articulate my craft using “plain English.”

COLGATE

Designer: The Partners (NYC)
Industry: Household, healthcare and personal care products
Adopted:
2014

Saturday Night Post, 1918. Image credit: Washington University Library in St Louis.

BACKGROUND

The Colgate product line dates all the way back to 1806, initially applied to household starch, soaps and candles. And by 1896, it became the first brand associated with toothpaste sold in a collapsible tube called Colgate Dental Ribbon Cream. By 1906 these tubes were being mass produced and the Colgate name has been a front-runner in dental hygiene ever since.

The strength of the brand is unprecedented, as Colgate is the only brand in the world purchased by more than half of all households (64.6%). Coca-cola holds 2nd place, with 43.3%.

THE BASICS

Colgate’s uses a strong wordmark that has seen refinement over the years, but never an “overhaul.” They’ve kept a consistent presence in the marketplace by employing clean white letters atop a bold red field. An extra burgundy shadow helps create separation and lift for each character. The shape of the red field leans forward with an angle, emphasizing continual advancements made by the company.

TYPE

Colgate utilizes an italicized sans serif called Colgate Ready for its design. Three different weights were crafted by renowned type foundry Fontsmith (London) and intended for use across all communications. The wordmark itself has a few modifications including an elongated descender on the letter “g,” and some tailings that might actually be considered serifs (see “g” and “a”). Perhaps these soften the type, giving it slight curves and a slight humanist feel.

The italicized letters are interesting because they match the angled ribbon and depict forward momentum. For a company over 200yrs old, it’s important to remind consumers that this product is still relevant – life-changing, even. These bold white letters do just that.

COLOR

Nothing empowers a brand like color and Colgate wields its red with authority.

Historically speaking, the red field remains as an homage to the product’s origin story. Prior to Colgate’s introduction of the collapsible lead tube, toothpaste came in glass jars. Their innovation and wide-spread production made quite an impact. When the product first hit the shelves in 1896, the box featured a wide red field resembling a “ribbon.” The accompanying tagline read “comes out a ribbon – lies flat on the brush.”

It’s pure speculation, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the original color choice was meant to replicate positive medical associations made with efforts from the Red Cross Committee (Geneva Convention, 1864). As time wore on, the font changed but the essence of the brand did not.

In recent years, The Partners (NYC) were asked to freshen up Colgate’s image. They worked hard to identify and build upon the existing “DNA” of the brand. That red ribbon became a chevron that figuratively tied Colgate products to their end users, and visually lifted the Colgate name to the foreground of each impression.

This bold red field plays a different role in the world of consumer psychology. It’s energetic. The deep red generates high-contrast and lets those pearly white letters jump off the page. I think it helps keep the consumer focused on the results they hope to achieve – a mouthful of clean, white teeth.

In retail, red is often associated with high-impulse purchases and great value buys. There’s a reason almost every sale sign you see is white type on a red backdrop: it conveys urgency. Rather than weigh the literal benefits of one brand over others, the consumer will likely just grab the red box and go. The strength and contrast of the Colgate brand makes choosing simple.

SUMMARY

Clearly, the Colgate brand has been successful. Like many legacy brands, however, the logo itself doesn’t carry a particularly distinctive personality. It is simply an indicator of the quality folks have come to expect from Colgate products. You simply won’t be risking your health by snatching the long red box on your super market’s personal care aisle.

Komatsu Logo Review

This entry kicks off a 24-piece project that’ll run throughout 2018. The goal is to review a number of popular logos hoping to uncover what makes them so effective and unique. In the process, I’ll build my understanding of solid design principles and better articulate my craft using “plain English.”

There’s one logo I’ve been considering for a few years now. It seemed far too simple to be considered “special,” but here I am still enamored. So, let’s get started.

KOMATSU LTD

Designer: Bob Wolf | wolfdesignpartners.com
Industry: Heavy machinery, construction equipment
Adopted:
1991

BACKGROUND

According to Komatsu’s corporate website, the company was named for a city in Japan. Translated into English, Komatsu means “little pine tree.” In 1921 Komatsu Ltd broke off from a larger mining company and, like a new pine, took root and grew. The logo carried this imagery until the early 1990’s when this newer mark was adopted.

THE BASICS

This is what the industry calls a logotype; the word stands alone and is designed in such a way that no additional imagery is required. Unsure of whether a specific font was employed as a foundation. If so, at least two of the characters have been customized, but it’s just as likely all were built from scratch.

TYPE

The Komatsu mark uses an extra-bold sans serif lettering. The letters have real balance, they’re weighted and stable. If you could stand any one of them apart from the others it looks as though it’d never tip over. Even the ‘S’ is strong. Wolf managed to represent the extreme durability and reliability of these machines as type. Very cool.

One design principle I think takes center stage is repetition. Despite a handful of curves, it’s a recurring wedge that carries the viewer from left to right. Sharp triangular notches are cut into the ‘K’, ‘M’, and ‘A.’ The ‘T’ employs 90 degree angles, but are equally edgy. Those hard corners even appear on the rounded letters.

The most noteworthy element, the one that really stands out, is the ‘T’. It’s unique because the right arm climbs above the cap-height (the height of all other letters). I’d always wondered what drove that modification, but now believe it’s a nod to that “little pine tree.” That small elevated box is clearly connected to the rest of the letter, not just matched at the corner. And like the branch of a tree, it extends toward the sky. Komatsu says the mark demonstrates their role as a “leader in technological innovation.” That little box doubles as an indication of their direction. Subtle and super-clever.

Only the kerning appears inconsistent, and I’m not sure why it was built this way. If you take a ruler to it, the spacing between the letters makes mathematical sense, but to me it still feels “off.” Four letters in the middle are literally touching, but the ‘K’, ‘O’ and ‘U’ stand with plenty of elbow room.

COLOR

The deep blue coloring is called “Gloria Blue” and was chosen to convey “glory and praise.” This turned out to be a very eye-catching selection, because it pairs so well with the standard yellow hues painted onto nearly every earth-mover on the market. It’s not as severe as black would be, and that gives it a more approachable, humanistic character.

SUMMARY

All-in-all, I love this mark. It’s a bold and clear communicator with a memorable simplicity that makes it jump. Rock solid.