How Brands Can Use Research to Hone a Design or Logo

Knowing your audience and goals with these components will help creative shine

A mix of qualitative and quantitative research will help determine the right strategy. Getty Images

The role of research in the logo design process can be a contentious issue. At its best, research reveals customers’ broader relationship with the brand, its strengths and gaps, possibilities and permissions. At its worst, it’s a cross between a beauty pageant and the shock jock banter of sports radio. Research does, and should, play a valuable role in the process, but it is important to be very clear about what you are trying to achieve through it.

Understanding context 

One of the most important insights in the logo development process is a deep understanding of the business context. Knowing whether a brand is moving from a position of strength or weakness matters and should inform the types of research that will add value to the process.

Many brands choose to evolve their logos while in a position of strength, as changing a logo can be a very effective means to signal a strategic shift. Southwest introduced a new logo to help the company expand internationally and attract more business travelers. Starbucks wanted a new face to help it sell products that didn’t contain coffee while expanding into third-party environments like supermarket shelves. When making a logo change from a position of strength, the design should aim to leverage, focus and amplify existing equities of the brand. How do you know which ones those are? A mix of quantitative research, which can provide statistically significant data points to help convince management, and qualitative research, which can explain why a design performs well or doesn’t and offer insights that can guide development, to check the design’s alignment against very specific criteria can help.

When guided by the right research, change can pay huge dividends for a brand.

Designing from a position of weakness—e.g., when a brand is seeing a dip in its relevance or needs to address negative media attention—requires a different research approach. In these situations, qualitative research can be helpful to understand the broader relationship audiences have with the brand. Unlike quantitative, qualitative research helps brands build the larger narrative, guiding not just the permission to change or degree of change, but also how to overcome negative barriers and craft the new messaging platform. 

Audiences

It’s not surprising that regional and international markets can interpret the idioms of design like colors, shapes and fonts differently. Countries, for example, have an affinity for colors representative of their nation or tied to their national flag. Yellow brands are unusual in the U.S., yet they proliferate in Australia and Brazil. Red brands abound in Canada. And while green has eco associations in the U.S., it signals a national pride in Ireland.

International markets can also have a very different perspective, experience and understanding of the brand and its equities. One of the more challenging aspects of global research is choosing the research moderator. The very definition of research and its cultural norms can be quite different in different countries. Where a local moderator can be invaluable, it’s also essential to make sure you develop a consistent and coherent orientation, goals and expectations for global groups. It is shockingly common for brands to run into situations where the moderator reveals a subtle bias implicitly or explicitly or looks to solve rather than elicit and learn. Variances can be mitigated by leveraging an organization’s global talent to help monitor and guide the process.

Putting research to work

To get the most appropriate learnings out of research, it’s important to keep the following in mind.

Designs should be evaluated against the company’s strategic objectives, versus what a client may like and dislike. Likes and dislikes tend to force respondents to take a position that they then feel they have to defend, which clouds feedback. Confirmation bias can also distort feedback by supporting one respondents’ point of view versus the larger strategic objective. It’s important to map each of the options against the brand strategy and purpose to keep the process as objective as possible.

New designs cannot be expected to perform as well against familiar incumbents and therefore must be evaluated on their individual strengths and weaknesses. It is rare that something new will outperform an incumbent. Nostalgia can be very powerful, as there is comfort in the familiar, and change, however insignificant, can be viewed with suspicion. By dissecting the broader brand system and eliciting feedback around the brand experience we can uncover opportunities in new designs otherwise overlooked.

No single design can express all desired attributes. Logo testing often reveals additional opportunities that can be addressed in the broader communications system and in communication. The logo encapsulates the ambition and promise of the brand. But craft aside, its strengths and weaknesses are largely a reflection of the experiences customers have with the brand.

Change is not without risk. But as a recent Fortune 100 client pointed out, “Sometimes the greatest risk is in not changing.” When guided by the right research, change can pay huge dividends for a brand: building new resonance, providing a new lease on life or establishing new meaning in markets previously unattainable.


Brendán Murphy is a senior partner at Lippincott.
Rodney Abbot is senior partner, design at Lippincott.
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