Brands today need hammermarks.

June 1, 2012

In 1986, CBS broadcast a 60 Minutes segment about Audi entitled “Out of Control.” The show portrayed the tendency of the Audi 5000 model to suffer from “unintended acceleration.”

(Three yea

rs later, the culprit was discovered. “The major cause,” according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “appears to have been drivers unknowingly stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake pedal.”)

Consumers, however, blamed the car instead of the driver. Audi sales in the American market plummeted. From 74,061 vehicles in 1985 to 12,283 vehicles in 1991.

In 1990, Audi hired us to help them recover. Our advice: “Don’t try to fight a bad perception. Just change the name.”

As it happened, Audi had introduced a four-wheel-drive model called “Quattro” which we thought was a good automobile name. Why don’t you call the brand Quattro and import only four-wheel-drive vehicles?

And then we added the following words to our report: “Interestingly, the four-circle Audi symbol is a natural extension of the Quattro four-wheel-drive concept.”

I wish my daughter Laura had written her Visual Hammer book back then. We could have made the point that four circles are a powerful visual hammer for a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a four-wheel-drive name. We might have been more successful selling the idea to Audi management.

Visual hammers and trademarks.

A trademark is not a visual hammer, although it could be. A visual hammer is any visual used by a brand to hammer in a verbal nail.

• The Marlboro cowboy and “masculinity.”

• The Coca-Cola contour bottle and “authenticity.”

• Corona’s lime and “Mexican beer.”

• E*Trade babies and “ease of use.”

A company may have spent millions of dollars to associate a brand with a specific visual. Why not take the next step and make that visual a trademark in the brand’s logotype? A hammermark, if you will.

Why doesn’t E*Trade use a baby in its logotype instead of a purple-and-green asterisk?

A missed opportunity.

Most trademarks are designed for only two functions: (1) To be visually attractive, and (2) To identify the brand.

A white apple with a bite taken out of it tells the consumer the product was made by Apple, Inc. That’s all.

A circle with the letters “HP” tells the consumer the product was made by Hewlett-Packard. That’s all.

A red ball with white and gray-striped tape in the shape of an “X” tells the consumer that the product was made by Xerox. That’s all.

A hammermark, on the other hand, says something significant about the brand.

• The “polo player” says Ralph Lauren is an upscale brand.

• The “bull” says Merrill Lynch is bullish on America.

• The “mountains” say Evian water comes from the French Alps.

• The “stagecoach” says Wells Fargo has been in the banking business for an awfully long time.

Only a few trademarks also function as hammermarks. No more than a few percent. Perhaps this is because the vast majority of company executives are left brainers who live in a world of words.

Visual myopia.

To a left brainer, a visual is either a decoration or a nuisance. A decoration that makes the text more attractive or a nuisance that needs to be translated into words in order to be understood.

Jonah Lehrer, in his new book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” tells the story of Milton Glaser who was asked to create an ad campaign for the City of New York.

He settled on the words “I love New York” in cursive type against a white background. His design was quickly approved. “Everybody loved it,” Mr. Glaser said.

He had second thoughts, though. And finally conceived the logo that has become one of the most widely imitated works of graphic art in the world. “I ♥ NY”

“I love New York” and “I ♥ NY” communicate exactly the same thing, but the visual says it emotionally which makes all the difference.

A visual activates the right side of your brain (the emotional side) while a verbal activates the left side of your brain (the logical side.) A visual and a verbal may mean the same thing, but they don’t have the same effect on the consumer.

Want proof that visual images are considerably more memorable than verbal expressions?

“Kicking the can down the road.”

Consider the memorability of verbal expressions that can be visualized. Compare two ways of saying much the same thing: “Congress has been delaying decisions on debt reduction” with “Congress has been kicking the can down the road.”

Compare: “You can’t change things that have happened in the past” with “That’s water over the dam.”

Compare: “If Vietnam goes communistic, then the rest of Asia will follow” with “The domino theory.”

Compare: “He’s feeling sad” with “He has a broken heart.”

Compare: “Things are changing” with “The tide is turning.”

When you use words that can be visualized, you generate much more emotional impact than when you use words that don’t suggest visuals.

A new role for trademarks.

Design your trademark to be a visual hammer. A hammermark, if you will.

In other words, make the trademark symbolic of the position of the brand. Take Scion, for example, Toyota’s brand designed for the youth market.

But nothing about the Scion name and logotype suggests the youth market. What the logo suggest is “just another automobile brand.” This is a missed opportunity.

In terms of revenues per unit, Papa John’s continues to be the most successful pizza chain. The combination of the verbal nail (better ingredients, better pizza) and the visual hammer (John Schnatter himself) accounts for much of the brand’s success.

Why doesn’t the chain use an illustration of John Schnatter on its logotype? I would.

It worked for KFC. The huge images of Colonel Sanders on every outlet give instant identity to the brand (which help to compensate for the weak initials) as well as communicate the essence of the brand.

Founded by a real Kentucky Colonel with his secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices, KFC depends upon its powerful visual for much of the brand’s success.

Visuals speak louder than words.