One of the greatest misconceptions in healthcare branding concerns the role of the logo, or brandmark. Whereas healthcare marketers on the client side—and on the agency side as well in many cases—have a solid background with advertising and sales promotion, they are often at a loss when it comes to effectively evaluating logo design and development.
This has to do mostly with a lack of hands-on experience: advertising and sales promotion are ubiquitous, ongoing components of annual marketing plans, so anyone rising up through the ranks at a healthcare manufacturer has significant exposure to the process, and ample opportunities to be mentored by the institution, its more seasoned practitioners, and its healthcare advertising agencies. Logo design, development and refinement, on the other hand, occur once—maybe twice—in a healthcare brand’s lifecycle (due to mandatory patent limitations). Unless one is in the right place at the right time on the marketing team, chances are one is lucky to get exposure to brandmark development in one’s career.
Before a brand comes to market—before it has had a chance to deliver a customer experience through usage, marketing, and other forms of customer engagement—it has no value in and of itself. It will develop its values and equity through a comprehensive delivery of its brand experience once launched. There will be promotional and public relations campaigns, sales efforts and convention hoopla, speaker programs and clinical trial presentations—all touting its uniqueness, superiority and essential place in customers’ lives. All the hopes the manufacturer has for its success in the market will be in play, and hinge on this collective brand experience. Millions of dollars and years of development are on the line. Yet, before launch, there is a need to develop the brandmark (logo) and its companion branding hallmarks (color, typography, iconography and secondary hallmark systems—think the Coke “wave”) to set the foundation for the brand. What happens in this dynamic? The crushing weight of all those hopes and expectations cited above, all the financial pressures, all the career plans suddenly land on the feeble shoulders of a handful of letters, a symbol and some colors. Despite the obvious impossibility of a logo being able to bear the burden of so many expectations, the marketing and agency teams often get so caught up in the frenzy that it blinds them to a more reasonable, experienced approach practiced by consumer goods companies. (While working on what would become one of the biggest pharmaceutical blockbusters of all time, I had a client say to me and my team: “You know those astounding openings of the Mission Impossible movies with Tom Cruise? I want our logo to feel like that!” Mission Impossible indeed.)
So if the logo is not responsible for single-handedly delivering on the brand’s marketing and financial goals, then what is its role? Think of it as a flag. The brandmark is a fairly empty banner that, over time, will come to signify all the values of the brand experience not by virtue of them being crammed into the design, but rather by signifying its unique presence to the citizens who salute the values it has demonstrated through action.
It should be simple so it can peacefully co-exist with the flamboyance of other branding assets and activities, and it should be able to stand out next to other brandmarks.
It should communicate a few key brand values, but not be overburdened by them.
It cannot be so literal that it constitutes a therapeutic claim.
Unfortunately, many clients in healthcare ignore these elemental principles, and instead prefer to have the logo shout and scream as much as possible. (Imagine sitting next to that on the train.) The most common mistake in healthcare logo design is over-design. Let’s illustrate with one of the most over-designed flags in the world: the stars and stripes.
Here’s what our founding marketers intended: the strategy was “unity,” a brilliantly simple brand promise that was then completely over-designed. There are the stars that represent the states (a flawed design premise that forced the flag to be re-designed 26 times as new states joined the union), and the stripes that represent the original 13 British colonies. There is deep blue for authority and legitimacy, red for the blood that was spilled in pursuit of independence (we’re straying pretty far from unity now), and white for the purity of the founders’ intent (so now it’s about purity?)
But what do people see when our flag is displayed? Unity? In these days of red and blue states, that’s probably the opposite of what many people believe. The most frequent answer among our citizens would probably be Freedom, yet there is nothing in the original design that reflects this value (indeed, it’s a pretty regimented design). Why? Because as I’ve argued above, the brand experience—the sum total of our country’s actions toward its citizens and the people of the world—defines the brand, not the design of its logo. This discrepancy gets played out in innumerable parodies, depending on how the individual sees the US brand.
So if you are undergoing an identity exploration, remember these fundamental learnings: the brand is less about appearances and more about actions, so let the logo play the simple, distinguishing role it can gracefully play, and then make sure your brand lives up to its simplest, most noble intentions with how it behaves. You are designing a flag, not a movie.