When your logo loses its meaning
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
As designers who are always thinking about branding, we couldn’t help but notice the ways Western logotypes are treated in Arabic, which uses a non-Latin alphabet, as we walked the Dubai mall. We noticed some brands used typefaces or hand lettering in an attempt to match the English logotype. Our discussion (and squabbles) evolved to consider where brand equity existed within a logotype and how words are transformed through branding and given new meanings and connotations.
For this discussion we’re focusing on logotypes, in which brand names are stylized to make a logo (Coca Cola, Burger King or CNN), and not on logo marks which are illustrations or icons (the Pepsi Globe, McDonald’s arches or the CBS eye). We conducted a very unscientific survey while walking through Dubai Mall. These are our observations based on a few that we selected.
DB: The font Coach uses for their Arabic logotype is a close match in spirit. The ovular counter and thin-thick strokes of the bowl in the و (waw) match the “o” on Coach. The serifs used in the Arabic version, however, are more like slab serifs rather than more traditional serifs used in the Latin logo. I think the match is close enough, though, to capture the same feel as the original.
DB: The Chicco logo presents an additional challenge of fitting the logotype into a shape. The Arabic version of the logo (spelled to phonetically read "shyku") does a great job of recreating the heavy, condensed Latin font used for the English logo.
The red dot over the “i” that adds color and some personality to the logo is incorporated in the Arabic version by making the top dot of the ش. (shin) larger and red. Because Arabic reads right to left, the red circle is still being placed at the start of the logotype.
DB: Wendy’s presents a nice example of Arabic script being created to match the Latin font of the original logo. The typographer did a great job of creating forms that capture the same spirit of Wendy’s Latin handwritten logo. On a side note, I’m not a fan of handwritten fonts, especially in logos. I think they lack the gravitas and timelessness logos should have. And while I’m at it, stop skewing your marks (Burger King) and putting your type on an arc (Yahtzee). You’re being lazy and taking a short cut to try to be memorable or unique when a bit more effort would lead you to something cleverer.
PK: Going back to the Wendy’s logo discussion (eye roll), I agree that the designer, who designed the Arabic logo, did a great job in maintaining the essence of the original English logo. Arabic script, being a cursive style, probably made it easier to match the handwritten style of the English logo. My one comment is that I wish the kerning between the letters was tighter in the Arabic version.
DB: Bloomingdale’s is another brand where the designer has done a great job of capturing the brand essence. The thin strokes replicate the sleek high-end feel of the original.
PK: I also like how the letters و (waw) and م (meem) overlap. I have not seen this with Arabic script before.
DB: Krispy Kreme’s Arabic logo is a great visual translation of the form. The Arabic font matches the Latin characters well, and it looks great inside the shield. The proportions of the shield are a bit different because the Arabic words are shorter than their English counterparts.
PK: To me, Krispy Kreme’s Arabic version could have been better designed to replicate the lines that are on top of the logo above the letters.
DB: This gets to what I find interesting in a brand name and where value lies. For a brand name like Bloomingdale’s or Wendy’s, when the name is a proper noun, phonetic translations make sense. When the name comprises words like Krispy (crispy) and Kreme (cream), it might be assumed that the logotype should be a literal translation of those words. But that doesn’t take into account how a brand lives in the marketplace. The emotional reaction the words “Krispy Kreme” are meant to evoke in English is of less importance in this market. The value here lies in the sound of the words “Krispy Kreme” and the brand recognition of those sounds rather than the meaning of the words.
PK: At the time the brand was created, the target demographic would have understood that “Krispy” and “Kreme” were not actual English words but knew that phonetically they meant crispy cream. If someone was launching this brand in a global market today, would they need to keep in mind that tweaking the spelling of a word to stand out could confuse someone whose first language isn’t English? For global product launches, do we need to be cognizant of this? Will the meaning of a brand name become secondary to its phonetics? After all, brand names like Rolex, Verizon and Lexus are not real words, but they’re still valuable and recognizable in spite of this. On a side note, what is interesting about the name Rolex is that the founder’s intention was to create a word that was easily pronounceable in many languages.
Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC)
KFC is another example of the sound of a brand name rather than its meaning being valuable. The logo font isn’t recreated for the Arabic version, but the name is spelled out phonetically as cay-eff-see, rather than being an acronym created by translating the words Kentucky, Fried, and Chicken into Arabic.
DB: The sound of the brand name, cay-eff-see, is where the value lies. Arguably, Colonel Sanders’ face on the sign does a bit of the heavy lifting as well, but people ask for K-F-C.
What about different languages with shared alphabets?
DB: As an aside, I started thinking about logotypes being used in marketplaces with languages different from their nation of origin, but with a common alphabet. Let’s take, for example, some logos from countries where their native languages are all based on the Latin alphabet; Mexico, the United States and Germany.
Topo Chico (Little Mount) takes its name from where it’s sourced, Cerro del Topo Chico.
Blaupunkt (Blue Dot), originally a German company, derives its name from a blue mark that was placed on items passed by quality assurance.
Caterpillar is so named because when people first saw the way the vehicles moved, they were reminded of the insect.
When the above logos are used in any market where the predominant language is based on the Latin alphabet, Mexico, France, Germany, Italy or the Netherlands to name a few, consumers can read these logos phonetically without any alterations being made to the logos, even though meanings are lost. Even if I don’t understand Spanish, if I see a bottle of Topo Chico I can read the name phonetically because I’m familiar with the alphabet. Again, the meaning of the words is secondary to the sound of the name being said.
So, back to our original point, does it matter that Chicco is Italian for berry, or that Krispy Kreme calls to mind images of a soft doughnut with a thin, crispy, sugary outside? Obviously, choosing the right name is an important first step in building a new brand, but a brand is not a name or a logo. A brand is how a product, service or organization lives in the marketplace. You attempt to define it through advertising, product and service offerings and customer relationships, but in the end, the public defines your brand based on their experience with it. And they, ultimately, attach that definition to your name, regardless of its original, intended meaning.