Name-dropping: Nike, Starbucks, and now Target

I am wondering why major consumer brands lose their names, leaving their brand icons to serve as their entire visual identity? Last week, I drove past a new Target store built into a tight little urban area near Fenway Park that is being rejuvenated with posh, high-rise residences. I knew it was Target because of its recognizable icon, looming huge and bright above the main entrance. But no name. First, Nike with its swoosh. Then, Starbucks with its split-tailed mermaid (don’t Google this). Now Target. (And let’s not forget the artist-formerly-known-as-Prince – also a consumer brand with a distinguished icon.)

Why on earth would enterprises cut their brand names out of their visual identities? After all, consumers still need to use the brand name. Do you say, “Let’s grab a coffee at that place with the split-tailed mermaid (sorry, can’t resist) on the cups”? Obviously, names serve an important purpose: a way for consumers to reference your brand, a pretty important element of a brand strategy.

I can think of a few reasons why brands might follow this path. Most are dubious, but here’s my best shot:

  1. They’re trying to project category pre-eminence. This is the “I don’t need to tell you who I am – you already know” approach to brand development. Also referred to as the Hubris Strategy.
  2. They want to appear socially conscious by addressing the over-consumerization of America. In a landscape where consumers can’t turn their heads without being assaulted by some kind of advertising, these brands are leading the charge to contain this scourge.
  3. They don’t think their brand name has the equity it used to. Recent surveys reveal that brand names are declining in their power to convey superior quality. So what’s the point of using it?
  4. Conversely, they think their brand is iconic. So, logically, all you need is the icon.
  5. They don’t think the name will play well in overseas markets. Perhaps Starbucks doesn’t want to remind Italians, for example, that they Americanized the café experience?
  6. Their design firm couldn’t find a sleek way to lock up the icon with the name. I’d say fire them, but not my call.
  7. They want the press coverage. When Starbucks dropped its name from its logo in 2011, the “event” was covered by NBC News, US Today, and CNN Money, to name a few. Not quite as good as coming out with a real innovation, but ok.
  8. They’re signaling a refresh of their offering. Maybe they believe that dropping the name makes the visual identity look especially contemporary. Or maybe they’re setting up another watershed event in their brand’s history, the return of the name.

As a consumer, do I need to see the brand name? Honestly, no, in these cases I don’t. But what if every brand out there went to this approach? Where would consumers be then? On brain overload, as our recall capacities are now required to make that extra step – recognizing the icon, and then associating it with the company and its offering. Think of the old people! As I approach brain softening myself, I plan to start a consumer movement: “Keep the Names!” I’d have Prince on my side.

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