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Logos, seals, & your identity

Obama_in_chicago It seems that every two years I comment on a logo in the news (see this post I wrote on the World Cup logo in 06). A logo, of course, is part of the presentation of your brand and it matters (though I'm not fond of logos on slides used in live talks). Today (at least back in the USA), the blogosphere is abuzz with comments about the Obama Campaign's "new logo" (though I can't confirm if this seal/logo is more than a one-time thing). On Friday, according to CNN, "Barack Obama sat down in discuss the economy with visiting Democratic governors, but all eyes were on the Illinois senator’s podium bearing, what might be described as, a quasi-presidential seal – a new Obama campaign logo."

The reaction to the seal (above left) — even among his supporters — is generally not good. I don't think Obama was involved in this or even knew much (if anything) about the logo on his lectern in Chicago. Perhaps because his talk was with fellow Democrats and in his "home" of Chicago they were just having a little fun (or testing it out?). CNN, the New York Times, etc. made it sound like this was a new official logo, yet Obama's website does not mention the logo as far as I can tell. Hopefully that was the first and last time we see that logo/seal. I do not have an issue with the design of the logo per se except that it's just too close to another famous logo, the presidential seal. Part of me likes the simple design and the chutzpah, but my first gut reaction was "hmmm...just a bit over the top?" I assume it's legal, but what about this?) Obama has a good campaign logo already, I'd stick with that. My guess is this is the last we'll see of the seal (but who knows?), but it brings up the issue of logos that look suspiciously similar to others even if they are different enough to survive a legal challenge.

Distinctive and unique
Logos should be distinctive and unique, and if you're lucky enough to have a powerful brand, you'll work hard to protect your unique image including your logo. Starbucks is a good example of a brand that has had to defend its logo quite aggressively (some say too aggressively). You may be familiar with the case of the cafe in Shanghai called Xingbake (roughly meaning "star" plus "ba-ke" which is phonetically close to "bucks") which got into trouble a few years ago. Seems pretty comical, but according to this article the owner says it was all just a coincidence and that he'd never even heard of Starbucks (you start a cafe chain in 2000 and you never heard of Starbucks?). Here's how it went down.
 Starbucks_copy      Photo: East Midlands China Business Bureau

In Japan, many cafes sprang up after Starbucks became big here about ten years ago, many of them such as Excelsior, were seemingly inspired by the Starbucks brand, but their trademarks I assume were different enough not to cause confusion. But one that always seemed odd to me is the Mt. Rainier logo used by the company Morinaga Milk for their popular coffee drink brand called Caffé Latte (see the Caffé Latte homepage featuring a full page video commercial staring Scarlett Johansson). The logos may look different enough (or do they?), but when you consider that Mt. Rainier has a strong association with Seattle (photo) you find yourself saying "what the....?"


Compare The Mt. Rainier logo is not used for cafes which is perhaps why it was allowed to go unchallenged. But now that Starbucks sells latte drinks in convenience stores on the same shelves as Mt. Rainier in Japan, it seems like people would be easily confused. I can not confirm it, but I heard rumors that Starbucks may go after them on this one. So what's the moral of the story? I say be different, find your own voice and your own identity, and that goes for logos and other forms of identity including the design of your presentations. It's great to admire the leaders and the front runners, but who needs another Nike, or Starbucks, or Apple, or Sony, etc. As the Funky Business cats say, "Being different is key."

Learn more

Logo design and corporate identity is very specialized work, but it is something all entrepreneurs should have at least a fundamental understanding of. Below are links to a plethora of discussions on what makes a good logo. (Here's one on trademarks called "Think Locally, Protect Globally.")

Design and the World Cup: what can we learn? (PZ)
Famous logos (on the LogoBlog).
Top 10 logos of all time.
What makes a good logo design? (David Airey)
What makes a great logo? (Logoworks)
What Makes a Great Logo? (code-interactive)
What makes a great logo? (Light box graphics)
Keys to a great logo.
Key features of a great logo.
Great Logos Are Key to Success.
Brand Channel (everything about branding by Interbrand)
Seattle Trademark Lawyer blog



Zen Faulkes

Ace letterer Todd Klein has a series of logo studies focusing on pop culture icons, mostly comics, here:

These are some of the most famous logos in the world. Who doesn't instantly recognize Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man? Kelin has designed plenty of logos himself, so his analysis are extremely insightful. Highly recommended!

Robert Brown

The Obama campaign has added computer screen wallpapers and other material with this new logo to the downloads page of their website. (thanks for the link!) So it appears that this a new branding effort for them. It will be interesting to see what becomes of it.


It's interesting, of all the candidates this year Obama was the only one to have a true "icon" in his logo--something that represents the campaign without his name. Obama wasn't just a campaign of collected ideas, he became a brand. I'm not saying the icon made him a brand, but it certainly didn't hurt.

On a lighter note:

David Fordee

Funny, when I first read your headline I thought it was going to be about this:

The interesting thing about Obama... he didn't even approve of or like his logo when they introduced it to him. But, he was over ruled by his team and he went with their input. I value that about the guy. I wonder who's choice it was to create this presidential one?

I think the best part of it is the latin on the top which stands for "change you can believe in" i believe.

Aigars Mahinovs

I think this is almost as false as the lapel pin 'controversy'. He is running for the office of the president, so why can't his campaign logo reflect that by looking like a new and greatly improved version of the president's seal. It is significantly different su there should be no confusion. The only similarity is the layout, but all the important bits are different and in my opinion, better: color scheme, the eagle, eagle leg angle, proportions, text (font AND wording), central icon.

The Obama logo also lacks the annoying things, such as the uppside-down text (the words 'seal of the' and 'states') and loads of small distracting stars all over the place.

That would be a great new presidential seal to refresh the dated image of the US government. So what exactly is the fuss about? Why should we trust someone saying that this is wrong for soe reason?


Great post. One thing is when companies copy their logos. It's much more problematic, when countries are coping falgs...

Check Slovenian and Slovakian flag! Slovakia choosed their flag a year after Slovenian flag existed. Not to mention similarity with Russian flag.

T. Benjamin Larsen

Funny you should mentioned Nike. It is commonly known that the Nike Executives hated the logo the first time they saw it.


Hi Garr - not related to logos, but I thought you might be interested in this writeup of 'Interesting 08' - a conference that's just been on here in London.

It includes a description of a pecha kucha-like presentation, and the following observation:

All the PowerPoint presentations were in a style that, if brought to a regular meeting or conference, you’d be asked to leave. Lots of full-screen pictures with no captions. Cartoons. Elegant graphs, often with slightly irreverent captions. A good number of images from classic SF movies. Nothing that was there just for teh funneh, but plenty that was meant to amuse as well as inform.


It really is interesting how people or companies can borrow a piece of the equity certain brands have worked hard to build in the minds of the public. In some ways it's really lazy and a copout. I often point clients to this great article about how the power of a logo (or really anything you're presenting to the public to get your message across) really exists in the context you create around it.

It's definitely a point of discussion...did the copycat cleverly take advantage of the context invested in a certain design? Or are they parasites, hijacking an already meaningful and important symbol to gain some short term result?

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