Paul Domenet: is car giant Toyota right to drop its wordmark in Europe?

Toyota made headlines by announcing it would dispense with its brand name in Europe and henceforth rely on its logo – three overlapping ovals – to let us know whose brand you’re looking at.

At the same time, the symbol has been ‘flattened,’ so it no longer resembles the shiny 3D version you find stuck on the actual car.

Once considered a radical move – something only to be attempted by brand owners like Nike with its iconic swoosh – ditching wordmarks is becoming more common in marketing design. MasterCard, for example, recently took the same decision with its logo, joining the likes of Shell, McDonald’s and Starbucks.

There’s a practical reason behind the move in some cases. The amount of media we now consume on very small screens, which can mean that names can become a confusing blur of pixels.

There is also an ego-driven motivation – it’s a declaration that yes, our brand is iconic enough to go wordless. As Toyota puts it, this decision is an acknowledgement of its ‘status as one of the most recognisable brands in the world.’

I’d argue, though, that recognisability is vastly different from iconicity. Brands like Nike, MasterCard and Apple aren’t just famous, they’re truly integrated into the lives of millions and millions of consumers.

Is Toyota in that category?

It was famously the car marque with no brand mark at all until 1989, when it decided it needed to find a way to give its cars recognition from a distance and a logo that would stand out from other automobiles.

Does this emblem achieve this? I’m not sure. I know designers inject more meaning into logo symbols than the average consumer will ever take on board, but the ambitions of Toyota’s emblem are particularly grand.

According to their website: “The two perpendicular ovals inside the larger oval represent the heart of the customer and the heart of the company. They are overlapped to represent a mutually beneficial relationship and trust between each other.”

But they’re not finished yet. “The outer oval symbolises the world that embraces Toyota. Each oval is contoured with different stroke thicknesses, similar to the brush art in Japanese culture. The space in the background within the logo exhibits the infinite values that Toyota wishes to convey to its customers: superb quality, value beyond expectation, joy of driving, innovation, and integrity in safety, the environment, and social responsibility.”

And the positioning of the ovals isn’t, as you might think, meant to depict a person in a wide-brimmed hat – it’s a representation of the letter T, for Toyota, as well as a steering wheel.

It’s the hardest working emblem on the planet.

Designers spent five years coming up with the emblem and it has appeared on literally millions of cars in the 30 years since.

Hand someone a pen and paper and ask them to draw the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches and they’d have no trouble – would the same be true for Toyota?

It goes without saying that brand assets need to include renderings that work on tiny screens, just as much as for print, posters and moving screens. But for me, the digital-first thinking argument doesn’t hold water here. Cars, unlike the roles that Apple, MasterCard and even Nike play in our lives, are 100% about the physical world.

Good design is all about adaptability, and it’s great to see any client being flexible about their precious brand. Let’s recognise, however, that what works for the great pioneering companies of the world isn’t right for every product. After all, if Prince couldn’t manage to pull it off can you?

Paul Domenet, partner and communications creative director, Free The Birds.

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