More than words – the elite club of brands that use only symbols

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Mastercard joined an elite club earlier this month when they refreshed their brand identity.

The new MasterCard logo is notable not for what it includes but for what it does not.

Gone are the words ‘Mastercard’, leaving only red and yellow discs.

Very few brands have the clout or confidence to get away with such abstraction.

Nike is one, with its iconic swoosh.

Starbucks is another, having dropped the words ‘Starbucks Coffee’ from the circumference of its logo in 2011.

Apple is often cited as a third, however as its logo depicts an actual apple, it was perhaps a less risky bet.

“We live in a time where, increasingly, we communicate not through words but through icons and symbols,” explains Michael Bierut of Pentagram, the design firm behind the change.

“Mastercard has had the great fortune of being represented by two interlocking circles, one red, one yellow, since its founding in 1966. Now, by allowing this symbol to shine on its own, Mastercard enters an elite cadre of brands that are represented not by name, but by symbol.”

There is a clear rationale for going wordless in an age when people are increasingly likely encounter brands on phone screens where space is at a premium.

For global brands visual icons have the added bonus of being universally understood, regardless of language.

But marketing professor Mark Ritter argues there is more to it than that.

“All brands have codes; graphical and symbolic devices that are associated with the company or product. A logo is a code. But a well run brand has more than just its logo. It might also have a colour. A pattern. An additional motif,” Ritter recently wrote.

“What Mastercard is really doing is not just changing its logo. It is playing with its code in a modern and masterful way. Rather than a rather dull backdrop for the company name, Mastercard has realised that 50 years of prominence now buys it a license to play with its circles in a way that will modernise the brand, enable greater creative impact and ensure continued – probably heightened – distinctiveness.”

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column on marketing, design and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post.

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