Labels – A Universal Language?


Think of, say, five of the world’s major brands. Now try to picture their logos and labels. Chances are that, for most of them, the image that comes to mind is just that – an image, without any wording, lettering or other identifying features.

For the major players in the marketing world, one of the signs that you’ve joined that rather exclusive club is that you no longer need to tell the customer who you are or what it is you’re selling, that potent combination of colour, design and symbolism is all that’s necessary to communicate not just who you are and what you do, but a wide range of almost subliminal messages about the brand, its ethos, values, style and cachet.

For a player in the global market, the advantage is obvious. Because your product is recognised without recourse to words and language, the branding becomes an international universal language of its own with the power to communicate more than mere words ever could. For mere mortals, articles such as this one discuss the accepted basics in label printing design.

label design


A question of timing

There’s a danger here, though. The desire to be acknowledged as having “made it” to the status of an elite brand can be a temptation to make a premature move in the direction of minimalist branding. Indeed, some marketing professionals are sceptical as to whether it’s ever a good idea in branding terms to drop the text from the label. When Starbucks Coffee took the plunge towards branding minimalism in 2011, one commentator was scathing about the move, as reported by BBC News in this article. “I thinks it’s nuts. What’s it going to be, the coffee formerly known as Starbucks?” said the chief executive of marketing consultancy firm Core Brand. Nonetheless, Starbucks brand equity doesn’t seem to have taken too much of a hit, however, as its seemingly inexorable march towards dominating the global coffee shop market continues unabated.

printed labels

Australian telecommunications giant Telstra also raised the ire of some marketing professionals when it changed its logo (the company name fronted by a large letter “T” on a stylised satellite dish with contrasting orange and blue colours) to remove the “elstra” bit of the name leaving only the initial “T”. Moreover, the design broke with what is generally regarded as a fundamental rule of logo design – pick one or two strong colours and stick with them – in favour of using a seemingly random selection of shades.

In Telstra’s case, as one of the largest players in Australia and Asia Pacific, the new logo, introduced in 2011 has become well accepted in its core home market. It’s perhaps doubtful, however, if such a bold and radical branding exercise will play as well as the company seeks to expand into other global markets. While the average Aussie is well aware of the Telstra brand, most Europeans would be unfamiliar with the company and the benefits of instant recognition and positive associations which the marketing policy is aiming for are lost; the customer simply fails to make the connection!

labels badges

Lessons and conclusions

While language-free minimalism in logos and labelling are a sign of success in brand equity, the approach should be treated with some caution. While the Shell’s, Nike’s and Starbucks’ of this world can afford the luxury of a little marketing hubris, for most brands, sticking to the basics, while using labelling, branding and marketing to build a loyal repeat customer base remains the most sensible course of action. World domination comes later.

About the Author

Paul Francis is a professional marketing consultant with over twenty years’ experience in sales and marketing. He has advised a wide range of companies from the well-established to the new-entrant and still enjoys the challenges the industry throws up. A native Londoner, he wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

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