Symbols and subliminal messages in company logos 

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Symbols have a strong impact on the subconscious. You can think of them as radio that people pick up on, and if you’re on the same frequency, people will interact with your brand, business or idea.

The most prominent symbol in any business is its logo. It’s what prospective customers first see on web pages, business cards, e-mails and social media. And it broadcasts what values you stand for.

If you already have a logo for your business, this post can help you understand some of the signals you’re sending to the world. And if you’re working to get your business of the ground, you can see which symbolism could match your brand.

The symbolism of common shapes

We’ll be studying the symbolism in logos from some of the most successful companies. But before we do so, let’s look at the meaning of different shapes. These interpretations are fairly consistent across different times and places, but can change ever so slightly in a different cultural context.

The wave

Associated with the ebb and flow of the ocean, the wave highlights the natural cycle of growth and decline. It represents movement and progress, where success is followed by failure and vice versa.

Companies using the wave in their logo may benefit from fluctuating market trends or metaphorically ‘ride out waves’. They can be very flexible in response to volatility.

While real waves are never-ending by nature, the direction in which a wave in a company logo slopes (up, straight or down) can hint at the direction that the company is focussing on.

Waves in company logos often point upwards as a signal of growth and prosperity, while downward sloping waves can hint at decline, destruction or disruption. The downward wave best suits businesses who take things apart – for example, demolition companies or funeral services.  Waves that slope neither up nor down can suit brands that focus on keeping things balanced and that prefer to go with the flow at a steady speed.

The circle

In groups, people often sit in circles, so everyone can see each other and no one feels left out. This makes the circle a perfect representation of inclusivity in conversation. The roundedness of the circle also represents a level of ‘oneness’, with harmony and equality between all participants.

Another key feature of the circle is that it ends in the exact same position as where it started. Therefore, companies with this logo symbol may sometimes seem to be ‘going round in circles’.

They could for example, set out to enter a foreign market and end up with similar demographics in their home country and international base. Or they might invest in research for a brand-new product, only to find that they can best serve customers by tweaking an existing offer.

“Coming full circle” or reaping what you sow, is another common feature of companies that use the circle in their logo. Take Theranos: management at the company deceived hospitals and patients about its revolutionary blooding testing technology. Even though the start-up was considered a major success at first, the lies ultimately led to bankruptcy and a prison sentence for founder Elizabeth Holmes.

The lesson here is clear: if you start a fraudulent business, you’ll be exposed and imprisoned as a fraudster. Meanwhile, companies that value honest dialogue with customers can build sincere and beneficial relationships.

Triangle

The equilateral triangle is a symbol of trinity – three elements working together in perfect sync. It can be associated with the Holy Trinity of the body, the mind and the soul.

If the base of the triangle is at the bottom of a logo, this shows that the company has stable foundation on which it builds its success. The triangle also takes the shape of a mountain, which shows that, despite the foundation, obstacles may need to be overcome.

If the triangle is inverted, this creates a lot of instability. A top-heavy shape has to balance on just one narrow point and can easily topple over. This hints at a risky venture that might fail fast under the wrong market conditions. An inverted triangle can also hint at companies that let others take the lead – the association here is the road sign for giving way to other people. Considering what I’ve said so far, an inverted triangle isn’t the most promising symbol for long-term business success. In fact, I could only find one well-known brand with an inverted triangle in their logo: Kenwood.

Meanwhile a triangle that points sideways can be interpreted almost as an arrow. The right-pointing triangle features prominently in the YouTube logo, and in fact, has become the universal sign for the ‘play’ or ‘start’ button for video and audio recordings. The right-pointing triangle is also a motion symbol, as pointing right is typically associated with forward movement.

The left-pointing triangle, on the contrary, has sometimes been used as a ‘back’ button, and therefore is perhaps most aptly used for services that involve rewinding or going back in time. Just like the inverted triangle, it is barely used by well-known brands.

Square

A square with its 4 sides represents the 4 elements in astrology – Air, Earth, Fire and Water. These four elements are the building blocks of life, just like bricks are the foundation on which any house is built.

Companies that use squares in their logo typically value stability and consistency, laying one brick at a time. They can benefit from a solid financial base, but reaction times may be slow, even when flexibility in response to changing markets is preferred.

An interesting case of the latter is Microsoft. The software company’s logo consists of 4 squares in different colours, perhaps symbolising the 4 elements. In true square-symbol fashion, Microsoft continues to see consistent success with its Windows operating system, but has, for example, been slower than competitors in adapting to a mobile-first environment.

Star (Pentagram)

Stars are great symbols for businesses that want to “shine” or be in the spotlight in their industry. The bright sparkle of the star is perfect for companies that thrive on publicity.

Take Starbucks, for example, which has the star in both its name and its logo, and one of the largest social media followings of any coffee company.

The Pentagram works well in PR-driven industries, including media, hospitality and luxury goods – but is less suited for brands that want to stay “behind the scenes”.

Crown

Throughout history, the crown showed who ruled over a particular region, and therefore was in power. The monarchy, typically shown with a crown, has a long history of being this power.

Companies close to the royal crown, such as the Dutch airline KLM, obviously exploit this symbol in their logo. Beyond the direct royal connection, the crown also features in logos of companies that want to be seen as a king or queen of their chosen field.

Take luxury brands like Pandora and Rolex. The crown in their logos proves their elevated status and appeal to high earners who want to feel ‘special’ by buying expensive watches and jewellery.

A potential downside of the crown symbol is that it can transmit the idea of ‘ruling over others’ instead of empowering people to ‘crown’ themselves as the driving force of their own destiny.

The cross

Thanks to religion, the cross has become the ultimate symbol of suffering. It stands for sacrifice and martyrdom – and therefore, is rarely used in logos other than those of institutions related to the Christian faith.

Alfa Romeo is one of the few companies that uses the cross symbol in its logo. The symbol is said to come from the flag of Milan, which depicts a red cross on a field of white, and represents the Bishop of Milan.

The plus sign

The plus sign represents the idea of adding on to something. It can convey the sense of giving more, which is why it is often used in a health-care setting to suggest that nurses and doctors go the extra mile for their patients. The plus sign is very fitting for the medical context, as it is easily mistaken for the cross – which can represent the suffering and perceived hopelessness of a patient.

Beyond the realm of hospitals and pharmacies, the plus sign features in logos of premium products and multi-tiered service offerings. (The most obvious examples being perhaps Google+ and Disney+.)

The ring

The ring is a symbol of connection. People who are married often wear a ring to indicate the close bond and attachment that they have formed after a wedding ceremony.

In business, the ring can hint at companies that are either tied up with other business entities, or tasked with bringing people together in a restrictive way. A well-known example would be the Olympic rings, which are meant to represent 5 interconnected continents united at one of the largest global sporting events. The unity of athletes and audience, is however, limited to the sports context, while political and social divides between countries remain.

We may also see companies using rings that do not interlock, but seem to float around another object in their logo. This can indicate that a business ‘worships’ or associates with a higher entity, figuratively taking the role of the ‘rings of Saturn’.

The kite

Spinning in the wind, kites move flexibly around gusts of air and withstand strong turbulence. Therefore, companies using the kite symbol in their logo may be able to weather even the worst storms. What saves them can be their tendency to escape the real world and instead seek refuge in dreams and phantasies.

Brands with the kite symbol may also attract people who avoid having too many connections and have a strong desire for freedom. They can be very independent – and fit well for sectors that favour exploration, such as adventure travel.

The kite also alludes to a desire to extend oneself to a higher plane of conscious. It’s likely that companies with this symbol may be able to extend beyond plain sight and take a birds-eye view of problems and potential solutions.

The moon

The crescent shape of the moon can be seen when the Earth casts its shadow onto the moon’s surface, so that only part of it is illuminated by the Sun.

The moon symbol works well for branches of an organisation that are hidden from the view of society. Think of ventures that operate in the shadows, such as detectives, secret agents and forensic pathologists, but also businesses that barely feature in the public eye.

As the moon shines brightest in the night sky, it also lends itself well to businesses with a nocturnal connection – from mattress companies to meditation apps. The moon is also the symbol of dreams – and used in the logos of Dreamworks and the Boeing 787 (Dreamliner).

The moon may be associated with instability and change, both in people (where it can manifest as moodiness) and financially (because it causes ebb and flow). Companies with this symbol in their logo may experience strong seasonal fluctuations, but despite this, they can build strong emotional connections in their clients’ hearts.

Heart

The heart is the symbol of romance, universal love and desire. It lends a strong energy to brands that use the symbol in their logo. Companies with a heart in their brandmark may be “wholeheartedly” devoted to specific ideas, and move forward on projects with full commitment. However, they may also attract employees who fear letting go of long-loved and cherished ideas.

A key success factor for companies with the heart in their logo is to base relationships with clients, partners and suppliers on positive values such as gratitude, happiness and trust.

Symbols in logos of successful companies

We’ve just seen the general meaning of different shapes in company logos. Now, let’s look at some more unusual symbols used by companies that have seen great financial success or managed to dominate their particular market.

Lacoste and the crocodile logo

Allegedly, Rene Lacoste first used a crocodile logo for his sportswear brand after he bet his team captain that he would win an upcoming tennis match. The bet would require the team captain to buy Lacoste an alligator suitcase. This story leaked to the press, and Lacoste, known for his tenacious playing style, has since been nicknamed ‘the alligator’.

The crocodile logo of course alludes to this history, but also conveys an element of danger and adventure. In fact, Lacoste, who competed in several high-ranking tennis tournaments, was feared by his opponents for his playing style.

Using the thrill of competition, and this intensely personal connection, the brand appeals to a luxury demographic interested in exploring exotic and rare offers (such as a suitcase made of alligator skin).

As a dangerous animal, the alligator may also resonate with people who’ve reached financial freedom and seek out extreme sports or dangerous activities to fill a spiritual void in their life.

The crocodile could also appeal to people who have aggressive enemies, and are hiding their insecurity and fear behind aggressive or predatory symbols.

Pizza Hut features its red roof

The Pizza Hut logo has been inspired by the hat-like roof of the building that housed the company’s first restaurant.

Just like the roof sheltered guests from wind and rain, the hat provides protection to its wearer. The hat therefore, is quite literally a metaphor for the protective roof.

A hat is also a status indicator. Historically, the taller your hat was, the more important you were. And even today hats are worn at graduation ceremonies where people are awarded a credential that comes with a boost to their social status. The hat therefore helps Pizza Hut resonate with a demographic that strives to rise up the social ranks.

Quite fittingly, the company’s older ads are also centred around the idea of status – from people literally wearing hats in the Gorbatchev TV spot, to commercials with wealthy executives such as Donald Trump and Jonathan Ross.

Amazon: books from A to Z shipped globally

The logo of online retailer Amazon features an upward pointing arrow that runs from A to Z. As we’ve previously discussed, the direction of the arrow hints at growth and prosperity, which Amazon saw in the early 2000s.

But what’s most striking about the logo is its connection to the alphabet. In fact, alphabetical listings were one of the reasons why Jeff Bezos supposedly renamed his business from Cadabra to Amazon. At the time, this ensured that the company appeared at the top of registries such as the Yellow Pages.

The link between the first and last letter of the alphabet may also represent the fact that the company carried every product from A to Z, and would it ship to wherever you lived. 

Liverpool Football Club and The Hillsborough Disaster

The logo of Liverpool Football Club pays tribute to one of the most tragic events in the history of football. In fact, nearly 100 spectators died during a football match between Liverpool and Sheffield, in an event known as the Hillsborough Disaster.  Following the tragedy, Liverpool included two eternal flames in its logo and added the words “You’ll never walk alone” to its crest.

Companies usually avoid referring to disastrous events in their logo. This is because every time you see the logo, you subconsciously connect to the tragic event and emotions such as grief and panic. These emotions don’t typically help you build a solid and successful brand or business.

However, the eternal flames in the Liverpool logo can be seen as a symbol of commemoration. It may help fans and players process the tragic event rather than suppress its negativity. Therefore, the symbolism may have been chosen to support a subconscious transformation of the energy that manifested in the Hillsborough disaster and perhaps ultimately help the brand back to success.

The intention with which you use the symbols

Apart from the symbols in your logo, the intent with which you use them and how you feel about your brand will have a strong impact on how it is perceived. You can also use techniques such as visualisation and emotional programming to reinforce the message that you wish to convey to the world.

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