Descriptive vs non-descriptive logos: Which works best?

If you’re designing a logo for a business, what sort of design should it have to quickly produce a sense of familiarity and trust among consumers? While logo design choices might seem inconsequential to some, having the right one is important for a number of reasons. Descriptive logos, like the Burger King emblem, feature textual and/or visual elements describing what a company does. Burger King’s product offerings are made apparent with the two burger buns and the company name displayed inside. On the other hand, non-descriptive, abstract logos have design elements that don’t represent a brand’s products or services — such as McDonald’s golden arches.

A well-designed logo can offer tangible benefits to a brand. It can help stimulate the interest of consumers, differentiate them from competitors, facilitate brand recognition, and convey what a brand is all about. And in a recent study by the Harvard Business Review, several marketing professors set out to discover if customers actually preferred descriptive or non-descriptive logos.

Descriptive logos vs non-descriptive logos

They analyzed 597 diverse symbols, measuring them for brand equity, and found that descriptive logos “favourably [impacted] consumers’ brand perceptions” as opposed to non-descriptive ones. The visual or textual cues incorporated in the brandings made them seem more authentic, trustworthy and boosted people’s willingness to buy from the companies.

In fact, in one experiment, participants were randomly assigned to two groups. One group was shown a descriptive logo for a sushi restaurant, while the other was shown an abstract version. Both groups were given a description of the restaurant and were then asked to rate how authentic the brandings felt — as well as how much they liked the designs. The researchers soon discovered that the group that saw the descriptive logo felt the brand was more authentic and favoured the logo.

Which type of logo generally brings in higher sales?

Separate research from the team also looked at 423 businesses with abstract and descriptive logos and acquired their financial data to observe how well they fared. Researchers then asked their assistants — who weren’t told the purpose — to categorize the company’s logos. This was done according to whether they were descriptive or non-descriptive, as well as grouping them based on 13 design characteristics like shape, symmetry and colour. And the final results showed that businesses with descriptive logos had a greater positive effect on sales than non-descriptive ones. The results were then tested on 174 logos from early-stage startups and the findings held up. This is likely because consumers tend to trust new brands more if their logos indicate their specialty.

When descriptive logos don’t work

While descriptive logos were found to create more positive interest from both familiar and unfamiliar brands, the researchers also discovered that the effect was less apparent for renowned companies. Since consumers already recognize the brands and what they offer, they’re less likely to be influenced by their logo. That’s why many famous companies like McDonald’s or Nike aren’t too concerned about injecting descriptive elements in their logos.

Also, companies with products or services that might have negative associations, such as funerals and insect repellants, might be better off using non-descriptive logos — due to the unpleasant connotations. Brands that don’t want to be tied to a single product might also try to stay away from descriptive symbols too. The researchers suspect Dunkin’ dropped its “Donuts” name and removed its coffee imagery to draw focus to the rest of its product line.

When descriptive logos don't work

What can companies learn from the study?

So, what does this study tell us? If you’re considering creating or modifying a logo, you might want to include at least one text or visual cue that’s indicative of the type of product or service offered. However, if the company focuses on more than one product or service, or specializes in products or services that could bring negative emotions, an abstract symbol might be more effective.


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