Friday, June 15, 2012

Twitter’s Symbol-Only Branding Strategy

Spot the odd one out.

With its new symbol-only brand identity system Twitter has chosen to pursue a fundamentally different branding strategy than its peers and competitors.

Twitter refreshed and restructured their brand identity system last week. Their announcement post played up some of the detailed design decisions about the geometric construction of their more aerodynamic (and IPO-friendly?) bird symbol. That design narrative is less interesting to me than the strategy behind the change and what affordances it now facilitates for the company. The key decision worth considering is their move to a symbol-only identity strategy.

I think this is a very ballsy move to depreciate their logotype and now have their bird symbol function as their sole corporate signifier.

This symbol-only strategy makes sense for global brands, as it allows their visual identities to sit above the constraints of languages. They can be multilingual in their local written communications, but their brand identity uses a shared symbolic language. This branding strategy may also be taken as a statement of intent; positioning Twitter within the most elevated strata of brands.

Starbucks did this in 2011 when they streamlined the visualisation of their siren symbol and upgraded its status to that of sole corporate signifier. Apple and Nike were two of the global brands to realise the power of this approach earlier. It is fascinating that Twitter has taken this step after only six years, whereas those other iconic brands needed decades to achieve a symbol-only system.

One key difference between the way the Twitter brand operates in comparison with Apple, Nike and Starbucks is that it is most often used by third parties rather than under direct corporate control. You are as likely to encounter it within the context of someone else’s web page or app as you are on Twitter.com. It is dispersed across the Internets. There are endless user-generated customised Twitter icons in use.

In addition to being the symbol of the corporate entity, the bird icon sometimes serves double-duty as a proxy for the verb “to tweet”. It also is intended to indicate the phrase ‘Follow me on Twitter’ when used in conjunction with an @username within a badge device.

Interestingly, the other top-tier social media companies, Facebook, Google and LinkedIn, all lack a comparable symbolic component to their visual brand identities. They either use their full names or else tend to co-opt the app-inspired ‘initial-letter-in-a-box’ visual convention. The increasingly generic nature of that visual convention could be one of the reasons why Twitter have depreciated its use themselves.

Operationally, having the minimum number of brand mark variants in use will simplify brand management and compliance, and ultimately should reinforce user recognition.

Facebook have adopted a different branding strategy with very different affordances and benefits. That will be the subject of a follow-up post.

Update: this post is based on an answer I wrote to a Quora question. Forbes picked up on my Quora version which they republished on their blog with my permission.

1. Some (not-really) rejected alternate titles for this post might have included: ‘New Twitter brand identity takes flight’, ‘Twitter brand spreads it wings’ and, ahem, ‘Ornithology Trumps Typography’.
2. The depreciated Twitter bubble logotype was always inelegant and amateur-looking to my eye, so I will not miss that at all.