September 15, 2008
An Odd Couple Takes a Bite From the Same Apple
By Alice Rawsthorn
Think of a company whose name begins with A - a fictitious name that has nothing to do with what it does - and whose corporate symbol is an apple with a chunk bitten out of one side. You'd probably say Apple, and you'd be right.
They make such an odd couple that it's hard to imagine them being compared otherwise, except for the fact that they're both successful in their respective fields. This incompatibility makes it all the stranger that their point of similarity should be their identities which (as legions of consultants have extracted fat fees for reminding their clients over the years) are intended to express the essence of a company by summing up how it behaves, what it stands for and what it hopes to achieve.
How can two such dissimilar companies have seemingly similar identities, especially as each sums them up with impressive accuracy? The answer is that, although the components are identical, the execution is not. All of the stylistic details - colors, shapes, typefaces and choice of symbolism - are different, and it is these details that tell us what the company is like, or wants us to think it is like. That's why the "odd couple" saga of Apple and Ann Summers is such a neat illustration of how corporate identities work by sending out visual clues from which we form an impression of the organization.
Up until the mid-20th century, the message of most corporate identities was reassurance; they sought to present the companies concerned as sound and trustworthy. Often a quasi-heraldic symbol was adopted to align a fledgling industrial dynasty with the aristocracy. You can still see vestiges of this in Fiat's and BMW's logos. Another was to symbolize the company with the founder's signature, or something that looked like it. The signatures logos of Coca-Cola and Betty Crocker created the impression that their founders were personally endorsing the company's products, as local farmers and storekeepers had done for centuries. (Coke's "signature" was actually written by the company's bookkeeper, not the inventor of its fizzy cola, and Betty Crocker wasn't a real person, but a marketeer's vision of a "typical" American housewife.)
Other companies were symbolized by literal representations of their activities. Citroen's chevron was inspired by the V-shaped gears that Andre-Gustave Citroen started making in a tiny Parisian workshop in 1904. The great American graphic designer Paul Rand created the UPS courier service's famous (and sadly defunct) "gift box" symbol in 1961 to evoke the fun of opening one of its parcels.
By the late 20th century, corporate identities were so ubiquitous that consumers had become expert at decoding them. Companies started to use more abstract symbols to relay their chosen messages through suggestion and association. Among them were Apple and Ann Summers.
Take Apple. Its name refers to one of the greatest innovations in history - the invention of the laws of gravity by the 17th-century scientist Isaac Newton, whose inspiration is said to have come from watching an apple fall from a tree. The reference was a bold declaration of ambition by Steve Jobs and the friends with whom he co-founded Apple in 1976 with a hand-built computer. Their first logo was a faux historic engraving of Newton sitting beneath an apple tree drawn in the folksy style then popular among San Francisco Bay Area rock bands. Later that year, the graphic designer Rob Janoff created a new corporate symbol for Apple - a silhouette of an apple with a leaf sprouting from the top and a bite chomped out of it.
The apple was simple in shape and clearly defined, illustrating Jobs's favorite minimalist aesthetic and Apple's aspirations to efficiency. Its nonconformist spirit was evident in the colorful stripes that filled the apple (a cheeky nod to IBM's striped logo) and the bite, a visual pun on the computer byte. Apple ditched the stripes in 1998, and has since favored monochromatic logos, usually in black or white, and occasionally a liquescent silver. The apple's shape has survived more or less intact, despite constant refinement. The symbol is generally used on its own, but whenever the name "Apple" appears, it is printed in a simple, imposing typeface whose letters are constructed from smooth, even strokes.
Innovation, vision, elegant simplicity, professionalism, determination, wit, irreverence and a fashionably eclectic range of cultural references from the history of science to psychedelic music - that's what Apple is telling us about itself in its corporate identity. What does Ann Summers say with the same basic components? In short, that sex is fun.
Let's start with the name. It was coined by the founder in 1970 as an accessible version of his secretary's name, Annice Summers. The bitten apple has been the corporate motif since the start, but its apple evokes the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, rather than a 17th-century scientific coup. It is rendered in the shape of a heart, to symbolize love, and the leaf at the top resembles a flame of passion. The bite is sexually charged, too; it represents the act of succumbing to temptation, not data storage terminology.
The name "Ann Summers" is printed in a playfully louche typeface. The clues to its character are the naive shapes of the letters and stylistic quirks, like the sloping stroke of the 'e'. It is colored in shades of red and pink, signifying sex and flesh respectively. All of which is designed to make the seemingly similar ingredients of Ann Summer's identity as different from Apple's as the stories of the laws of gravity, and Adam and Eve's libidinous fall from grace.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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