What is a brand symbol? How to choose one, examples and more

From social media posts to company signage to product packaging, brand symbols lend themselves to a diverse array of uses and purposes throughout your company. As you begin building out your company, a brand symbol becomes an important part of representing your business across all mediums. This guide takes you through what a brand symbol is, the difference between a brand symbol and a logo, some famous examples to inspire you, and a step-by-step tutorial for creating your very own. 

What are brand symbols?

A brand symbol is a visual representation of your company. Whether it’s a literal interpretation of your name, an abstract representation of your company values, or simply an eye-catching visual design, a brand symbol can stand in for your company’s full name or logo in any number of mediums, including digital applications, print marketing, merchandise, and giveaways. Brand symbols are also called “brand marks” or sometimes just “symbols.”

You’ll often see a brand symbol and a logo used interchangeably, but there’s technically a difference between the two. A logo encompasses all parts of a brand mark, which can include a brand symbol alongside text and other marks, while a brand symbol is often just a single drawing, illustration, or another type of symbol. A brand symbol may be a part of a company’s main logo, or it can be a symbol that’s part of your greater brand identity. A brand symbol can also be the only representation of your company, serving as its main logo.

Oftentimes, a brand symbol can stand in place of a full logo in print and digital marketing material. Although it may not be the full logo, it serves the same purpose of associating the branded materials with the company. 

8 famous examples of brand symbols

To help you envision the power of a brand symbol and the role each one plays in your company’s brand strategy, take a look at these eight examples. Each takes a slightly different approach to the importance of a brand symbol within the company’s overall logo creation and brand identity, showcasing the versatility of a brand symbol.

1. Apple

apple company brand symbol
Photo by Bangyu Wang on Unsplash

Whether on its small smartwatch or a generously sized 24” computer, Apple products and assets are all tied together by its unforgettable — and quite literal — fruit-shaped symbol. It’s taken a few different forms over the decades: The Apple symbol was once painted in rainbow hues to showcase the company’s color displays, for example. But no matter its iteration, the company has successfully leveraged this brand symbol’s simplicity and literal nature to designate itself as one of the biggest tech leaders in the world.

2. Target bullseye

The instantly recognizable red bullseye has been a part of Target’s logo and branding since the 1960s! By 2006, the company separated the “Target” wordmark underneath from the bullseye, noting that the mark stood on its own. And that’s precisely the effect a brand symbol has on customers: They can look once and know in an instant what it represents, even though this symbol isn’t the company’s full logo.

3. Nike

nike brand symbol
Photo by wu yi on Unsplash

Few brand symbols are more iconic than Nike’s swoosh. Ever-present on its athletic apparel, advertising campaigns, website, social media, storefronts, and much more, the simple black design is effective because of the brand story behind it. Inspired by its eponymous Greek goddess of victory, the swoosh invokes motion and speed — two traits certainly associated with the athletes who wear Nike, and the inclusion of the swoosh adds this dynamism to every garment Nike produces.

4. Twitter

The little blue bird first made its way into the Twitter logo around a decade ago. This famous brand symbol — which even has its own name, Larry, after the legendary NBA player Larry Bird — is meant to represent how short tweets take flight. It certainly helps that tweets are an onomatopoeia for a bird’s song, too.

5. Spotify 

Slightly-curved lines on a green background embody what this streaming platform is all about: broadcasting media. From podcasts to albums, this platform is one of the most popular in the world for accessing information and entertainment. The lines resemble broadcast waves, tapping into the company’s core service without needing any further explanation. And because this product is mobile first, a small, recognizable symbol is key to help guide customers to it. This brand symbol serves as the app icon — one of the primary products — so users can quickly access it on their devices.

6. Mastercard

mastercard brand symbol
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

The credit card company is an interesting case study to see how brand symbols are associated with businesses over time. For decades, Mastercard used some version of its overlapping circles in its logo. At one point, the circles had lines. At another, the name “Mastercard” was emblazoned across both shapes. The most recent iteration of their brand symbol moves the company name underneath the two overlapping circles, allowing it to stand alone across use cases company-wide.

7. Penguin Random House

This publisher takes the idea of a brand symbol quite literally. After the two giants merged, the new logo representing the new mega-company tapped into the penguin. While penguins may not have anything to do with books, this literal depiction of the name makes the logo instantly recognizable and memorable across formats and mediums, from the spine of a book to a Facebook cover image.

8. Shell Oil

For more than a century, a shell has served as the literal symbol of this international oil company. In fact, the shell design was so iconic that the name Shell wasn’t added to the brand symbol for almost 50 years. The current iteration of the logo with its signature red and yellow hues has been in use for decades. It remains one of the most recognizable brand symbols in the world, used to instantly identify its numerous gas stations. 

Other types of brand symbols

As we mentioned earlier, a brand symbol is only part of the overall work that goes into a logo. Here are some other types of brand symbols you should know, as well as how a brand symbol plays into each logo type, if at all.

Wordmarks

A logo that only spells out the name of the company or brand is considered a wordmark. Typically, wordmarks don’t have any illustrations or brand symbols in them. Here, the font chosen for the logo does a lot of heavy lifting, along with the colors used in the design. Famous examples of wordmarks are Disney, Coca-Cola, and Google.

Lettermarks

These types of brand symbols use the initials of the company as its primary logo. Lettermarks are sometimes paired with brand symbols to create the company logo, or they may stand on their own. IBM, CNN, and NASA are famous examples of lettermarks. For a lettermark that’s combined with a brand symbol, take a look at NBC, which spells out the initials of the company alongside its iconic peacock. 

Letterforms

This type of brand symbol utilizes the initials or first letter of a brand and turns that into the logo. Since they’re smaller, they can fit neatly into any number of uses in digital and print marketing, and can double as a brand symbol. The McDonald’s “Golden Arches” is one of the most famous examples of a letterform. Other examples include the “Y” used to represent Yahoo and the lower case “b” that stands in for Beats by Dre headphones.

Combination marks

Baskin-Robbins combination marks brand symbol
Photo by Crystal Jo on Unsplash

Combination marks unite words and symbols to create a logo. With a combination mark, a brand symbol is often found above, underneath, or alongside a wordmark that spells out a company’s name, and sometimes its slogan. Airbnb, Bluetooth and Baskin-Robbins are all good examples of brands that use combination marks.

Abstract marks

These brand symbols aren’t literal depictions of what your company does or offers. Instead, they lean into a more interpretive approach and come to be associated with your brand over time. Microsoft is a good example of this: The four-paneled brand symbol next to its wordmark resembles a window, the name of its hallmark software.

How to create a brand symbol

With some famous brand symbols in mind, it’s time to come up with one of your very own. Follow these five steps to tackle the brand symbol development process from beginning to end.

Step 1: Come up with an idea

The first step begins with just one idea! To find inspiration, go back to the basics. Why did you start your business? What sets you apart from others in your industry? Identify those “whys” and carry them with you throughout the brainstorming process.

With those ideas and ideals in mind, choose elements of your brand symbol which represent what your business stands for. Logo shapes can invoke qualities you want people to know about your business, such as a circle for completeness, horizontal lines for speed, and curves for joy and positivity. Similarly, colors can have an effect on your target audience: Blues for trust, yellows for happiness, and greens for prosperity are just a few of the many options you have. And if you’re creating a wordmark as part of your brand symbol, the font can play a significant role, too.

Step 2: Conduct competitor research

It’s important to know how similar businesses look, act, and feel when designing your own brand symbol. You want to be original and design something that’s fully ownable to your company. However, there may be a reason why others in your industry use a certain color, shape, or font to convey their message. For example, many banks use green for practical and logical purposes — after all, green is the color of money, wealth, and prosperity. So take cues from the businesses that have come before you and look to them for inspiration as you find your own look and voice.

brand symbols examples
Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

Step 3: Start designing

With an idea in mind and a healthy understanding of your competition, it’s time to play around with a free logo builder and create your own! These platforms let you choose from dozens of shapes and colors so you can make endless possibilities and find something that best fits your vision. Many of these logo builders let you export your creation in the file types you need for print, social media, digital marketing, and more.

Remember, a brand symbol is only one part of your overall logo and your brand identity as a whole. As you come up with designs for your brand symbol, envision its role alongside other parts of your brand identity, such as a wordmark and design elements like colors, shapes, and patterns. 

Step 4: Get feedback

Great design doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Take your initial concept (or two, or three) and share it with friends, family, and business connections who can give you their feedback. Consider asking:

  • What do you feel when you look at this symbol?
  • What do you think this symbol represents?
  • How do you think this symbol represents my business?
  • What do you like about the design?
  • What would you change about this design?

If any common patterns emerge from the feedback, you’ll have a good sense of what’s working and what may take some revision. Take your time with this process — once you share your first brand symbol with the public, you’ll want to keep it consistent as you build up brand awareness among your customers. Make sure you’re happy with this version and that it resonates with your target audience as you build your business.

Step 5: Roll out

Once you’re comfortable with the final version, it’s time to put it out into the universe! Consider where you need to put your brand symbol as you launch your company. Use it on:

  • Your business cards
  • Printed material like brochures and sell sheets
  • Social media like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn
  • Promotional products, giveaways, and uniforms
  • The products you manufacture

Get creative with brand symbols

A thoughtful, well-planned brand symbol helps potential and current customers recognize your company among a sea of other options. There are a lot of ways to approach this important part of your brand identity. Whether it’s a standalone symbol or part of your wordmark, you’ll need a brand symbol to stand in when your full logo can’t quite fit. And with the proper care put into its meaning, this important piece of your company’s identity will stand the test of time.

Namecheap’s free Logo Maker can help you get there. With intuitive drag-and-drop tools, Logo Maker takes you through the brand symbol creation process from start to finish, helping you choose the right shapes, colors, and fonts. And when you’re satisfied with the result, you can export the file for use in digital and print applications or connect it directly with Site Maker and Business Card Maker for easy continuity across mediums. Explore the full suite of Visual tools that can help you roll out your brand symbol to the world.


Nick Allen

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is a writer, photographer, and content marketer. He’s also the founder of BrainBoost Media, a boutique content and operations studio. With a wide range of interests, he enjoys reading and writing about sports, entrepreneurship, and start-ups.
More articles written by Nick.

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