Grim Times Prompt More Upbeat Logos

As the economy gets uglier, logos are getting prettier.

The stolid, angular look of visual trademarks like IBM’s and Bank of America are being supplanted by ones that sport softer, more approachable fonts; multiple colors and natural, child-like symbols.

The latest example of the trend is Kraft. While the food giant’s previous visual treatment was a red, white and blue hexagon, the new one, which the company introduced with great fanfare last week, is in lower-case and sports yellow, green, purple, blue and orange as well.

Kraft’s new logo also bears a striking resemblance to supermarket Stop & Shop, which traded its red, green and white “stop sign” logo for a one with similar colors and a bowl of fruit last August. Another convert to the new logo style is Wal-Mart, which swapped its blocky, monochromatic visual treatment for one (Walmart) that at least has two colors and a sun icon.

Designers have a name for the trend: The Google Effect. Many say that Google’s multicolor design and the company’s willingness to tweak its logo for holidays and such have been widely influential.

Ruth Kedar, the woman who designed Google’s logo, agrees. “[Logos are] a lot less staid, a bit more playful,” she said. While acknowledging that Google wasn’t the first to tweak its logo—MTV was doing the same thing in 1982—she said the notion was still an anathema to most companies until recently. “The idea that you could modify a brand and play with it was kind of a radical change in branding, going way out of the corporate ID manual.”

Christopher Nurko, the head of brand strategy for Nitro, the design firm that came up with Kraft’s new logo, cited Google’s influence, but said there are other factors at play. “People have looked for softer, more organic shapes,” he said. “There’s this movement in art and design that’s a lot softer.”

Indeed, the Google Effect in this case may have a triple meaning—Google’s introduction of an era of more transparent corporate images and the advancement of the Internet as a medium to showcase logos are also influences.

Years ago, logos were designed to be seen on buildings and trucks, but now the primary forum is the Internet where “color restrictions aren’t as much of an issue,” according to Matthew Carlson, principal of brand experience at Continuum, a Boston design firm.

In regard to transparency, Mike Mitchell, a Kraft rep, said that the company’s new logo is a manifestation of a bottom-up change at the company. The visual treatment, he said, is designed to convey Kraft’s new mantra: “Make today delicious.” It symbolically represents various Kraft products. The triangle shape “is invocative of pizza,” he said.

Most consumers won’t catch those references but instead will walk away with a more positive feeling about the company, said Mitchell.

Cal McAllister, co-founder of Wexly School for Girls, a design firm that has worked with Microsoft, Nike and others, said the new logos are a reflection of a desire to at least appear more approachable and transparent. “Everyone is working off the same brief,” he said. “They say, ‘Give me something natural, like a sun or a flower,’ or ‘Make it soft and make it seem friendly. It’s the opposite of IBM’s logo, which is ‘Trust us.’”

Since such sentiment is based on consumer research, McAllister speculated that the gloomy times may be prompting consumers to gravitate to such imagery.

“Because we’re in a tough time and people are getting laid off, I think there’s a subconscious desire to take you back to when you weren’t worried about things like that, which is why we’re seeing these almost hand-drawn logos,” McAllister said. “And when you see a logo that’s boxy and the edges are hard and sharp, and the company just laid off 10,000 people, you get mad at them. But if it’s a watercolory rounded logo, you feel kind of sorry for them.”

Nevertheless, Steve Lamoureux, chief innovation officer of design testing firm Affinnova, said that companies like Kraft may be falling victim to a fad: “There’s a risk associated with changing your ID to be on-trend because trends come and go.”