Flattening the Curve

Simplify and add… marketing.

(c) underconsideration.com

It might seem like a lifetime ago, but it was only last September when Volkswagen unveiled its new logo at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The logo was launched in conjunction with the ID.3 EV and was intended to herald a new era for the company, where the wholesale electrification of its model range would take centre stage. Unspoken, but undoubtedly the case, was the hope that it would also help draw a line under the diesel emissions scandal that has dogged the company since 2015.

The superseded logo was in use since 2012 but looked older as it had been only a minor update on the previous version, introduced in 2000. It was drawn to appear three-dimensional, with sharp chamfered edges to the silver chrome letters and surrounding circle, with shading to create the illusion of a convex surface. The logo was pretty much a photo-realistic representation of the physical badges fitted to vehicles and dealership signage.

The new logo is strikingly different: it is flat and two-dimensional, a simplified construct of the two letters within a circle. There is a palate of three colours; white, mid blue and dark blue, but only two colours are used in any representation, one for the background colour and the other for the letters and surrounding circle. This gives a total of six possible colour combinations for the logo and background.

Strangely, the switch to a two-dimensional logo was explained as being more suited to digital representation. In the era of extraordinarily realistic 3D and VR graphics, this argument seems counter-intuitive. It might have been true a quarter of a century ago when broadband did not exist and computer memory and processing power were both limited and expensive. Today, even the somewhat clunky touchscreen on my Boxster produces a very realistic isometric image of the complex Porsche badge when it is powered up.

It is rather more likely that Volkswagen was simply following the current fashion for large companies to strip down and simplify their logos, just as MINI did in 2018. Skeuomorphism, the practice of making virtual images resemble physical objects, has very much fallen out of fashion in recent years. It has just taken the automotive industry longer than most to catch up.

(c) 9tro.com

Jochen Sengpiehl, Chief Marketing Officer of Volkswagen, explained the new logo as follows: “We have created a new holistic global brand experience on all channels and across all touch points. We want to become more human and more lively, to adopt the customer’s perspective to a greater extent and to tell authentic stories.”

For a simplified logo, it is oddly complicated. Volkswagen made much play on the significance of the floating ‘W’ but it is actually firmly anchored at its upper extremes, just like the ‘V’. Why not be consistent and allow the letters to float all around? The lines forming the letters are thicker than the surrounding circle. The gap between the ‘V’ and ‘W’ is now wider than before, but narrower than the gap between the lower points of the ‘W’ and the circle.

Volkswagen boasted that the new logo was produced “in the record time of nine months in a collaboration between nineteen internal teams and seventeen external agencies”. Unfortunately, not everyone was pleased with the result of this herculean team effort: Erik Spiekermann, a German graphic designer, tweeted, “Too bad that the new simplified version wasn’t drawn by a good designer. A typedesigner would have known what to do, but this was designed be(sic) a committee of marketing people.”

Six months after Volkswagen unveiled its new logo, BMW was all set to follow suit at the Geneva Motor Show, before that event was cancelled. BMW instead had to make do with a low-key virtual launch to coincide with the unveiling of the i4 Concept in early March.

Like Volkswagen, BMW has discarded the three-dimensional convex blue, black, white and chrome logo that had been in use since 1997 for a stripped back 2D version in blue and white only, again explained by its supposed greater suitability for virtual applications. Controversially, the formerly black outer ring is now transparent. When used on the company’s vehicles, this will appear as body-coloured, as it did on the gold i4 Concept. One wonders whether, on a white car, it will tend to merge with the white quadrants in the propeller.

(c) thedrive.com

The transparent section of the logo is meant to “…radiate more openness and clarity.” and invite customers “…more than ever, to become part of the world of BMW” according to Jens Thiemer, the company’s Senior Vice President of Customer and Brand.

There was, apparently, a strong adverse critical reaction to BMW’s new logo, so much so that Marc Mielau, the company’s Vice President of Brand, Marketing and Customer Strategy, sought to correct the “misinterpretation” in an interview with the Design Week online magazine just a week after the logo was unveiled.

Mielau blamed the lack of a physical launch event for the confusion, which might have been heightened by photographs of the logo on the i4 Concept. “Obviously, it’s something we tested on the car.” Mielau said, but added, “How do you take responsibility [for] such a strong heritage? Steps need to be taken very carefully.” Those steps include considering customers’ opinions and feedback and observing what the media says, “Then we can build our opinion for the future.”

(c) caranddriver.com

The sound and smell of heavy braking from BMW was unmistakable, so the new logo may yet be significantly altered before it appears on any production model.

Major corporate rebranding exercises such as these have always been controversial, with strong arguments offered both in favour of and against such exercises, often in highly polarised debates. It might be worthwhile to examine these arguments to see if any conclusions can be drawn.

Those in favour would contend that such exercises can refresh a tired brand; one that consumers are now taking for granted, or even ignoring entirely. It can facilitate a repositioning and enable new brand values to be inculcated in the minds of consumers. It can even signal a break with negative past events that have tainted the company’s former image.

These factors should, they contend, stimulate a reawakening of customer interest in the company to the benefit of sales and profitability. If it did not, the argument goes, why would senior management engage in such exercises, since their primary goal is (or should be) to enhance shareholder value?

Those against such exercises would argue that most consumers are largely indifferent to branding – new or otherwise. Attempting to load a new logo with all these subliminal meanings is nonsensical and passes straight over the heads of those it seeks to influence. Sometimes, such exercises are simply a distraction for senior management who have lost focus and strategic direction, or an exercise in self-indulgence and flattery.

The enormous cost, in both developing then rolling out new branding globally, could be spent more productively on improving the product to the real rather than imagined benefit of customers. Such critics would, I imagine, ridicule the enormous effort Volkswagen put into a new logo that looks like it could have been drawn in a few minutes by anyone with access to a compass and protractor.

I think, as is often the case, the truth generally lies somewhere between these extremes. There are examples of rebranding that have been highly successful and, equally, examples that have been a public relations disaster. British Airways, to take just one company as an example, has experienced both extremes. The company’s 1984 rebranding created a much more elegant and prestigious style that was far more appropriate to a national flag carrier than the informal style it superseded.

The subsequent 1997 rebranding, where the union flag on the tailfin was replaced with abstract World Images, was widely derided, most notably by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who memorably draped her handkerchief to hide one such image on the tail of a model 747 she was shown. Within two years, the national flag was reinstated, albeit in a different, flowing style.

Time will tell into which category Volkswagen and BMW’s rebranding will fall. Meanwhile, I leave you to make up your own mind.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

54 thoughts on “Flattening the Curve”

  1. Tinkering with long established logos is an easy method of leaving some smell marks for otherwise unremarkable managers. The whole exercise is usually accompanied by smokescreens of hot air and marketing blurb and has a distinctive whiff of the Emperor’s new clothes. The plain stupid new BMW logo is an example as is the highly inconsistent new VW roundel with its ‘W’ at fresh air for no apparent reason. Flying bananas symbolising gear wheels are another example.
    Managers are usually so carried away by themselves and by the accompanying blather that they are unable to see the obvious. That’s why nobody at Petuelring thought about their transparent logo until they were questioned by outsiders.
    Another example are the silly new corporate colour of Lufthansa. The blue-and-yellow colour mix was one of the best known corporate IDs worldwide, just behind Coke and Apple. It didn’t do any harm that the yellow became darker over time, turning amber from the original bright yellow of the HfG design. But then some moron decided that the crane shouldn’t be blue on yellow but a very thin white on blue. After they painted some aircraft in the new colour manager saw the for the first time in fog at FRA airport and found out that even from very short distance the crane was completely invisible, making the Lufthansa planes undistinguishable from any other airline with a blue tailfin.

  2. Good morning Dave. I share your scepticism about most of these rebranding exercises. The Citroen example is particularly egregious, making a nonsense out of the precision engineering of the gear wheel depicted in the original:

    I spent five minutes revising the new VW logo and came up with this:

    Here is the history of previous VW logos:

    The new one with the ‘semi-detached’ W is just incoherent, unlike any previous iteration.

    1. “The new one with the ‘semi-detached’ W is just incoherent, unlike any previous iteration.”

      Well, according to that Jochen bloke, only now VW are “telling authentic stories”. Consistent spacing was a lie.

  3. What BMW and VW seem to be saying is that they want one logo that can work across all contexts: as a product identifier on their cars, as a printed logo, and online. This is not easy – indeed, the VW badge on the actual cars was a chromed, slightly 3D effort, without the blue background.

    These logos might be more instantly recognisable when viewing Instagram on your phone, but they both look weak and insubstantial to me. I am thinking particularly of that often overlooked badge location – the centre of the steering wheel. The current BMW logo has a substantial and glossy quality that helps to reassure the driver they are operating a quality piece of equipment. Will the new one do the same job? I doubt it.

    1. Good point about the steering wheel badge. I have to admit that I do take pleasure in looking at the badges in both my cars, occasionally buffing out any streaks with the open palm of my hand.

      I also like to admire the newly minted badge—against the shiny piano black painted hood—on my recently procured X3 when approaching it, or admiring the nose in the garage.

      I would hate to imagine what the cheap see-through appliqué badge from the i4 would look or feel like unless it was a nicely polished and beveled piece of (ersatz) crystal.

  4. Nineteen internal teams and seventeen external agencies over nine months to come up with that? I think someone’s been taken for a ride!

    1. You beat me to it! Is it any wonder that manufacturers are viewed in some quarters as having little , if any, idea of what they are doing? Apart from pouring money down the proverbial drain.

      It all reminds me of a Structural Engineering Consultants I worked for many years ago whose principal had the initials EG. After much deliberation , together with lots of time and money spent, the Company logo arrived. E as normal. G back to front. Both contained within a circle. included on letter heads , business cards, invoices, drawing title blocks etc etc. Someone had a belt buckle made with the logo included.

    2. Don’t worry, John, they were all on minimum wages therefore costing peanuts, honest!

    3. I’m sure there’s a “How many…does it take to change a lightbulb?” joke in there somewhere…

  5. I read where BMW said the logo on the cars would continue to have the black band, that the clear band on the i4 Concept was just a one-off to coincide with the introduction of the new branding.

    The removal of the 3-D effect makes me think they may be considering going to a flat sticker-type badge in the future to save a few cents. Kind of like how Lacoste, for example, use iron-on crocs on cheaper products instead of embroidered branding.

    In contrast, BMW are emboldening the fronts of their cars with massive grilles so they will allow the grilles to do the talking for the brand and don’t want the logo to share the spotlight.

    1. Good afternoon Ing. I suspect that the original intention was to use the new logo on cars exactly as it appeared on the i4, but reaction was so hostile that the company was forced to think again, hence the ‘clarification’.

      Remember all that nonsense about BMW’s more exclusive ‘ black badge’ for 6 Series and above models a year or so ago? That all seemed to go very quiet, although that monochrome badge was not supposed to be used on the car, just in literature and within ‘exclusive’ areas of the showrooms. Such a move would more likely have offended far more top-spec 5 Series owners than it would have impressed owners of models further up the hierarchy.

      The investment bank for which I used to work had a private banking operation for high-net-worth individuals. When they remodelled the banking hall, they created an exclusive street entrance and lounge for such customers, conspicuously branded as such. They quickly discovered that most HNW individuals absolutely do not want to be identified as such, so the new entrance was closed down!

  6. nissan is the latest to join the trend – just in time to save the company from ruin.

    1. I dont really mind the move away from the heavy handed skeuomorphism, as i have always disliked it.
      Still, i wouldnt mind a bit more use of color- nissan is supposed to be blue and red, not black!

  7. I think any of the Volkswagen logos between 1945 and 2000 would be fine. The new one looks a bit weak, to me, but I guess it’s okay. It’ll be changed again, in a few years, in any case.

    I wish they would use the Wolfsburg crest on cars, for a bit of variety. It would also get around the steering wheel problem which Jacomo rightly mentioned.

    There’s a lot of pompous rubbish talked about branding, because it’s easier focusing on things like that, than dealing with knottier issues in the business. Nineteen teams and 17 agencies sounds a bit much.

    2D does seem to be the latest thing – Toyota’s just gone down that route.

    1. Just looking again at the historical VW logos, is that an interpretation of the swastika in the original 1937 iteration? I wonder what inspired the square in 1960? As far as I recall, it never appeared on the vehicles. Speaking of which, the new 2019 logo on the vehicles appears to be silver on a black background, and still slightly convex :

    2. Hello Daniel, yes – I think it was an interpretation of the swastika; I also interpreted it, probably wrongly, as referring to air vents / a fan, in reference to air cooling.

      I don’t know how the 1960 square came about, but it was only used on literature, etc. Just a fashionable layout at the time, I think.

      One logo appears to be missing from the list – a brow, beige and red one from 1945:

      https://logos.fandom.com/wiki/Volkswagen

    3. Older VWs had the ‘Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben’ (to be named Wolfsburg from May 1945 for obvious reasons) crest on their steering wheel right into the Golf/Passat/Polo MK1 era.

      Older Beetles had it on their front lid handles, too

    4. Please, no – I don’t think you can talk of “interpretation of the swastika” without any material evidence.
      At best it’s a reflection of where graphic trends were at the time.

    5. The VW was the KdF car and the KdF logo looked like this:

      KdF (Kraft durch Freude, strength through joy) was the leisure organisation and travel organisator of DAF (Deutsche ArbeitsFront), the unified workers’ union.

      Sorry for posting pictures with Nazi symbols, but the connection is historic.

    6. Good morning, Dave, and thank you for the additional information. I think that the images are appropriate and acceptable within the context of the discussion, but if anyone is unduly offended by them, please let us know privately using the ‘contact’ button at the top of the page and Eóin will make an editorial judgement on the matter.

    7. Now that’s very interesting, thank you. I’m still not sure one can say that the VW logo is an “interpretation” of the swastika, but it sure is consistent style-wise.

    8. Given who sponsored the initial VW programme, and their known fondness for striking imagery and propaganda, I think the swastika influence can be assumed, no? It’s unlikely to be a coincidental likeness.

    9. Well, to the extent that the original logo was a variation on the KdF one, one can safely assume that its designer must have been at least influenced, consciously or not…
      My point is more that the geometry of VW logo is very much of its time, regardless of political associations. Very 1930’s.

    1. Hi Rick. I can see that, or possibly curved like the upper extremes in my revision above. I might play with it further tomorrow and see what happens.

      Thank you for your kind words, by the way. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

    2. I think there is a more or less logical explanation: we should start from the 1937 logo and from the fact that the factory emanates from the DAK.
      As it can be easily seen, the DAK logo is a swastika within a gear.
      So Mr. Reimspieß, the engineer who drew it, had to maintain all the DAK elements, integrating them with the “car for the people“ notion, so he just added VW in the scheme by substituting VW to the swastika, maintaining it but putting it outside the gear.
      In that position the swastika was a bit incongruous, too big, so he added the fins, maybe as a reminder of the air-cooled motor, thinning at the same time the swastika lines.
      The logo was now a bit too overworked, so in 1939 someone took out the whole external addition, leaving only VW within a gear: in so doing, bizarrely, any reference to Nazism vanished, leaving only a very pure and mechanical-oriented logo, like the Citröen one.
      I might ask whether the responsible of the modification did not like nazis very much, and this was his little resistance act…it would be interesting to understand who exactly decided the modification which led to the 1939 logo.

      With regard to the VW-swastika derivation, I can’t see how the symbol “VW” can be easily derived from a swastika, nor does it appear to have anything in common with it.
      Notwithstanding this, would this idea be correct, the 1937 logo would have had two swastikas, a bit overwrought I think.

      With regard to the unusual red background 1945-1948 logo, I would relate it to a major influence of the left-oriented workers against the weakened property of the immediate afterwar times: as the relations assumed again the normal way, i.e. decisions from above are not influenced by workers, the red vanished.
      As a confirmation to this theory I would add the Alfa Romeo case, red background in the period 1946-1949, and the 1952-1956 EMW logo, where the blue in the BWM became red.

  8. It would all be easier to swallow if it didn’t appear that the companies have spent a lot of money on making the logo a little cheaper to produce.

    In other brand news, the PSA-FCA behemoth is apparently to be called Stellantis, with a similarly frill-free logo. Also, it appears that the RNM Alliance regorganisation is underway, the first effect being that Mitsubishi is being dropped as a European brand https://www.am-online.com/news/manufacturer/2020/07/27/mitsubishi-motors-in-the-uk-shares-unexpected-market-withdrawal-plan-with-dealers
    Interesting to see what “other brands” that Colt Cars, the UK importer, may offer instead of Mitsubishi.

    1. Hi Tom. ‘Stellantis’? Another horrible synthesized word, like the ill-starred ‘Consignia’ rebrand of the Royal Mail which was universally hated and dropped after a year. At least Stellantis won’t appear on any PSA or FCA vehicle.

      Sorry to see Mitsubishi go, but they’ve been fading away for years. The heady days of the Shogun SUV seem along time ago (and they are, of course).

    2. (Hoechst AG + Rhône-Poulenc = Aventis) + Synthélabo = Sanofi.
      Ciba-Geigy + Sandoz = Novartis.
      Ferodo + Paris-Rhône + SEV Marchal + Cibié = Valeo.

      Somebody should be killed for those synthetic names.

    3. these names of chemical companies completely erase the history, however, it must be said, how could you manage more brands of chemicals? The stellantis name you will see sooner or later in email addresses.

  9. Nice article.

    I don’t think I know a single soul who has based their vehicle purchase based on the company logo. Perceived brand snootiness, well, certainly, but not the logo itself. There certainly has been derision thrown at those buying certain brands calling them badge er, um, well a nasty plural word.

    I was part of a focus group long ago to criticize various proposed designs for our company logo after we were privatized, but that had a solid reason for change, and didn’t feature PR gobbledegook when it was announced. The amazingly silly nonsense spouted these days by company marketing groups isn’t even normal language. The consensus seems to be that having talking heads emitting aspirational blue sky fandango is meant to impress investors that your company has it “going on” as we say in North America. To be hip you have to be “digital-savvy” or make EVs and have meaningless apps or say you’re so green, mere kale pales by comparison. Whether that sort of thing impresses institutional investors or the parasitic commentators who fill opinion columns on business websites with stock advice isn’t really known. With Tesla worth $200 billion, perhaps investors are indeed posessed of craniums now thoroughly evacuated by deep vacuum.

    As for this particular iteration of the VW logo, my feeling is that the letters are too spindly, making them look spidery and insubstantial. And the de-anchoring of the W from the outer ring makes it look as it is drifting away upwards, giving it the rather disconcerting effect of a person’s eyes rolling back into their head as they fall into unconsciousness. No doubt after having read the deathless prose accompanying the new logo announcement.

  10. depressing stuff, but thank you Daniel for your
    perspicacity. however my reflex response to your
    revised 2019 VW logo (before I read the comments
    after) was “hang on, there’s a swastika in there”.
    I think the freeing of the letters from the circle
    allows that possibility. sorry.

    1. Hi Lorender. Oh dear, that’s an unfortunate and unintended association. Just as well VW didn’t commission me for the redesign.

      I keep seeing gymnasts on rings when I look at the official new logo. However, I can equally imagine a rusty version noisily swaying back and forth in the wind, the V and W hinged so they can move independently of the surrounding circle. It’s on a rusty post outside a building just like this:

      Time for my nap…

  11. If only it were true. My Mk.2 GTI had loads of squeaks and rattles from new, and more as it aged.

    I gave up trying to find and remedy them, and just fitted a better radio.

  12. Here’s a full set of different options for the 2D VW logo:



    Preferences?

    1. Hello Daniel, I’d vote for bottom left, which is effectively the 1967 logo.

    2. I’m with Charles on this – definitely bottom left. It’s the only one which holds together while keeping the two letters separate . . .

  13. It would seem that both VW and BMW logos are more similar to the pre 2000 versions. Also note the i4 Concept has chrome letters and outer ring, not white, but more importantly consisting of 5 separate parts isn’t really practical for production or the real world.

    I understand that German manufacturers are renowned for highly verbose presentations of new cars at motor shows, so I’m not surprised about the PR waffle accompanying these logos. Mind you, it is hardly unusual in corporate PR everywhere, there is a lot of it these days that causes eyes to glaze over by the second line.

    Perhaps it is felt necessary to justify the nine months work of nineteen internal teams and seventeen external agencies, for something that looks like it took five minutes?

  14. Daniel thanks for your work on the logos. I may be biased but flat bottomed W for me all day long!

  15. For what it’s worth, I would first eliminate the bottom-right effort, which looks too much like an ‘X’ and has sinister facist overtones. Next to go would be VW’s own effort at top-left, which looks flimsy and unbalanced. Middle-right looks as though the bottom of the W has been cut off by the circle. After that it gets trickier. The version at bottom-left is nice, but has been used before, as Charles pointed out.

    For me it’s a toss up between the two remaining.

  16. There’s a very good technical reason why the logos are being simplfied and rendered from two or three colours: they can be rendered on websites as an SVG. SVGs are preferable to bitmaps as, being a vector format, they can scale cleanly between screen sizes. Conversely, the complicated artwork required by the pseudo 3D approach previously favoured by manufacturers would create a bloated SVG, inducing bugs aplenty and incurring a significant rendering overhead on devices with limited available memory.

    Technical considerations aside, there is also a graphical argument to be had that if a logo doesn’t work in one or two colours, it doesn’t work at all.

  17. Daniel, I was also reminded of Consignia (not a bad Vauxhall though…) with Stellantis.

    Mitsubishi seemed to be one of the major creators or beneficiaries of the “lifestyle” pick-up trend, yet did not seem to keep competitive when various others got in on the act. I can’t see any word on what they plan to do with Dacia, but they would be brave to assume that cancelling it would return customers to brand Renault – which seems to have been keen to hire new desginers of late. Mike Rutherford seems to think the Samsung brand might start to spread from Asia, but would RNM Alliance really have achieved much if they (to customers) swapped Mitsubishi for Samsung? It’s a better-known brand outside of cars, though. Back on logos, he described the latest Alfa Romeo logo as “a Teletubby eating a jelly baby” or something like that.

    Does the BMW i4-type logo look a bit too similar to the markings painted onto NCAP crash-test vehicles?

  18. Weirdly, Stellantis actually put me in mind of Swedish electronic dance music duo Galantis. Not my usual music genre, but this is a bit of fun. Enjoy!

    1. Oh wow, I know it’s cheesy but I had this song on repeat for a few days when it came out. And I don’t know any other song from Dolly Parton and wasn’t acquainted with the Galantis band. It is very brave of you to divulge ‘shameful’, ‘guilty pleasure’ songs that most men wouldn’t dare say they listen to. I applaud you for that.

    2. Hi NRJ. Please be assured that my, er, eclectic taste in music encompasses far more embarrassing tunes than the one above!

  19. Hi Daniel,

    Thank you for this very good piece about a subject I like. On the new badge, I think if you look at the ‘V’ and ‘W’ letters as the white parts of the logo then they seem to be ‘floating’ but I think it’s perhaps hard for any human eye to see those letters in the white parts without making a conscious effort. Maybe they meant ‘suspended’ and chose the wrong term 🙂

    I don’t think I would’ve minded if BMW went ahead with that new logo seen on the I4 concept. The transparent ring brought something new and made the brand appear less agressive in my opinion. On the other hand, Volkswagen, who said that with this rebranding/redesign they wanted “to become more human and more lively” has, paradooxocally, made their new emblem a lot more stern and forbiding than the one it replaces. The first thing I thought when I saw the new VW logo was that it looked very austere and had a hint of World War II about it.

    The MINI logo is perhaps the most successful in my opinion when it comes to this 2D trend: its flat design has a ‘playful’ quality that suits the brand’s image.

    I’am not very fond of the of the new flat design Citroën logo. I think it’s mainly the grey shaded area that bothers me most.

    1. Good description of the new VW logo, NRJ. Cognitive dissonance on the part of VW?

  20. Vauxhall has become the latest marque to abandon its skeuomorphic 3D logo in favour of this simplified 2D effort:

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