The Incredible Stories Behind Famous Corporate Logos
Corporate logos are inescapable. Brushing your teeth in the morning, you see the familiar red-and-white Colgate logo on the toothpaste tube. Pouring a bowl of cereal, the Lucky Charms leprechaun flashes you a smile. Checking your phone unleashes a wave of logos for the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter.
In the 2011 documentary "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," filmmaker Morgan Spurlock asks consumer advocate Ralph Nader where he could possibly go and not see one bit of advertising? Nader's answer: "To sleep."
As visual shorthand for a product or service, a logo is crucial to the identity of any brand. Yet it's not easy crafting a successful logo that marketing and design pros hope will someday be burned into our collective brains. For every advertising icon like KFC's Colonel Sanders, there are forgettable flops like the original Bing logo.
We've rounded up some of history's most iconic company logos and recounted their often fascinating origin stories. In doing so, be aware we've excluded pop culture-type logos such as the Rolling Stones' famous tongue-and-lips mascot as well as sports team insignias like the interlocking "LA" letters for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Year logo debuted: 1938
In the 1960s, inexpensive Volkswagen Beetles and buses were the wheels of choice for Woodstock-era hippies. Ironically, the automotive logo synonymous with the "peace and love" generation has an origin rooted in hate.
Founded in 1937 Nazi Germany, Volkswagen needed an emblem for its new "people's car," so the company held a logo design competition. The grand prize of 100 Reichsmarks (about $250 U.S.) was won by employee Franz Reimspiess, who formulated the basic design featuring the letters "VW" inside a circle that's still used today.
However, per the Hitler regime's requirements, the original logo also incorporated a stylized swastika. Post-World War II, the British took over the car company for three years and, naturally, stripped the logo of all allusions to Nazism.
Year logo debuted: 1998
If you're an Internet junkie (and who isn't?), you'll likely see the Google logo multiple times today. So it's high time you learn its history.
In '98, Google co-founder Sergey Brin whipped up the first official logo using the open-source graphics editor GIMP. Just a month after its debut, a short-lived exclamation point was added (to mimic Yahoo!) and the color sequencing of the letters was changed to the blue-red-yellow-blue-green-red still used today. However in subsequent years, the typeface has changed four times.
Specialty Google doodles to commemorate holidays, events and the birthdays of historic figures have been around since the search engine's founders created a doodle for the 1998 Burning Man festival. Nowadays Google employs a team of artists who render about 50 doodles per year.
Year logo debuted: 1971
So instantly recognizable is the Nike "Swoosh," the athletic shoe and sportswear company felt it safe to drop the word "Nike" from its logo in 1995. The Swoosh was designed in 1971 by a Portland State University graphic design student named Carolyn Davidson.
The Nike brand is named after the Greek goddess of victory, inspiring Davidson to create a bold, simple shape that symbolized movement and speed. For her freelance design work, she was paid $35 by a company that's now worth an estimated $29 billion. But don't feel too sorry for Davidson. In a 1985 gesture of gratitude, company co-founder Phil Knight gifted Davidson 500 shares of Nike stock.
Inspired by the nautical nature of the Starbucks name (Starbuck is a character in the novel "Moby Dick"), the fledgling coffee company's co-founders pored over old maritime books in search of a logo idea.
Ultimately, the partners based their logo on what they claim was a 16th-century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid. Never mind that mythology nerds have pointed out the mermaid is not Norse, but likely cobbled from illustrations of the siren Melusine, dating to 7th-century Italy.
The original brown-and-white Starbucks logo featured a bare-breasted mermaid with a split tail that wasn't exactly G-rated. As Starbucks grew and turned increasingly corporate, the lady on your $6 cup of Frappuccino was sanitized by covering the breasts with long, flowing hair and focusing more on the siren's face.
Year logo debuted: 1962
Pre-dating the chain's iconic golden arches logo, Mickey D's OG mascot was a cartoonish burger chef named "Speedee." Taking cues from the architectural arches featured in early McDonald's restaurant buildings, Speedee was phased out, and, in '62, an early version of the golden "M" logo was born. The present golden arches emblem — ubiquitous from Peoria to Portugal — was trademarked in 1968.
Year logo debuted: 1983
Legendary graphic artist Saul Bass is best known to classic movie buffs for his opening title sequences to Alfred Hitchcock films like "Psycho" and "Vertigo." But Bass was also a prolific designer of corporate logos. One of his most recognizable works is telecom giant AT&T's blue-and-white striped globe, which company employees jokingly dubbed the "death star." In 2005, the logo was spruced up and rendered in 3-D (some graphic-design fans say for the worse), but the basic concept remains unchanged.
Year logo debuted: 1956
In the TV and radio network's infancy, it sported a logo featuring an NBC-branded microphone surrounded by lightning bolts. By the '50s, NBC sought a new logo to trumpet that its TV shows were increasingly filmed and broadcast in color. NBC's parent company, RCA, also happened to be a manufacturer of color TVs. And so, the network's now-iconic, brightly hued peacock was hatched. The bird has lost some feathers over the decades (the original had eleven; today's peacock has six), but as the early 1980s' marketing slogan proclaimed, it's still "Proud as a Peacock."
Year logo introduced: 1886
The logo for the world's top-selling soft drink wasn't especially unique when first penned by the company's bookkeeper, Frank M. Robinson. "Coca-Cola" was styled in Spencerian script, which in the late 19th century was the most popular handwriting style in the U.S. Yet with a big nod to nostalgia, the logo has endured for more than 130 years — a span that has seen vintage Coke advertising pieces become highly collectible.
Year logo introduced: 1916
The movie studio's iconic "Leo The Lion" logo was created for Goldwyn Pictures Corporation in 1916 by designer Howard Dietz, inspired by the lion mascot of his alma mater, Columbia University. The original lion was named Slats, not Leo, and the logo featured the Greek drama mask and Latin words "Ars Gratia Artis" (translation: "Art for Art's Sake") still used today.
In 1924, Goldwyn merged with the Metro and Mayer studios to form MGM and the lion climbed aboard for the ride. The big cat's first audible roar came in 1928 and had to be played in the theater on a gramophone record because the film was silent. To date, seven different lions have starred in the logo. The first one actually named Leo was the seventh, who debuted in 1958.
Among the funnier on-screen spoofs of the logo, the Marx Brothers appeared and roared in place of the lion in a famous outtake from 1935's "A Night at the Opera"; Mary Tyler Moore's TV production company, MTM Enterprises, employed a parody logo with a meowing kitty cat; and the 1983 comedy "Strange Brew" featured a beer-burping lion with stars Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas trying to "Crank his tail," eh.
Year logo debuted: 1953
Paws down, the most famous magazine logo in history is the tuxedoed Playboy bunny, conceived by designer Art Paul for the magazine's second issue. Purportedly, Paul sketched the original bunny in 10 minutes. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner loved it, saying "The rabbit, the bunny, in America has a sexual meaning; and I chose it because it's a fresh animal, shy, vivacious, jumping — sexy."
Unlike most long-lived logos that see tweaks over the years, the bunny has never changed. Practicing an inside joke that dates to the bow-tied rabbit's introduction, the logo appears on the cover of every issue, sometimes in plain sight, other times hidden in clever ways. This begs the question, “They still print Playboy magazine?” Indeed, four issues per year.
Year logo debuted: 1977
Ever wonder why the company that made your $1,000 iPhone is named Apple? Steve Jobs and the tech behemoth's co-founders chose the moniker to honor Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity; the Biblical "forbidden fruit"; and the Beatles' record company, Apple Corps. — for which the band famously sued Jobs.
The first Apple logo, drawn by co-founder Ronald Wayne, featured Newton sitting under an apple tree and resembled an antique fruit-crate label. An unhappy Jobs (was there any other kind?) wanted a hipper symbol, and in '77 the now-familiar "bitten" apple debuted, albeit with the rainbow-striped color scheme from the Apple II machine you trashed way back in the '80s.
Year logo debuted: 2000
All hail a deceptively simple logo that epitomizes the term "evil marketing genius." Next time that shipment of sweat socks, razors and inkjet cartridges lands on your porch, take a moment to examine the logo on the box.
The arrow/smile underscoring the word "amazon" serves a dual, subliminal purpose. The arrow precisely spans the letters "A" to "Z," suggesting every item under the sun is available from your go-to shopping god. And preying on humanity's tendency to trust a friendly face, amazon's smile has you hook, line and VISA-card sinker. Bravo, Bezos.
Year logo debuted: 1898
One of the world's oldest trademarked logos, the plump Michelin Man inspired the similar, real-life Pillsbury Doughboy mascot as well as the fictional Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from the movie "Ghostbusters."
At an 1894 automotive exhibition, the French tire company's founders, brothers Édouard and André Michelin, gazed at stacks of tires and imagined them as the bodies of men sans limbs. Four years later, French cartoonist Marius Rossillon (aka "O'Galop") put their idea to paper and the Michelin Man was born.
Why is the Michelin Man the color white instead of black like car tires? At the time of his inception, tires were either grey-white or beige. Beginning in 1912, a rubber-strengthening carbon was added to tires, turning them the color black. Today, the mascot is still white, though he has undergone some tweaks, most noticeably having his rotund figure slimmed down a bit in the 1990s.
Year logo debuted: 1916
Peddling peanuts for more than a century, Mr. Peanut was not the brainchild of Madison Avenue, but rather a 14-year-old boy from Virginia named Antonio Sentile. In 1916, he entered a contest to conjure a new peanut-themed mascot for Planters.
Sentile's $5-winning entry was a crude doodle of a "Mr. P. Nut," strutting with a cane. The character's trademark monocle and top hat were added later by a graphic artist, and the rest is history. Mr. Peanut is such an American icon, he even holds a place in the Smithsonian.