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Choosing A Company Logo

For big companies with a lot at stake, logo design and development is big business.

Anne Harding(aharding@the-scientist.com)
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CAYMAN CHEMICAL's logo, reinvented in 1995, hints at the original logo, with the pentagon that forms the fish's eye. "I've always felt that the company logo should have layers of both overt and obscure historical content," says Kirk Maxey, Cayman's founder. "For instance, the tail of the helix fish is maize and blue – Go Michigan!" The helix shape echoes not only DNA but also the scale pattern of an angelfish.

For big companies with a lot at stake, logo design and development is big business. Even for startups, the process today is more sophisticated than it was back in the 1980s. "I do think people still design logos on cocktail napkins, but those cocktail napkins do get handed to designers," says Karen Bergman of BCC Partners, a California company that advises biotech and life sciences companies on branding, communications, and investor relations.

In biotech's infancy, it was acceptable...

CHOICE SEEMS EASIER THAN IT IS

Finding a company logo is an intuitive endeavor that sounds a lot easier than it really is. In fact, the retelling seems to take out a bit of the magic, says William E. Rich, CEO of Ciphergen Biosystems, Fremont, Calif. He came up with his company's distinctive dragonfly-in-amber logo after a couple of months of brainstorming with his wife and an outside designer. "Finding that look and that feeling was really a creative effort," he says.

Creative, but tough, says Dani Bolognesi, one of three founders of Trimeris in Durham, NC, and now the chief scientific officer. "This is actually a very arduous process," he says. Bolognesi and his colleagues put their heads together to come up with the logo, which has not changed much since the company's founding in 1993.

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To reflect its growth from brash startup to a big player, INVITROGEN underwent major rebranding, including a logo update. While several elements have been changed, the company kept its signature red circle/helix symbol. "We always keep some element of red," says corporate communications vice president Mary Cassoni, who calls it a power color. Invitrogen's first logo featured bright red and slanted lettering, but "red in the name is a little bit too 'yelling at you,"' she adds. The new gray lettering projects a quieter, more mature image.

Such endurance is one mark of a good logo. Karen Bergman of BCC Partners says "A good logo is crisp, it's clean, distinctive, reproducible, and flexible in terms of many applications, whether it's on the company business card, a Power Point presentation, or even on the side of their booth at a medical conference." Bergman has worked with more than 100 biotech companies over the past two decades.

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Cayman Chemical is a case in point. The company was founded in 1980 to produce prostaglandins extracted from gorgonian corals. It started out with a logo that matched its "synthetic organic" focus, says founder Kirk Maxey. "It was a cyclopentane ring with two of the carbon atoms represented as bright red C's." Over the years, the company's focus shifted to developing biochemistry research tools along with synthesis of biochemicals, including highly complex molecules.

In 1995 Cayman Chemical decided to update the logo to reflect the company's new identity. Maxey gave a design team several items with which to work: a picture of an Imperial Angelfish (kept in a salt-water tank in his office), the word Cayman, and a representation of the DNA helix. The team came up with the company's current "helix fish" logo.

"In a lot of ways it was just a really big step for us," says Mike Schofield, Cayman's art manager. He notes that the new logo says much more about the character of the company and the brand, compared to the old "nichy" image that only meant something to biochemists.

AVOIDING PITFALLS OF LOGO DESIGN

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SUNESIS, a small-molecule discovery company, "is really about the union of chemistry and biology," says Jim Wells, who helped found the South San Francisco company in 1998 and is now chief scientific officer. The logo blends the hexagon, denoting chemistry, with the helix, signifying biology. A professional logo designer came up with the symbol after several interviews with company leaders. The pinwheel shape also conveys energy, although Wells jokes that to some it looks like a vortex.

These days, logos should pass the spouse or best-friend test, says Bergman. A layperson should be able to look at a logo and not be reminded of a spaceship or some other image totally unrelated to a company's mission. Other pitfalls include getting caught up in color trends. Trendy colors will wind up "inking" a company into a timeframe and making a logo look dated, says Bergman. "Stick to primary colors that will stand the test of time," advises Michelle Corrall, Bergman's associate.

Logo development is usually an informal, relatively inexpensive affair for startups and smaller companies, but for a large, established company undergoing rebranding, it can involve competitive analysis, internal interviews and focus groups, and last several months. The cost of developing a logo can range from $5,000 to $75,000, say Bergman. For emerging companies, she jokes, the question is whether logo expenses should include the pizza party to come up with the idea.

Invitrogen, a supplier of biological discovery products and services to research and academic institutions as well as pharma and biotech companies, recently completed a major rebranding and logo redesign. Launched in 1987 in a garage in Encinitas, Calif., the company started out with a logo reminiscent of that of Kentucky Fried Chicken, according to Mary Cassoni, vice president of corporate communications. In 1999, the company worked with a design firm to develop a more sophisticated graphic incorporating a helix and circle, intended to convey the firm's innovative nature. The helix is at the edge of the circle, to symbolize "always thinking on the edge or outside the box or moving forward," she explains.

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The TRIMERIS logo blends the Blue Devil of Duke University, home to the company's initial research; a triangle for Research Triangle Park, where the company is based; and the sea, to signify the founders' love for fishing. It also echoes the trimer structure of HIV targeted by the company's flagship drug, Fuzeon. Cofounder Dani Bolognesi and his colleagues initially suspected the target was a trimer but weren't sure. "We worried about this name for several years as this issue became more clarified. We might wind up with a tetramer and our name wouldn't look so good."

In the newest version of the company's logo, launched in October, the name of an earlier acquisition (Life Technologies) was dropped, while the typeface was changed to a "friendlier" font in gray, rather than black. The red of the helix/circle symbol has been toned down to a warmer, browner shade. The changes are intended to reflect the company's new, "humbler" mission as a "helper of science," Cassoni explains. "When Invitrogen was a smaller company we always wanted to appear bigger than we were," she says. Now that the company truly is a big player, with 3,000 employees and customers in 70 countries, it's adopted a "less in-your-face" logo and identity, she adds.

The year-long process of rebranding, undertaken with advertising agency Bulldog Drummond, involved interviews with employees, customers, and analysts following the company; talks with the sales force and input from Invitrogen's internal design team; focus groups, and frequent meetings with the company's CEO. "We were all involved in what we call the discovery phase of this," Cassoni says.

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