On Lunch Boxes, Soda Pop, and International Logos

When I was a child, my father got me a lunch box covered with Coca-Cola logos from around the world. I’d ride the bus and stare at it, looking at how the signature swoosh sort of lost its shape in Arabic, how in Hebrew the italics made the logo look like it was dancing. It amazed me that no matter what language you wrote “Coca-Cola” in, you knew what you were getting. That red and white trademark was as dependable as my dad himself.

Brand identity across countries can be coherent, but it’s never 100% uniform. The question for any company is how much localization from one country to the next should be intentional? Language and culture not only frame the way we think, they shape who we are. What sells a product well in one market may not have that effect in another. Linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen claim thought and action—like purchasing decisions—are driven by the metaphors we use to describe things. In English, for example, arguments are described with the same words as war (she won, he lost), so Americans think “fighting” is bad. But Spanish defines arguments as a dance, so the people who speak it embrace them. Successful marketing taps into these subconscious connections. And a logo-—the encapsulation of a brand into a single image—is the largest metaphor of all. If an image triggers a different emotion abroad than at home, the logo needs to change.

Coca-Cola’s logo is internationally recognizable, but that’s not the case with the corporation’s other brands. Outside the US, Diet Coke’s logo changes: the swoosh goes away and the word “diet” itself disappears. You see, when you don’t speak much English, “diet” looks a lot like “die” and no one buys a soda that kills. So Diet Coke is called Coca-Cola Light abroad to associate the drink with happiness and dieting instead.

Similarly, Procter & Gamble’s Mr Clean is Mr Proper in Eastern Europe. “Proper” looks like “propre,” the French word for “clean.” But you’d still recognize a bottle if you saw it: That bald head is as identifiable as Coca-Cola’s swoosh. Too bad it’s missing from the cleaner’s UK logo. Not only is the product named “Flash” there, but the logo looks like one too—bright yellow letters diagonally flashing upward. It’s not completely removed from the U.S. version, though: The UK background uses the same blue that’s in the sky behind US Mr Clean.

Of course, when the brand name of a product itself changes, a designer has to redo the logo: Name length affects font size and logo shape, certain letters may not look right in a different font. The font itself may not even be available for the new language.

Brands can market under the same English name, though, and still need to change the logo. For example, Milky Way’s US logo is green on brown; in the UK it’s white on blue with a red star. But different designs are needed because the two candy bars are nowhere near the same! Even though Mars sells them both, an American Milky Way is chocolate nougat with caramel inside a chocolate bar. In the UK, the caramel’s gone and the candy bar itself is smaller. In fact, a British Milky Way tastes more like a 3 Musketeers. And 3 Musketeers—you guessed it—has a red, white, and blue logo. Thinking of logos as product metaphors, these colors connect the two together.

Of course, going back to soda, sometimes localization has nothing to do with subliminal meaning. In the U.S., 7 Up is two words separated by a space, so there’s a red dot between them in the logo. But outside the US, 7Up is one word with “up” inside the dot. But there’s no deep-seeded emotion here, no child on a school bus linking logos to the drink in her lunch box. This change is a matter of law: In the U.S., Dr Pepper Snapple Group owns 7 Up, whereas 7Up is owned and sold by PepsiCo.