The name drop also solved another problem: "If you look at our
entire business today, we aren't really a card business," says
Rajamannar. "We provide technology solutions and so many other
services to our clients that we wanted to de-emphasize the card
Michael Bierut, partner at design firm Pentagram, and his
team worked side-by-side with Mastercard, starting with the
company's brand relaunch in 2016—its first in two decades.
That included a simplified logo removing the "zippered"
intersection between the two circles and replacing it with a solid
orange segment. The name, which until now was prominently centered
within the graphic, migrated to just below it, and was now written
in a simpler, circular sans serif font.
Dropping the name altogether, Bierut says, was an act of
"removing the training wheels," an inevitable step that Rajamannar
says had been part of those early rebrand discussions.
Mastercard "had one big thing going for them—they've used
some version of that symbol from the very beginning," says Bierut.
"They staked that claim way back in the '60s, and they've been
relentlessly consistent about it over their whole history. Other
brands may have abandoned what they started with to ameliorate some
crisis, or to keep up with the times."
As the overlapping circles endured, so, too, did McCann's
"Priceless" campaign, which has been updated over the years.
"All the stories, the emotional associations, can now be carried
by a more simplified expression, by this epic minimalism," says
Brian Collins, the founder of design firm Collins. He has been
credited with identities for Kodak and Motorola as well as recent
brand evolutions for Mailchimp and Dropbox. "We're inundated with a
tsunami of visuality, so anything a brand can do to appear with
more clarity—to create a pure, clean signal that can slice
through the cacophony, [they] should do it. It's a big jump into
On Twitter detractors have mocked the nameless logo, calling it
a "Venn diagram" and saying it was "arrogant" to assume people
would automatically associate the circles alone with the company.
But some design experts say when consumers see the logo, it will
not be in a vacuum.
"There are so few places in reality when you're seeing a symbol
alone, in absence of context," says Emily Heyward, co-founder and
chief strategist at Red Antler, the firm behind the branding of
startups like Casper and Allbirds.
Rajamannar says that during research, "what we found very
interesting was most of the people looking at the logo in context
of making a purchase aren't even reading the word Mastercard, so
that real estate wasn't being used appropriately."
Earning 'symbol status'
Now that consumers' primary interaction with any brand is likely
to occur on a tiny screen on a phone, one could assume that
companies that are recognizable through singular icons—brands
Bierut describes as having achieved "symbol status"—would
have an advantage. But it requires a lot of love for the brand:
Even Rajamannar says that if he were to develop a brand from the
ground up today, a strong verbal element would absolutely be part
of his logo plan.
"If I'm starting from zero, I would have a strong visual
element, but also a verbal one as well. I would need to have
both—one I could build a strong association with, and then
later, perhaps, I can afford to drop the word."
But reaching that point is a huge challenege—and a
particularly difficult one for established brands that have long
been associated with a wordmark, or word-based, non-symbolic
For a less established company to transition to "symbol status,"
it's as easy as "finding a time machine, going back in time and
making a logo that uses simple shapes and colors, building half a
century of equity and returning to the present," Bierut jokes.
For his part, Armin Vit, co-founder of design firm
UnderConsideration, which publishes the Brand New blog on corporate
branding, doesn't believe it's quite so impossible for wordmark
brands to make the transition. Walmart, for example, has potential.
"At first they had a really big, chunky uppercase wordmark, then
switched to a lighter one and introduced that yellow asterisk.
Maybe in 10 or 15 years, they could get away with just the
asterisk," he says.
"The way to do it is to have segue, introduce an icon attached
to a word mark and then build up to it over multiple decades," Vit
There are other challenges. "If you do a trademark search, it's
hard to find new territory in the world of geometric marks," says
Pentagram's Bierut. "And even if you land on something, you have to
be ready to invest time and money into educating your audience that
from now on, when you see this, you will think of this company. The
curve is steep."
And if brands do land on something, they can't expect consumers
to fall in love with—or even get—their symbol right
away. Recall the snark storm that befell Airbnb when it debuted its
"Belo" logo in 2014.
To be sure, names can be iconic too. Collins points to companies
with wordmarks now part of the cultural canon like Coca-Cola, The
New York Times, Budweiser and Google.
It's crucial to remember that "a brand gets its meaning from
what it represents, and not the other way around," Collins says. "A
logo is only a vessel for meaning."
As our landscape evolves, new branding rules are emerging.
Brands today are more than mere words or a logo, and even voice is
becoming part of their identity due to Google Home and Amazon
A third way
"The places brands need to appear are completely different and
much more varied," says Red Antler's Heyward. "Yes, you need to see
something tiny, but you also need to see things in motion. Today,
it's less about owning a symbol or word and more about
flexibility—how do you build a range of tools to communicate
She notes that for sleep firm Casper, for example, the brand
identity is as much its wordmark as it is the whimsical, graphic
illustrations that appear in its advertising, or its blue-and-white
"A great symbol can be an indispensable asset for any brand, but
why choose between words and symbols when having both will broaden
the brand's communication efforts?" adds Sarah Moffat, global chief
creative officer of global design firm Turner Duckworth, which led
major design initiatives for Coca-Cola and Amazon, among
To hear Mastercard's Rajamannar tell it, images have more of an
emotional impact than words. We are living, after all, in a world
where emojis have gained currency as accepted shorthand in our
daily lives. And, as Bierut says, "We're moving into a world where
people are regaining a facility with visual communication. As media
expands, the nature of visual language will as well."