Why Non-Obvious Brand Icons Work

While pondering why names like Firefox, Fire Eagle, and firedog work for technology products, anthropologist and culture maven Grant McCracken concludes:

A Firefox and a Fire Eagle are counter intuitive in exactly the right proportions. These names resist comprehension but only just. They are counter intuitive, but not unintelligible. In the first moment of exposure, we don’t quite get them…and this prevents them from washing over us and out into that sea of forgettable branding and marketing. Comprehension is held up just long enough for the new name to lock into memory.

Edie Freedman, O’Reilly’s original Creative Director, knew this 20 years ago when she designed the first of our now-infamous animal covers:

As I started to look for imagery for the book covers, I came across some wonderful wood engravings from the 19th century. The strange animals I found seemed to be a perfect match for all those strange-sounding UNIX terms, and were esoteric enough to appeal to what I believed the UNIX programmer type to be.

Tim, against the advice of most everyone else in the office, gave the go-ahead to the quirky covers. Edie’s intuition proved correct–UNIX geeks, an imaginative bunch who treasure a good story,
loved the subtly non-obvious covers. Owning a shelf of “animal books” became a badge of honor for serious hackers.

In hindsight, we realized that the slight hurdle readers had to leap to “get” the animal brand made it stronger. Not only were people more likely to remember our books, but they were in on the secret of the covers, members of a select group of geeks in the know.