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.

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  • http://reddwarfredux.com Colin Carmichael

    I don’t know… very few of the non-tech folks I know can ever properly remember the name of “that other browser” their nephew (or whoever) told them to use instead of the “normal” one: Foxfire, Firebird, etc. My mom has finally settled on Mozzarella since she couldn’t figure out what a Mozilla is.

  • http://sugarpharm.com Carla

    @Colin
    I have had the exact opposite experience with my parents. I have even heard them talking up firefox to my relative at family get-togethers, it is a strange sight.

  • http://michaelbernstein.com Michael R. Bernstein

    Colin, you can’t generalize, people aren’t all the same. Some take a lot more time (years, even) to remember a new brand if it isn’t one they’ve been exposed to since childhood.

    In fact people are generally far more diverse in their capabilities than we assume. I remember when I was working in a copy-shop computer department that some (rare) customers actually couldn’t distinguish between serif and sans-serif text even when it was blown up and side by side. To them, text came in two flavors: fancy (ie., something like a script typeface with swashes) and plain (everything else).

    I have a feeling that as our visual environment gets progressively more complex with gradations of meaning encoded in ever more sophisticated ways we are going to turn up a lot more odd mental quirks that (much like color-blindness) make getting along in a media-rich environment more difficult.

    For example, I imagine there are people out there for whom smash-cuts or cross-cuts are largely nonsensical.

  • http://www.snee.com/bobdc.blog Bob DuCharme

    Would Turkey Hill ice cream be another example?

  • Emily

    I don’t know, Colin only seems to be talking about “non-tech folks [he] knows,” which doesn’t strike me as an overgeneralization. And I have to say that a fair proportion of non-tech folks I know have the same problem. I’ve heard Firefox called “Foxfire” a LOT. People like the program, but they don’t know what it’s called. The orange icon is familiar and recognizable, but they don’t know what it represents. As long as they can find the software and use it, maybe it doesn’t matter.

  • Julio Fraire

    As one of those fans of your animal covers, one who actually read about the cover design to get more about the usually clever metaphors, I wonder why you wrote “now-infamous”.

    These covers make it very easy to “hunt” for your books at the bookstores.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com Sara Winge

    @Julio: I meant “infamous” as in legendary or famed, not disreputable! And yes, those animals do stand out in the bookstore (the clean design and b&w covers help, too).

  • Inigo Montoya

    @ Sara,

    Not to be one of those nitpicky people, but I don’t think it means quite what you think it does, it’s not like inflammable. Infamous always means disreputable in some sense.

  • http://www.theinformedlife.com Ian

    Francophones often make the mistake in English of using notorious for really famous or memorable since that’s what the French means. Infamy may not quite mean what it once meant in the original Latin but it is definitely not a good place to be in business these days!