Classic Volkswagen!

A Look at Three of the World’s Most Iconic Logos and Their Unbelievably Ugly Beginnings

By Amanda Luedeke

Logos are powerful. They advertise for companies long after the marketing dollars have been spent and the commercials go off air. They’re an example of subliminal messaging at its finest.

We see a coffee cup with a green dot on it and we immediately wonder where the nearest Starbucks is.

We see a purse with an MK medallion and we know it came from Michael Kors.

We see three arrows impressed into plastic and we know that item is recyclable.

In each of these instances, advertising is happening without us thinking much about it, because it doesn’t seem intrusive or annoying. It’s not coming from a multimillion-dollar campaign. It’s coming from everyday use of the products themselves.

A great logo will quietly promote your brand in everyday-life activities, using the people who use your products as your brand advocates.

And that is the beauty of a great logo. A great logo will quietly promote your brand in everyday-life activities, using the people who use your products as your brand advocates. This is something traditional advertising can’t do. This is something that sneaks into the fabric of life.

Of course, even the best logos of today didn’t necessarily start out that way. Some started out as messy, unrecognizable, or even offensive versions of what we currently know and love. Want to see some examples? We thought you’d never ask!

So refreshing!

Pepsi-Cola: the Joy of Logos

In 1893, a new carbonated beverage emerged onto the delicious-drinks scene when pharmacist Caleb Bradham sought to create a drink that would aid digestion. He named his masterpiece Brad’s Drink (we see what you did there, Caleb) and sold it at his drugstore.

The drink immediately won people over with its syrupy goodness, and in 1898, Bradham decided that the beverage needed to be much bigger than it was. He moved the business to a larger space and rebranded his namesake drink.

The new name? Pepsi-Cola. And the new logo? This monstrosity:

Pepsi logo circa 1898.

Isn’t it glorious? All of its random tick marks and doodads. The curly tail on the A and the bloody drip coming off the S. This sloppy style is so very hard to achieve by typeface alone, and yet Pepsi nailed it. It’s the kind of logo that moves companies forward … or not.

According to Wikia (yes, our sources are airtight!), the logo was “just a scribbled version of the name picked by the then-CEO because nothing else was available.”

Within a couple years, Pepsi must have realized that its logo appeared as though it were drawn by a 5-year-old who had just learned calligraphy. The company cleaned up the look quite a bit. And yet somehow it still couldn’t completely shake the child-drawn charm.

Pepsi logo circa 1905.

We like to think that the conversation surrounding this new logo design went something like this:

President of Pepsi in 1905: Wow, Jimmy, this is amazing! It’s a home run.

Jimmy: Thanks, Dad!

Director of Marketing: Um, could I talk to you in private, Mr. President?

President (ignoring DM): This is really going to change things for us! It one hundred percent communicates “sweet, fizzy, digestion-enabling drink.” Plus, do you know how much logos cost these days?! It’s almost a crime to use it.

DM: Interesting you should say that …

President: Is “sloppy chic” a trend? Because we are owning it.

Jimmy (rolling eyes): It’s inspired by a tandem bicycle, Dad. See the wheels?

DM: Really? Because all I can see are the angular letters and the fact that the C has a superhero cape.

Jimmy: I’m glad you noticed! And did you see how the A is a little animal about to get run over?

DM: …

President: Well you’ve done an amazing job, Jimmy. Remind me about this at your yearly review.

The logo changed again one year later, when it settled in for 40 or so years before Pepsi incorporated its now-iconic circular wave. The logo just kept getting better and better — and then there came the aggressive turn-of-the-century look that hit in 2003:

Pepsi logo circa 2005.

It’s like Pepsi couldn’t decide which elements it wanted to incorporate, so it went with all of them. All the elements. And having all the elements can make you go a bit crazy as you try to showcase each in a unique way, which is exactly what seems to have happened to the 2003 logo above. Our favorite part? Probably the very heavy-handed gradient mesh on the Pepsi ball. We can just hear the execs yelling at the designer, telling her to MAKE IT POP MORE! MAKE IT STAND OUT!

Well, she listened. The Pepsi ball certainly does hold its own amid a dissonance of visual stimuli.

Thankfully, Pepsi redid its logo in 2008. It’s flatter, simpler, more current. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of the 2003 logo. And we’re big fans. It’s modern and iconic at the same time. A win-win.

Pepsi logo of today! (Thank goodness.)

Good, old Shell.

Shell Oil Company: Just a Shell of a Logo

Just when you think that nothing can top Pepsi’s early 1900s logo, Shell Oil Company comes along and destroys all competition:

Shell logo circa 1900.

I mean, what is it, exactly? A melty Hershey’s Kiss? A misshapen sand dollar? Or perhaps it was the sole reject in Ma’s batch of meringue cookies?

No, it’s a mussel shell, symbolizing Royal Dutch Shell oil company. But why Shell chose a mussel shell over all of the much-prettier shells in the world (conch, anyone?) is beyond us. And with such an odd shape, how did the company expect people to know it was a shell? The shading is wonky (where is the light coming from, exactly?), the shape curious, and it lacks all definition. It’s like a blob of sadness, and yet it was supposed to symbolize what would become one of the most powerful oil companies in the world.

Logos sneak into the fabric of life.

But have no fear. Just like Pepsi, Shell quickly corrected its first creation. It dropped the mussel inspiration in favor of a much more symmetrical and beautiful scallop shape, and the rest is history.

The Shell logo is so dialed in that the company name has been dropped from the design entirely. Now that is strong branding.

Evolution of Shell logo over time … we have a feeling the yellow and red will stay.

Here’s that picture of Volkswagen again!

Volkswagen: Mein Logo!

Volkswagen, the popular German car company, hailed for its safety standards and, until recently, U.S.-friendly emissions standards, was actually founded by Nazi dictator and mass murderer Adolf Hitler. Don’t believe us? Let’s take a look at Volkswagen’s first logo:

Early VW logo.

Why, yes. You’re seeing things correctly. Those are, in fact, really large and intense swastika flags encircling a VW cogwheel logo. And in case you were wondering, no, we wouldn’t be fans of this logo even if those flags did not stand for an anti-Semitic hate group. Because history aside, this logo is just not pretty. At all.

VW logo circa 1939.

This swastikalike logo was in existence until 1939, when it was modified to look more mechanical (and less Nazi?). The year 1939, of course, was when WWII broke out, so maybe Hitler wanted something more aggressive? More robotic? Maybe he felt his swastika flags were just too much to deal with when they were using the VW plant to churn out as many war machines as possible?

Whatever the case, Germany lost the war, and the Nazi regime was dismantled. It was around this time (1945) that Volkswagen, having been saved by British Army officer Ivan Hirst, put forth a new logo — one that removed the cogs of the 1939 logo and settled in with the simple VW circle design. This new logo would be the standard by which all future logos would be measured. To this day, the simple circle logo is used on VW vehicles as an emblem, while an amped-up version of the circle logo, complete with blue shading details and a more 3-D appearance, is used as the company logo.

Today’s much-improved VW logo!

Chicago Bulls: Incredi-BULL Logo!

We’ve had a good time poking fun at various outdated logos, so let’s close this blog post by gazing at a logo that was perfect from the very beginning (much like the team it represents). Behold, the logo for the almighty Chicago Bulls:

The amazing logo for the best team in the whole world times infinity (eat your heart out, Chip!): the Chicago Bulls.

This beauty hasn’t changed since the team’s birth in 1966. That’s 50 years of logo perfection. It just goes to show that when you’re the best, you’re able to excel in all facets of your company, including areas that take others years (or decades) to perfect.

Maybe if other basketball teams spent less time redesigning their logos and more time worrying about other things, they would be able to achieve the same level of greatness. Two three-peats. Best win-loss record for a season (as of April 1). Home of Air Jordan. I could go on.

All this to say, “Go, Bulls!”

And go, great logo design.

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