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Icons and Avatars

A brand icon is a name and visual symbol that communicate a market position. An avatar is an icon that can move, morph, or otherwise operate freely as the brand's alter ego. For icon, think Shell; for avatar, think Cingular. Icons can sometimes be upgraded to avatars, as AT&T has done by animating its striped globe icon in its TV spots.

Logos are dead! Long live icons and avatars! Why? Because logos as we know them—logotypes, monograms, abstract symbols, and other two-dimensional trademarks—are products of the printing press and mass communication. They evolved as a way to identify brands rather than to differentiate them. Today marketers realize that branding is not about stamping a trademark on anything that moves. It's about managing relationships between the company and its constituents, conducting a conversation among many people over many channels. We still have the printing press at our beck and call, but we also have the Internet, TV, telemarketing, live events, and other media to work with. Icons and avatars respond to this new reality by jumping off the printed page and interacting with people wherever they are.

Aristotle was a born brander. He believed that "perception starts with the eye," and that "the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor."

These two principles create the basis of brand icons. Cognitive scientists estimate that more than half the brain is dedicated to the visual system, adding weight to the argument that a trademark should be strongly visual. Yet it can also involve other senses, including smell, touch, taste, or hearing. Take for example, the auditory counterpart to an icon, sometimes called an "earcon." The experience of flying United Airlines is now inextricably linked to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," and the Intel Inside brand would be less memorable without its "bong" sound bite.

When conceived well, an icon is a repository of meaning. It contains the DNA of the brand, the basic material for creating a total personality distinct from the competition. The meanings that are packed into the icon can be unpacked at will and woven into all the brand communications, from advertising to signage, from web pages to trade show booths, from packaging to the products themselves. An avatar goes even further by becoming the symbolic actor in a continuing brand story. As trademarks go from two dimensions to three and four dimensions, the old-style logo may begin to seem more like a tintype than a motion picture.

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