Mastercard’s Rebrand: Two Dumb Circles, or Just You?
In short, it’s definitely just you. Mastercard’s 2016 rebrand, designed by Michael Bierut and the Pentagram team, is incredible. Now hold on, put the pitchforks and torches down, and give me a chance to explain.
If branding is just about ‘looking cool,’ it could be argued that Mastercard’s rebrand falls short (though I personally might be tempted to rebut that argument). If it’s a matter of innovative design or cutting-edge elements and techniques, then it’s a catastrophic failure. As even Bierut himself acknowledged, ‘the thing we’re talking about is just two circles and two primary colors.’
Well, fortunately for Pentagram and Mastercard, branding isn’t about trends or aesthetic preference.
Unfortunately, most reactions to the Mastercard rebrand are not in any way tied to principles or theories—or even an understanding—of what branding is. Instead, they’re typically just preference-based reactions, probably heavily influenced in some subconscious way by grand expectations of innovation and cutting-edge flash, because, well…they’re Mastercard, for pete’s sake. (On a side note, I’m guessing people might be even more critical if they saw the bill Mastercard got when the job was finished. ‘What?! They paid that for THAT!?!?’)
But let’s step back for a second and look at the facts.
“If branding is just a matter of innovative design or cutting-edge elements and techniques, then Mastercard’s rebrand is a catastrophic failure.”
The Brand is Bigger Than the Logo
Mastercard has been one of the most recognized brands in the world for about 50 years. Remarkably, it has retained the same basic logo—two overlapping circles, one red, one yellow—since its inception in 1968. Obviously the 2016 rebrand is a modification of that (if in fact two circles can be modified), so it’s not surprising that people would criticize the new logo as ‘just two circles.’ But again, the Mastercard logo has always been that, and that’s one of the key reasons why the rebrand is such an incredible success. It doesn’t tap into external trends or opinions ‘out there’ about what’s cool. It taps into the Mastercard brand itself.
You see, we’re not just talking about a logo here. We’re talking about a brand, and one of the most successful and recognizable brands in the world. We’re talking about all Mastercard’s products, services, benefits, all its character and nature—all of which is wrapped up and represented in essential, visual form in the Mastercard logo. You see those two circles and you know exactly what you’re looking at. More importantly, you know what those two circles mean to you.
What do they mean? Well, for one, they mean convenience and security. They mean not having to carry all your money around in your wallet and risk losing it. A good friend of mine recently lost his wallet on vacation and he had $700 in it. There’s no calling the bank to cancel that money. You can’t make a phone call to the federal reserve and report those bills stolen and have them cancelled so they can’t be spent. But Mastercard allows you to do that. So you can go on vacation without ever having to go to the bank, and if you lose your wallet you can call up Mastercard in an instant and cancel your card. Then you get a new one in the mail in a day or two. Convenience and security, just like that. And those are just two of the great benefits Mastercard affords its clients.
And the whole point is just this: A logo is more than a logo because a brand is more than the logo. Branding is the visual expression of who the organization is, who their customers are, and how they make the lives of their customers better. And in the case of an organization like Mastercard, one that has all that prestigious tradition and heritage—and it is a prestigious heritage because they’re one of the world’s credit card industry trailblazers; and in a world where no one pays with cash anymore (got any in your wallet now?), that’s saying something—in the case of an organization like that, you don’t start by looking out at a world of passing and shallow trends and see what best tickles your feelings. You start with who the brand is, what they’re about, and what they mean to their clients. And those two simple circles are so incredibly central to all of that for Mastercard.
Right Start, Right Results
And that is exactly where Pentagram started. They looked at Mastercard and essentially said ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ So they wisely took those two iconic circles, modified them a little and paired them with some fresh typography, and built a sharp new aesthetic around them to perfectly fit them for a digital age—not only aesthetically but functionally. In other words, they gave a magic potion to an aging classic to restore it and extend its prime, keeping it young, beautiful, and relevant—which is exactly what you do with an aging classic!
So don’t buy into the temptation to look at the new Mastercard logo and say, ‘That’s just two dumb circles.’ That kind of assessment is totally devoid of any lack of understanding of what a brand is and what brands are all about (i.e., it says more about your ignorance than it does the alleged failures of the new logo). Don’t miss the incredible strategy and the really masterful skill in what Pentagram has done! They’ve elevated a great brand by: 1) keeping their heritage central; and 2) setting that iconic identity in a fresh new aesthetic that’s not only attractive, but adaptable (and attractive!) on any device—which is crucial in a digital age, especially for a brand that operates primarily in the digital realm.
Outstanding job by Michael Bierut and the Pentagram team, and a great example to all other brands and brand designers of what real, substantial, strategic branding looks like. You don’t want a designer to come up with something cool—though whatever they come up with should definitely be that. You want them to come up with something right. You want someone to understand you, your target customers, and how you make their lives better, and then convey that in a way that is incredibly excellent and spot-on right.
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