Does typography influence consumers’ interpretations of brand logos? Do these interpretations differ between cultures? One important feature of typographic design is tracking, which refers to the space between individual letters. Tight tracking creates compact logos, and loose tracking creates spacious ones. Which type of logo is perfect for your brand?
In recent work published in Journal of Consumer Research, Tanvi GuptaHenrik Hagtvedt found that compact logos can encourage favorable brand evaluations by signaling product safety. Consumers interpret symbolic meaning from logos, and a logo that appears robust implies that the brand’s products are safe to use. Compact logos provide that signal of robustness because compact structures tend to be sturdy and secure. In particular, the effect occurs with textual logos, because people are sensitive to the amount of space between written letters. Tight lettering implies sturdiness, whereas too much space can signal vulnerability.
Consumers are familiar with this relationship between space and vulnerability at various levels. At the microscopic level, sturdy materials tend to have a tight molecular structure. At the object level, a tight bundle of sticks can be strong, even if individual sticks are easily broken. At the social level, threat causes people to huddle together for safety, whereas socially isolated individuals are vulnerable. Consumers may not consciously link such associations to logos, but the associations can nonetheless exert an influence.
Gupta and Hagtvedt initially uncovered the effect using a dataset with 629 brands rated by 17,000 individuals: Compact logos, as compared to more spacious ones, encouraged favorable brand attitudes, because people perceived those brands to be reliable, secure, and trustworthy. The pattern of findings replicated in follow-up experiments, and even during the Covid-19 pandemic, despite some firms temporarily making their logos more spacious, to emulate social distancing.
Responses to the logos, however, also depended on whether the consumers were culturally tight or loose. Cultural tightness is a social adaptation to chronic threats such as recurring natural disasters, disease, resource scarcity, and human violence. Such threats heighten perceived risks and the need for tight social structures. Thus, culturally tight individuals are especially likely to favor signals of tight structure, even in a brand logo.
Cultural tightness has developed to varying degrees in different regions of the world, and in different parts of individual countries. In the USA, for instance, southern states tend to be relatively tight, whereas western and northeastern states are typically looser. These regions roughly reflect political differences, too, with the former tending to be more conservative and the latter tending to be more progressive. Additionally, factors such as religion, organization, or industry can influence cultural tightness. For instance, organizations that face serious physical threats (e.g., airlines, the military) tend to have strong norms and severe punishments for deviance.
Gupta and Hagtvedt found that consumers tended to favor compact logos over spacious ones, regardless of cultural tightness, under ordinary circumstances. However, when the experiments involved contexts with salient safety concerns (e.g., pharmaceuticals, mobile financial services), only culturally tight consumers responded more favorably to the compact logos. The authors inferred that culturally loose people might dislike a perceived lack of space under the latter circumstances, because it signals a loss of autonomy. In other words, this negative association can balance out the positive security signal provided by a compact logo.
In a field experiment, for instance, the click-through rate for online ads depended on the compactness of the logo, the presence of salient safety concerns, and the cultural tightness of the consumer (the latter inferred from the U.S. state in which the ad was placed). When ads were placed on webpages with safety-related content (e.g., insurance, computer security, traffic safety), the click-through rate was higher for the compact logos, but only in culturally tight states. However, when ads were placed on webpages without safety-related content, the click-through rate was higher for compact logos regardless of state.
Overall, the findings provide insights into the human capacity to extract meaning from visual communication. At the same time, they provide practical tips to organizations and individuals seeking to signal safety, depending on the context as well as the relevant culture.
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