In marketing, logos are a huge part of a company’s strategy. Money gets poured into focus groups and studies to see which logo candidates perform the best for consumers, with brand recognition the ultimate goal. When a logo works the way it’s supposed to, companies like Coca-Cola, Nike, and Apple become recognized the world over. In Apple’s case, the company has made itself into what Forbes considers the most valuable brand in the world, for the fifth year in a row. It’s an undeniable powerhouse and is a company whose presence is noted with its seemingly ubiquitous logo, the apple that marks every product to come off the line.
You’d expect the logo of the most valuable company in the world to be pretty memorable, especially since more than 1 billion devices in the world now broadcast its mark. But a recent study shows that 99% of people can’t correctly draw that infamous apple correctly, and less than half of people can pick the correct logo out of a lineup. Has Apple’s marketing failed? Likely not. The reason for this, scientists say, has more to do with individual priorities than the success of Apple’s marketing team.
Human memory is a complex thing. According to background information in the Apple logo study, long-term memory can contain visual details for more than 2,000 images. Research conflicts on whether repeated exposure to the same visuals (in this case, a logo) increases the chances that it will be remembered correctly. Some say yes, but the most famous case study of this falling apart is a study conducted in 1979 led by Raymond Nickerson and Marilyn Jager Adams.
You can’t remember what pennies or logos look like
In a series of five experiments, the researchers asked people to correctly draw or identify the sides of a penny. Fewer than half of the participants could pick out the correct penny drawing in a lineup, and only one participant out of 20 — an active penny collector — could identify all eight characteristics on a penny correctly. “Our subjects were not able to draw a penny from memory; indeed, their attempts to do so were, for the most part, grossly inaccurate. Nor were they able to position features correctly, even when told what the features are,” the researchers concluded.
The thought process for a successful logo is that they will be much simpler than the features on even a penny. Graphic design site 99designs says one of the first rules of thumb in designing a logo is to use clean lines without too many elements that compete for attention. “If you’re looking to capture the attention of potential customers and remind current ones of your reach, a busy or cluttered logo isn’t going to do your business any favors,” the site advises. Apple, for its part, underwent a few key logo redesigns to get to where it’s at today.
Even with all of that work, however, few people can correctly recall all the details of a logo, even if it’s incredibly simple. The recent study about the Apple logo, conducted by psychologists at UCLA, found that only one undergraduate student could produce the logo correctly out of a pool of 85 participants. Only 47% of students correctly picked the logo out of a grouping of six options. (In the picture above, the closest image to the correct logo is the one on the bottom, in the middle. However, the leaf should be pointing in the other direction.) Interestingly, 61% (52 students) were strictly Apple users, 27% (23 students) used a combination of Apple and PC products, and 11.7% (10 students) were strictly PC users. Within the study, the researchers found that results did not differ between Apple or PC users.
In the study, the students were asked to describe how confident they were about being able to draw Apple’s logo correctly. In most cases, confidence outweighed the participants’ memory. “There was a striking discrepancy between participants’ confidence prior to drawing the logo and how well they performed on the task,” said Alan Castel, associate professor of psychology at UCLA and the study’s senior author. “People’s memory, even for extremely common objects, is much poorer than they believe it to be.” (The study’s authors offer a similar test online to see how your memory compares.)
Even though that evidently is the case, it doesn’t mean that your brain isn’t working properly or that Apple’s logo is a failure. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Castel said that forgetting even the most common of images frees your brain up to be more productive in your own life. “It would be overwhelming and maladaptive to mentally record everything we see. So subconsciously we let some things fall away,” he explained. He and the research team thought they might get better results with a logo that is incredibly simple and so excessive, but the saturation of images people see every day makes it impossible. In fact, in some cases it’s better to forget. “Yes, forgetting where you parked last week or the name of a person you’ll never meet again is helpful because it frees your brain up for more important information,” Castel said. “People who are good at selectively remembering can be very efficient; they can home in on what’s critical and forget the rest.”
In other words, to be efficient within your daily life, your brain can’t keep track of every minute detail. Instead, it filters out what you’ve determined to be less important. While this may be slightly embarrassing when you don’t recognize an apple that symbolizes a company worth $700 billion, it helps keep your priorities at the forefront. By contrast, someone with an exceptional memory might remember minute details from weeks ago, but forget where they put their car keys. That’s because of interference, which happens when your mind puts too many details in the same importance level.
The good thing for Apple is that brand loyalty isn’t dependent upon whether its users remember which direction the leaf points. As long as they’re supplying the correct logo, customers are going to recognize that the apple goes with the company and its products.
As for you, don’t worry too much that your memory is failing you. Instead of remembering every word on a penny or exactly where the bite in Apple’s logo is, you probably need to remember that your kid’s soccer game starts at 3 p.m. tomorrow, how to conduct everyday tasks at work, and whether your email password is the name of your cat or your dog. Apple will take care of reminding you what their logo actually is. You take care of the important details in your life.
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