I remember sitting with a designer friend in 2016, looking at (what was then) the new rebrand of Mastercard by design giant Michael Bierut and his team at New York design agency Pentagram. I will never my friend’s words as we looked at the world-famous trademark consisting of red and yellow overlapping circles. “It’s just two dumb circles,” she said, before proceeding to lambaste what was without doubt a 7-figure project.
My response to her was that her assessment said more about her than it did about the logo. I realize that I haven’t seen the creative brief and wasn’t in on any of the strategy sessions, I said, but it seems to me that the new Mastercard logo is an incredible example of a brand that has been properly built on the right principles.
If branding is just about ‘looking cool,’ someone might be able to build the case that Mastercard’s rebrand falls short. If it’s a matter of innovative aesthetics, or cutting-edge elements and techniques, or pleasing every possible observer, 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.”
If branding is a matter of innovative aesthetics, or cutting-edge elements and techniques, or pleasing every possible observer, then Mastercard’s rebrand is a catastrophic failure.
Fortunately for Pentagram and Mastercard, branding isn’t about trends or aesthetic preference, but about underlying principles of communication that are timeless and inviolable. Unfortunately, however, most reactions to the Mastercard rebrand are not going to be tied to those principles—or, therefore, an understanding—of what branding is. Instead, they will typically be preference-based reactions to aesthetics or uninformed, off-the-cuff ideas of what the rebrand “should” have been, whatever that means.
The Brand is Bigger Than the Logo
Mastercard has been one of the most recognized brands in the world for about 50 years, and the fact that Pentagram acknowledges as much in the very first words of the Mastercard rebrand case study is telling: “The iconic red and yellow intersecting circles of Mastercard are one of the world’s most recognized brands.”
Remarkably, Mastercard has retained that same basic logo—two overlapping circles, one red, one yellow—since its inception in 1968. Obviously the 2016 rebrand is a modification of that (insofar as two circles can be modified), so it’s not surprising that a person might criticize the new logo as ‘just two dumb circles.’
But the fact that the Mastercard logo has always been that is clearly one of the key reasons why the rebrand is such an incredible success. It manifestly does not start by tapping into current trends or external opinions ‘out there’ about what’s cool. It taps into the legacy—and, necessarily, the visibility capital—Mastercard brand itself.
What becomes apparent on even a surface consideration is that the logo is about far more than the logo. The logo is the fruit of a proper regard for the Mastercard brand, which, again, is one of the most successful and recognizable brands in the world. Without a doubt the circles themselves have (or at least had) some kind of communicative, representative meaning, but at the very least, they presently represent all of Mastercard’s products and services and the value those things provide for their customers. They represent the character, nature, and values of the company itself. They are, in the minds of a huge portion of the global population, shorthand for Mastercard and all that that entails. And all of that is wrapped up and represented in essential, visual form in the Mastercard logo.
In other words, you and I see those two circles and we know exactly what we’re looking at. More importantly, you know what those two circles mean to you.
What Those Two Dumb Circles Mean
Just what do those two dumb circles mean to you and to me?
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. Some time back, a good friend of mine lost his wallet on vacation and he had $700 in it. There’s no calling the bank to put a hold on 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.
There’s obviously more we could say about what the Mastercard logo means, but our point is simply to say that a logo is more than a logo because a brand is more than a logo.
Branding is the visual + verbal expression of the communicative intersection who the organization is, who their target customers are, and how they make the lives of those customers better. And in the case of an organization like Mastercard 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, or to what scratches the aesthetic itches of uninformed outsiders. You start with who the brand is, what they’re about, and what they mean to their clients.
And for Mastercard, to say that those two simple circles are central to all of that is an understatement.
Strategic Roots Bear the Right Brand Fruit
When Pentagram rebuilt the Mastercard brand, it is obvious that they started by laying a solid, strategic foundation rooted in a clear understanding of who Mastercard is. One can almost hear someone at the strategy table busting out at some point with, ‘Look guys, it’s Mastercard; if it ain’t broke, we shouldn’t try to 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 perfectly fit for a digital age—not only aesthetically but functionally.
In other words, they cleaned up a classic in order to bring it into the 21st century and extend its prime, keeping it young, beautiful, and relevant—all of which is exactly what you do with a classic.
It is obvious that the Mastercard rebrand is built on a solid, strategic foundation rooted in a clear understanding of who Mastercard is.
It would definitely be wise to resist a temptation to look at the new Mastercard logo and say, ‘That’s just two dumb circles.’ That kind of assessment would say more about what the observer does not know than it would about any alleged failures of the new logo.
From our admittedly-outside perspective, it would seem that what Pentagram has done is elevate an iconic brand by: 1) keeping their heritage central; and 2) reframing 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 sphere.