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A Smile is Forever on the Amazon

The smile probably runs second only to the heart in the pantheon of please-don’t-use-that-again design cliché’s. From Goodwill to Hasbro to early-2000s McDonald’s, it’s been everywhere.

  • Logo
  • Shipping Boxes
  • Website
  • Gift Cards

Yet seldom has it been used so effectively – and been seen by so many people for so long – as in Turner Duckworth’s identity for Amazon. What began as a simple reworking of the e-tailing behemoth’s logo became one of the smartest moves in cross-media history. Amazon-A-Logo The ‘Store of Everything’
The year was 2000 and while the Internet bubble was preparing to finish off what-were-they-thinking companies like Pets.com, Amazon was determined to expand. Chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos was repositioning the company from being an online bookseller to a veritable “store of everything,” and he wanted a new logo to reflect that ethos.

Amazon’s then-VP of Marketing, Jaleh Bisharat, put Bezos in touch with Turner Duckworth. The design and branding firm had worked with her several times before, including on the branding of her previous employer, Accept.com, which had been gobbled up by Amazon the previous year.

The e-tailer had gone through several logos since its launch in 1994, many of them awful. By 1998 it had abandoned various riffs on the bendy Amazon river flowing through a blocky capital “A” in favor of a cleaner “amazon.com,” boasting the motto “Books, Music & More” above, and a yellow line below, curving downward at both ends.

Amazon-Earth-Bookstore-Logo Turner Duckworth presented Bezos with three potential replacements, recalls co-founder David Turner.

“There was one that had a shopping bag integrated into the mark somehow. Jeff thought that the idea of a shopping bag was a little dated. We said it was more of a symbol for shopping…but he wasn’t so keen on that one, and I don’t remember what the other one was.” But it was the third concept – the name Amazon with the yellow line inverted into a smile underneath – that was the one that Bezos picked out right away.

“It was one of the fastest, easiest branding projects we’ve ever done because Jeff Bezos was in every meeting personally, made decisions and just moved,” says Turner. “None of the usual quagmire of approvals and market researching and all of that. The consequence was he got it for a great price because a lot of companies spend a lot of money going around and around with approvals and presentations as they work their way up the executive ladder.

“I think it was Jaleh who said maybe we should do a little focus group testing to make sure this resonates with people. [Bezos] said, ‘Anybody who doesn’t like that logo doesn’t like puppies,’ and burst out laughing. And that was it.”

23 Million+ Ads a Week
All Amazon had wanted was a new logo, but the branding company saw that the smile – dreamt up by Turner Duckworth designer Anthony Biles – could become the cornerstone of a much larger cross-media identity blitz.

“Jeff Bezos was extremely cost conscious,” Turner explains. Still, “we couldn’t resist showing them some packaging ideas, and a number of them required a little bit of extra cost. Immediately he wrote those off saying, ‘I’m not spending any more money on packaging.’ And then I remember saying to him, ‘How about if we could make a million good impressions for your brand a week without spending an extra dime?’ ”

What they proposed was transplanting the “smiley arrow” beneath the logo to each and every box that Amazon shipped, transforming them into “smiley boxes.” At the time they were shipping about a million boxes a week; today that’s more like 23 million a week: 23 million free advertisements for the company.

Amazon-DeliveryAmazon-Box

Since then, the “smile” element has been transplanted to apps, as well as Amazon subsidiaries like search-technology company A9. Amazon-Search-Technologies-Logo “We were trying to create something that had an iconic element,” says Turner, “that they’d be able to use in the future independent of the logo itself.”

A to Z
Turner Duckworth also designed a shorthand logo – a lowercase “a” above the same golden smile, which graces the face of its gift cards, making for an unmistakable brand presence on the crowded gift-card racks in grocery, convenience and department stores across the country.

Amazon-Gift-Cards

The “a” also appears in the tab or Web address window of your browser when you land on the site, just as recognizable as it is on those gift cards – not an easy trick.

Amazon-Website

“Whatever we created needed to have some representation in 16 pixels,” Turner points out. “It was at a time when most of the computer monitors had a very limited range of color as well. Funnily enough, some of the disciplines in the digital environment in the early days were a bit like early print in that it was a fairly crude medium.”

Of course everything comes back to the main logo, and one of the subtlest messages in advertising: the fact that the smile beneath “Amazon” actually begins at “a” and ends at “z,” emphasizing that the company carries absolutely everything “from A to Z.”

Says Turner, “The A to Z part is kind of an Easter egg. Whenever I do a conference and show it, I ask for a show of hands and it’s usually about a third of the people in the room are aware that it goes from A to Z. We love to do things that look incredibly simple but, when you look close, there’s a lot more to them.”

It might also be the most widely seen, original mark Turner Duckworth has ever created. “It’s got to be, hasn’t it? So many people use Amazon every day. That’s one of the really fun things about our business. When you start adding up the number of impressions your work makes on the world, it’s sort of uncountable, really.”

Back-of-Amazonc-Gift-Card

Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.

2 Comments

  1. What a great article! Love hearing the backstory on brands like this one. Great inspiration, thanks guys!

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks, Lisa. And who doesn’t love a smile :-)

      Post a Reply

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