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Evolving one of the world's most iconic, recognizable brands: National Geographic

An interview with National Geographic's Creative Director of Brand and Design

Evolving one of the world's most iconic, recognizable brands: National Geographic

An interview with National Geographic's Creative Director of Brand and Design

Christos DeVaris headshot

Christos DeVarisCreative Director,
Brand & Design

Tell us about the National Geographic yellow. The yellow is highly identifiable among consumers. What's the logic and story of the evolution behind it?

The National Geographic magazine, which began in 1888 as the journal for the National Geographic Society, originally had a very dull cover with some type on it, typical of journals from the time. In 1910, driven by a desire to create a strong, recognizable identity for the magazine, a new cover was created with a dull yellow background and a prominent, oak-leaf border illustration. Over the next 50-60 years, the cover went through a few changes, during which the yellow got brighter, the oak leaves became less prominent, and color photography became a focal point. Eventually, all that remained of that original design was the iconic yellow border, the photography and the type. So in 1970, when trying to determine a trademark for the Society, the yellow rectangle's dimensions were finessed and the Yellow Icon became part of the logo for National Geographic.

How does the interplay between "National Geographic" and "NatGeo" work? What are the usage expectations of the two?

Our formal brand name is National Geographic and that is what we use. Of course, we recognize that a lot of our consumers call us "Nat Geo," and that's fine. We use "Nat Geo" primarily in the digital space, where character count is at a premium. We currently have some product offerings that use "Nat Geo," but we are moving toward a nomenclature system that will use the full "National Geographic" in product names.

Tell us about the team or teams at National Geographic whose job it is to focus on brand management and brand development.

National Geographic is a large brand with a lot of licensees and partners who must deal with brand management. Generally, the National Geographic Society owns the brand, and its Marketing and Engagement team works closely with a team from National Geographic Partners (the for-profit venture) to craft brand architecture rules and guidelines, and discuss all brand-related issues.

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Our brand is about making an impact in the world and creating a better planet for us all to live in, and that certainly resonates with people of all generations.

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How does the brand work seemingly well with so many generations? This is such a unique attribute of the brand.

Our brand is all about the spirit of exploration and connecting people to the world around them. It also is about telling great stories. And I think those are attributes that are not restricted to certain age groups. But our brand is also about making an impact in the world and creating a better planet for us all to live in, and that certainly resonates with people of all generations.

What are some of the biggest decisions that National Geographic has had to make with respect to its brand in the last 5 years?

The last five years have seen incredible changes with regard to the brand, though perhaps those changes are not obvious to the average person. About six years ago, we hired the first-ever Chief Marketing Officer in the history of the brand. That set us on a course for defining and centralizing our branding efforts. We created our first-ever brand book and started to really define our brand assets and voice. Then, as the organization was restructured around our non-profit and for-profit work, we evaluated whether we needed to split into two distinct brands, for-profit and non-profit, and whether we needed to differentiate them in any way. All of our brand research has shown that the consumer doesn't notice or care about that split and sees it all as one brand, so we've redoubled our efforts to present ourselves as one, unified brand in everything we do.

How, if at all, does National Geographic involve agencies in its brand development work? Or are agencies more involved in brand execution?

We use agencies to help with brand development, but we also do a lot in-house. In the late 1990s, we worked with Chermayeff and Geismar to refine our logo and logo systems, and we have tapped into other agencies to help with audience research, persona development and brand architecture, as well as some brand campaigns.

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How does the brand, if at all, have to pivot when it is presented in so many mediums - television, print, mobile, etc.?

Well, in fact, it goes beyond just presenting content in different media. Our brand has a very wide range of users, from travel and entertainment customers to our Explorers and educators who are making an impact in the world, to donors. Naturally, the way we speak to television viewers is different from the way we speak to donors, for example. And the balance between science and entertainment may vary depending on audience. Additionally, as a global brand, content may vary for different regions of the world.

Much of the logo is a picture frame or video player. How was this framing concept developed and how does it work and allow for flexibility?

That was actually one of the things that we finally put some rules around in the past five years. The Yellow Icon in our logo evolved out of the yellow rectangle that borders National Geographic magazine. But we also use yellow borders around a lot of different products with a lot of different dimensions (some books are square or more vertical than others). We decided that we had to differentiate the Yellow Icon in our logo from just any old yellow rectangle. In our style guide, we're very clear that the Yellow Icon in our logo has fixed dimensions and thickness and is not to be altered, and is very different from a yellow rectangle that may be used to frame a product. We also found that we shouldn't put yellow rectangles around everything, because it weakens that strength of our Yellow Icon as a brand mark.

National Geographic is a super premium brand - globally. In your opinion, what does it take to enable global accessibility for a brand?

I think what's important is allowing the brand to adapt to local sensibilities and interests while staying true to your core brand values and mission.

By Luke Beatty

January 2018