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At only 18 years old, Amazon’s logo arguably has yet to reach iconic status. But its brand marque – the orange lower-case typeface underscored by a smile – is irrefutably ubiquitous. It’s stamped across your on-demand TV services and throughout your ad breaks, and on the posters outside your local Whole Foods. Even if you don’t visit its website habitually, a courier probably brings it into to your office every day via boxes emblazoned with that self-satisfied smirk.

It was at the turn of the millennium when Jeff Bezos’ branding posse came to visual identity shop Turner Duckworth looking for a revamp. The e-tailer, at that point still known as an online bookstore, had already evolved its first rudimentary logo into one with cleaner lines and less artwork, but in 2000 it had a clear brief to establish what it wanted the marque to say next.

“When the dotcom bubble burst, Amazon was transforming itself from purely a bookseller into an internet company that was going to sell everything, which was a radical move at the time,” recalls Bruce Duckworth, the eponymous cofounder of Turner Duckworth. “The logo needed to remind people of what had been done before. Jeff Bezos, in his own words, didn’t want to ‘spook the market’. But he also wanted to express two things: one was that the company was now selling everything on the internet, the other was that it was going to be the most consumerfriendly brand on the internet.”

The result of Turner Duckworth’s brainstorming was the icon we see today. The smile symbolizes the consumer friendliness of the service, but it also acts as an arrow connecting A to Z, communicating the vast array of items available for sale. Its lettering, however, remained in lower case thanks to the early internet’s inability to handle capital letters.

And as the likes of Google, Facebook and Instagram all refined or redesigned their own marques in their relatively short lifespans, Amazon has stuck with its 2000 design throughout the 21st century.

Duckworth believes the logo’s familiarity lies in Amazon’s simple decision to print it on its packaging. The agency found out recently that, since the design was completed, it has been printed 100bn times on boxes alone.

“Delivering the smile into people’s hands was an important part of the message that the business had changed,” he says. “Considering it was previously unbranded, to put the logo on and include this smile was quite an important thing – it signaled delivery of the brand promise. It shows the importance of design in establishing a brand.”

Unsurprisingly, the work is one of Duckworth’s design career highlights. But at the time, he recalls, designing the logo of an online bookseller did not make front page news.

“I remember it got a small section on page five of Design Week,” he says. “Amazon was an important business, but it wasn’t nearly where it is now. That scale and fame has made it one of the world’s most important logos.”

But as the company evolves ever further and expands into more and more spaces, is this simple emblem still fit for purpose?

Lee Fasciani, founder and creative director, Territory Projects

The logo is great. The best identities don’t always depict what a company does, leaving room to grow as a business. A logo should help define the spirit or essence of a brand, and everything beyond that, if done well, is a bonus. This arrow style and shape is now instantly recognizable and synonymous with the Amazon brand itself, allowing it to be utilized without the need of the wordmark.

However, as Amazon has expanded into many different business categories – including e-commerce, logistics, consumer electronics, cloud services, AI, physical retail and music services – the identity has struggled to stretch coherently across all of these different services. This lack of strategic cohesion in the identity has given way to some questionable sub-brands that use some or none of the original logo elements.  

Anna Hamill, strategy director, Design Bridge

Does the logo live up to what Amazon is as a company? In many ways, yes. It’s simple and intuitive. It draws the semiotics of traditional bricks-and-mortar American retail into the world of online shopping to reassure and build trust. It’s recognizable in an app, flexes to a pack, and even stretches to bring Fresh – its latest food venture – into the family.

Is it as aesthetically beautiful and crafted as Apple? Is it as bold and timeless as Nike? I would argue these things don’t matter nearly as much as whether the experience the brand delivers on a daily basis is living up to people’s expectations. If one day Amazon needs to reinvent itself to remain relevant, then perhaps a revisit to the logo makes sense, but only alongside a full transformation of its business. The logo, therefore, would be a signal of dramatic change, and not the change itself.

Alex Normanton, creative director, MassiveMusic

I want to talk about audio identity. Amazon is essentially a mute brand that focuses almost purely on visual icons, often resulting in failure to offer a wholesome, engaging experience. Its main visual icon is the smile from A to Z, but if you strip this away, along with the rest of its visual identity, we’re left with no real audible icon. This needs to change. It’s clear that Amazon is either making the conscious decision to present itself as a mute brand, or more likely isn’t completely aware of the power of sound within a branding context. There’s no real sense of ‘This is an Amazon product’ when you turn on an Amazon device or sign in. There’s no sense of welcome. Sonic branding is all about feeling and emotion, and through this medium Amazon could go beyond UI and UX design to generate real and meaningful engagement with consumers.

Rory Sutherland, design director, Love

On seeing this logo during the first presentation, Jeff Bezos famously said: “Anyone who doesn’t like this logo doesn’t like puppies.”

The smile is a powerful tool of human communication. A smile translates across all languages and signals a positive interaction – pretty powerful when you work across hundreds of countries, sell a seemingly endless array of products and have no physical stores. The Amazon logo seems almost omnipresent these days, subliminal in its simplicity and minimal black, white and orange color scheme. However, in a world of increasing noise, technological advancement and the unstoppable rise of online shopping, the positive impact of the smile as a first connection with a consumer is just as powerful and important as ever. So while designers may lament font choice, color palette and the cheesy smile, most consumers would be hard pushed to find negative things to say about it. 

This feature first appeared in The Drum's April issue, which talked about everything Amazon.