The Origin Stories Behind 5 Famous Brands

Like superheroes, famous brands almost always have a great origin story. Okay, it might not be about a radioactive spider bite, but it’s often not far off. Family feuds, top-secret recipes, and bizarre coincidences fill the histories of some of the world’s best-known companies.

Learning about the origins of famous brands is a great way to get an idea for the process of developing your own. Part method, part madness, the art of brand-building involves finding exactly the right elements to tell your story.

From green armchairs to orange shoes and trips to the zoo, we’re diving into the origins of five of the world’s most iconic brand identities — and key lessons to take away from each.

1. Red Bull: The Local Hero

biker on red bull ramp

Ubiquitous among adrenaline junkies, long-haul truckers, and athletes alike, Red Bull has dominated the global energy drinks market for decades. A brand identity known across the globe, the company’s aggressive and creative approach to sponsorship has made the Red Bull name synonymous with everything from Formula 1, cliff-diving, nightclubs, snowboarding, and a guy literally jumping to earth from outer space.

But it wasn’t always this way. Red Bull once led a humble life as a pick-me-up for blue-collar workers in rural Thailand. Marketed to low-paid laborers and motorbike taxi drivers (who, presumably, were not trying to defy the laws of gravity and sanity like their North American counterparts), Krating Daeng was the basis for what would later become, you guessed it: Red Bull.

The potent concoction of caffeine and taurine was originally tweaked from a popular Japanese recipe by the Chinese entrepreneur Chaleo Yoovidyha, who introduced Krating Daeng to Thailand in the 70s.

Chaleo also designed Krating Daeng’s logo: two fighting bison in front of a yellow sunset. Sound familiar? According to the South China Morning Post, the logo ‘“evoked the lively spirit of the bullfights that have long been popular in parts of rural Thailand.”

Cut to 1984: Austrian marketeer, Dietrich Mateschitz, is jet-lagged while traveling around Thailand for work. By chance, he picks up a strange medicinal looking bottle with two fighting bulls on it. His jet-lag disappears, and the seed for what we now know as Red Bull is planted.

Seeing the brand’s potential among western partygoers and extreme sports lovers, Mateschitz approached Chaleo with an offer to launch the brand outside Asia. And the rest is history!

While Mateschitz updated the brand, he stuck close to its roots. Red Bull retained the original fighting spirit of Krating Daeng, keeping — among other things — both the bison logo and the name.

Lesson: Famous brands have deep roots in our psyches. Don’t be afraid to be inspired by an idea or formula that works already — but think about how you could improve it in a new and broader context.

2. TD: The Green Chair

td bank green chair


TD Bank is an iconic North American brand. Started in 1855 to serve Canada’s emerging grain industry, The Bank of Toronto grew to become one of the largest banks in the world.

Although the company went through several iterations and mergers before it became the TD we know today, it has tried to stay close to a set of guiding values that put the customer front and center.

A key symbol of the TD brand, the small but mighty green chair is now synonymous with the bank itself. By its own estimates, TD’s mean, green comfort machine has a brand recognition of 86% among Canadians. As far as furniture goes, that makes this chair pretty famous. Yet despite its role as a centerpiece in the company’s brand identity for nearly 20 years, the chair nearly went unused.

In 2000, TD had just acquired Canada Trust. The company was looking to make a bold statement to the vast number of Canadians who felt undervalued by the very banks that depended on them. Enter the Toronto agency, Harrod and Mirlin, and the idea for an “inhabitable metaphor” — something to represent comfort and familiarity in a single glance. Along with the chair, the initial shortlist included an open door, a pair of comfy slippers and a smoker’s pipe.

Fortunately, however, the chair won. As a brand symbol, it has continued to evoke the openness and relatability that TD actively attempts to pursue in its marketing. The company recently updated its iconic upholstery, replacing the long-standing “Banking can be this comfortable” slogan with a new, modernized chair and 2017’s “Ready for you” tagline.

Just imagine if they’d gone with the pipe!

Lesson: Brand symbols — either as they appear in logos or in ads and marketing materials — can be an effective way to help your customers make a positive association. Make sure you think carefully about finding a symbol that encapsulates who you are but can also withstand the test of time.

3. Penguin: The Dancing Bird

penguin publishing book

One of the most iconic logos ever created, the famous dancing penguin became the crowning symbol for a brand whose history includes naked board meetings, trips to the zoo, and an office in a crypt.

The eclectic British publishing house started back in 1934 when the young publisher Allen Lane found himself waiting for a train at Exeter St David’s and scouring the train station’s bookstore for something to read.

What he found was either overpriced or mediocre. Sensing a gap in the market for a more affordable and high-quality alternative, Lane and his brothers got to work.

Lane had already discussed using an animal logo for the brand, but it wasn’t until a typist suggested a penguin as “dignified, but flippant” that Lane settled. Falling in love with the idea, Lane immediately sent the 21-year-old designer Edward Young to the London Zoo where the dancing penguin finally emerged.

Since then, this little tuxedoed bird has gone through a few minor revisions, including the version you’re probably familiar with today. Updated by Jan Tschichold in 1964 and revised in 2003 by Pentagram’s Angus Hyland, the penguin has noticeably lost a few pounds.

Reducing the mark on its vertical axis, Hyland explained, allowed for the logo to be more legible on the spine of a book. A great example of considering your logo in its display context!

Lesson: Boiling your brand down to one word or phrase is a great way to get clear on the creative direction you want to take. After that, you’ll have a better sense of the rules that govern how your brand might look (including the logo). What words or phrases come to mind with your brand?

4. Uber: The Journey

Uber branding on mobile screen

Uber has had its fair share of wrong turns over the years (driving pun), but it’s hard to deny it has one of the most impressive brand vehicles out there (there’s another!). Like all great brands, Uber started from a personal experience.

On a snowy December night in Paris, 2008, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp stood shivering while they waited for a taxi. None came. Fittingly, the company started right then as a half-serious joke about ordering a private limo through an app. After that night, Camp and Kalanick went their separate ways, but the idea stuck with them both. Pretty soon after, “UberCab” was born.

In March the following year, the two co-founders had developed the app and proceeded to test it in New York in 2010 using just three cars. Returning to Paris in December 2012, they launched Uber — exactly three years after the app was first conceived there.

The company has grown exponentially since then, revolutionizing the meaning of travel along the way. Yet one of the most inspiring elements of that journey is the way Uber has come to tell its story in every element of the brand. Uber’s entire platform — from the app to the tone of voice and design — is a masterclass in branding.

Lesson: Think creatively about how you tell your story in every element of your brand, both on and offline. Consider how to augment your existing brand elements into memorable items that convey who you are and what you do. What other opportunities do you have to deepen your customer’s experience with your brand?

5. Monzo: The Coral Card

monzo branding credit card

It’s rare to have half the population instinctively know your brand just by the color of a debit card. But that’s exactly what the UK FinTech company Monzo has achieved.

In just a few years, the alternative banking startup has taken the UK by storm. Existing at the crossroads of technology and user experience, Monzo grew as an answer to growing public dissatisfaction with incumbent forms of banking.

In the wake of the financial crisis, Monzo (originally named Mondo until it polled customers for a new name) worked hard to develop a brand identity based on transparency; challenging big banks on the meaning of money in the digital age. Now, the company is a household name — a claim backed up on its website with the headline: “55,000 people open a Monzo account every week.”

But the company’s most famous brand asset, its luminous coral debit cards, didn’t come about as a typical brand decision.

Monzo’s CEO described how a printer’s deadline made the company pressure its designer into providing final proofs, with only an hour and a half left to go. Frustrated, the designer suggested they may as well just use the color of his shoes, a pair of hot coral Nikes.

The CEO loved it, and the color stuck. Ironically, the card’s color became perfectly emblematic of Monzo’s brand values: bright, different, and luminous.

Lesson: Trust the creative process; be open to happy accidents when exploring your brand identity! Remember that sometimes a little pressure under tight deadlines is where the best decisions can be made. Don’t be afraid to set deadlines for yourself to keep the momentum going and the great ideas flowing.

Great design starts with small ideas

Companies that can visually tell the story of who they are and what they do are more likely to captivate customers and make a deeper connection over time.

Revisiting your beginnings is a great way to gain clarity on the direction of your brand. Think about why you began in the first place and how you can portray that as a message, a visual identity, and in the actions you take as a business.

But most importantly, enjoy the ride!

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