Corporate tattoos

—Juan Carlos Fernández

The word “corporation” comes from the Latin word “corpus” which, in the case of we humans, refers to the collection of organs and systems which form a body. Corporations came into being in the previous century to formalise their status, as well as their legal responsibilities, not that different from those of ordinary people. Given the metaphor it’s easy to imagine the corporate brand as a tattoo on the “skin” of the company, and the similarity invites us to draw a few conclusions.

We know that people aim to strengthen their identity and narrative through their tattoos. They use them to express love, artistic freedom, rebellion, affiliations to groups, connections with spiritual or cultural traditions, amongst many other things. They are self defining, their impact is considerable, but what do other people make of them? Inevitably, tattoos create either a positive or a negative impact on the image of the person they belong to. Which is why taking the decision to have a tattoo is usually a longer process (although not always), than, say, buying clothes or having a haircut. 

Tattoos always invite intrigue and lead to questions about their origins and reasons. The explanation, or the story, changes our perception from the impression we received when we first saw it. Recently I came across two contrasting cases that gave me clarity. The first was a woman who had the face of Hercules on her arm. I asked about its symbolism and she said that she didn’t know much about who Hercules was nor had any deeper reason for choosing it other than that someone had offered to pay for the tattoo and she “couldn’t say no to a free tattoo”. Obviously, my initial impression of this woman as someone with an educated mind changed in seconds to someone immature and silly, with little vision for the future. The other case was of someone I know who has a three lined trigram tattoo. I asked him the same question and he said that he hadn’t wanted to commit himself to any specific meaning and that something so simple would allow him to change the explanation over the years.

For both corporate brands and tattoos the same line or stroke of a design can have a completely different meaning, depending on who it belongs to, for example, the company’s behaviour and nature, or the individual’s personality and context. Needless to say, its interpretation and acceptation will depend on the point of view of whoever sees it. As, for example, a tattoo denoting anarchy on a young adolescent means different things to his parents than it does to his friends. 

The complexity of the system of symbolisms and audiences should be sufficient to generate a certain “paralysis caused by analysis”. The difficulty lies not in whether to have a tattoo but rather what to tattoo. We all know how many people regret the choice of design minutes, hours, months even decades later. There exists a whole industry dedicated to removing them once the love of their life is no longer, or they have left the gang, or even ideograms in Chinese symbols which really say “sweet and sour chicken”.

Companies, however, do not “remove” bad brands and it’s not common for them to suffer the error of a decision similar to the pain endured and the cost of removing a tattoo, but redesigning a poorly thought out brand involves a much higher cost, and the scars are much deeper.  A company may not have to deal with the same reasons for removing a tattoo, but it does have to deal with the years lost during which time the company has failed to communicate its story and failed to construct a solid identity based on clear objectives and business strategy. 

There are logos made up of just three lines that can allow an ever evolving story to reveal itself over time, and there are Herculean logos that commit the company to a narrative and behaviour that can only be expected from the gods themselves, requiring tremendous preparation and commitment. Companies had better decide what to tattoo themselves with, and, of course, who should do it, because between catalogues, clichés and passing ideas it’s very easy to imprint themselves with indelible and inadequate ink. Tattoos turn to dust, they only last as long as life itself, but corporations will continue to generate ideas, employ people and evolve for generations to come. 

Juan Carlos Fernández

Founding partner and creative director

Accomplished conjuror of symbols and metaphors, tireless creator of ideas. He created Ideograma in 1999, today he is in Montreal inspiring, directing and motivating our creativity. Author of the book Crealogo (

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