The Strange, Uninspired History of Spotify’s Bland Logo
The music company has succeeded despite its branding, not because of it
There is no romantic story behind Spotify’s name.
In a post on the question-and-answer site Quora, Spotify founder Daniel Ek writes that, in 2006, he and co-founder Martin Lorentzon “were sitting in different rooms shouting ideas back and forth… even using jargon generators and stuff,” when Lorentzon shouted a name that Ek misheard as “Spotify.” Ek Googled the name and saw that nobody else was using it. “A few minutes later,” he writes, “we registered the domain names and off we went.”
The story highlights how the founders moved quickly and decisively to capitalize on a bit of luck in establishing their brand. Spotify, though, has succeeded despite its branding, not because of it. Its name and logo sprang from an early 2000s trend (attaching an “-ify” suffix to a word) that hundreds of other companies were following, and as a result exudes a generic blandness that says nothing about, you know, music.
Many new companies’ initial names and logos are ill-considered and quickly changed. But Spotify is an interesting example of a business that started with a bad name and logo and just stuck with both. In the face of increasing competition, Spotify is saddled with a brand that does little to recommend the company to customers other than offer mere familiarity.
Why did the misheard “Spotify” resonate with Ek? Perhaps the “-ify” ending just sounded right, in the same way that the “-ayden” ending had a certain ring to the thousands of American parents who were naming their sons Aiden, Caden, Jayden, and Brayden that same year. Those syllables were in the air and culture that we share, sometimes uncannily, with one another. Spotify wasn’t the only company to pick up on the signal: Shopify, Stockify, and Salesify all launched around the same time.
Analysis of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office data shows that the “-ify” naming trend was well on its way by 2006 and has not slowed down much since, perhaps in part due to copycats inspired by the success of Spotify itself.
For one of those American boys, the upshot of 2006 naming trends was that in his 2011 kindergarten class, he may have been identified as “Jayden K.” to differentiate himself from “Jayden T.” But for Spotify, it meant swimming upstream alongside hundreds of other “-ify” corporate competitors, all trying to suggest with that three-letter suffix that they were somehow making or doing or transforming something.
Analysis of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) data shows that the “-ify” naming trend was well on its way by 2006 and has not slowed down much since, perhaps in part due to copycats inspired by the success of Spotify itself.
Spotify’s uninspired name managed to make it over the lowest bar a name can hurdle: Nobody else was using it. It was essentially meaningless, other than in its similarity to the other “-ify” names. In this sense, the name functioned only as an empty vessel into which meaning could be poured as the company evolved.
Spotify’s original logo, like its name, was the product of a trend that was quickly turning into a cliché.
Paul Rand saw logos in this way. Perhaps ironically, as America’s most revered corporate logo designer—and the brain behind the logos of IBM, UPS, and Enron—Rand argued that the design of the logo was not all that important. He wrote, “A logo derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around… what it means is more important than what it looks like.” So, even the worst name can be effective and loaded with the right meaning when the product is good. As Rand continued, “We all believe our flag the most beautiful; this tells us something about logos.” But serving as a receptacle for meaning was literally the least the Spotify name could do for the company.
Spotify’s original logo, like its name, was the product of a trend that was quickly turning into a cliché. To illustrate their use of emerging technologies like streaming and related ways of wirelessly transmitting bits through the ether, Spotify and hundreds of other early 2000s brands adapted the visual convention of concentric lines, which had in the past been used to symbolize radio waves and the like and were increasingly being used in UX icons representing Wi-Fi or sound volume. Analysis of USPTO data shows how this design element in logos shot up in the early 2000s.
The Spotify logo was part of an even more specific design trend in which dozens of logos used the letter “O” in a company wordmark as the “source” of their emanating waves. That so many tech companies in their infancy used such marks is understandable in that, as unknown quantities, their logos needed to communicate something basic about what they did (“we stream stuff,” “we beam stuff”). But this function of a logo can be quickly outweighed by a necessity to differentiate once the company establishes its footing.
Before gaining widespread public recognition, companies have the opportunity to pivot away from their often hastily considered and poorly conceptualized brand marks and logos in favor of more suitable replacements. For example, Blue Ribbon Sports renamed itself Nike and paid $35 for the Swoosh that founder Phil Knight initially wasn’t crazy about. Microsoft dropped its trendy, stripy “Blibbet” logo in favor of a more sober wordmark. Jeff Bezos’ company was called Cadabra and Relentless before it was Amazon. A company that waits too long for such an adjustment, though, can find it difficult to pull off. Uber attempted to introduce a new logo in 2016, only to abandon it for a new visual identity two years later.
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Spotify likewise missed its window for a brand transformation and had to settle for the next-best thing, a glow-up of sorts. In its 2013 adolescence, when it was already too big and well known to pull off a major change, Spotify adopted a clean, fashionable, grown-up sans serif wordmark and detached its three streaming waves to serve as a stand-alone symbol. Two years later, it replaced its pea-green brand color, which, like its name, had been chosen simply because no one else was using it, with a brighter shade that might be called “buy now” green because of how frequently it’s used on the web to try to draw attention.
Especially considering the importance of logos today as recognizable app icons, it is probably too late for Spotify to redesign its mark; it’s stuck with a logo that is essentially generic. Not only is the Spotify logo’s sole design element one that is used by hundreds of other companies, but it is also barely distinguishable from the basic Wi-Fi and volume symbols found on every computer and phone screen. It’s not inconceivable that it could even be mistaken for another three-lined cousin, the “hamburger” menu icon.
Spotify’s only hope for its name and logo to gain distinctiveness is through attrition. Currently, according to USPTO records, there are 2,330 live, or active, U.S. trademarks ending in “-ify” and 3,063 live logos featuring sound waves, compared to 2,153 “-ifies” and 2,948 sound wave logos that have “died” due to abandonment, cancellation, or expiration. With each passing year, it seems likely that fewer such marks will be registered and more will die off, and as a result, Spotify’s name and logo could appear relatively more distinctive in the future.
Some symbols have already completed this journey. The style of Coca-Cola’s script wordmark was commonplace in the late 19th century, but as more and more companies abandoned the script, perhaps because it seemed old-fashioned or the company simply went out of business, Coke emerged with a “classic” logo. Similarly, the helmets worn by the University of Michigan Wolverines are considered among the most distinctive in college football today, but they actually feature a sort of boilerplate design that was widely used in the 1930s before largely disappearing.
For now, though, Spotify’s branding is hamstrung by its arbitrary name and generic logo, which say nothing about music and portray the company as something of a faceless utility, a service by which an undifferentiated commodity, streaming sound waves, is delivered to the customer. Being a utility is fine for the local electric company with a lightbulb logo and no available alternatives for its customers to turn to, but Spotify faces plenty of competitors that can sell people essentially the same product. And while Apple Music’s note logo is also generic, it at least speaks to music.
Spotify seems to have recognized its quandary. A 2015 branding push that introduced a palette of dozens of new “approved” colors and an automated way of applying them to photographs of musicians was aimed at “helping the company go from looking like a tech company to more of an entertainment brand” but left the brand’s core components in place.
Fourteen years in, the meaning that has been poured into the Spotify brand stems less from these duotone photos and more from the company’s own actions. When a $50 billion company pays musicians pennies and podcasters nine figures, it creates the impression that it is concerned less with music than with sound in general, an impression that is reinforced by its logo.
By failing to make an early pivot from its original slapdash name and logo, Spotify has baked its status as a technological middleman, a mere pipeline for the delivery of sound, into its DNA, leaving it vulnerable to competition in coming years. The company’s moves toward exclusive podcasting deals suggest that it hopes to differentiate itself in this way. If so, Spotify will no longer mean “music,” if it ever did.