Why Nostalgic Logos Are Booming Right Now

A new wave of company logos all include the same three-letter word

Images: James I. Bowie

Does your local craft brewery’s logo helpfully inform you that the business was “Est. 2019”? Is the sign outside the trendy coffee shop down the street proud to declare it was “Est. 2016”? Logos declaring the year that a company was founded are gaining rapid popularity. In particular, businesses like these seeking to adopt a hipster aesthetic appear to append an “Est.” to their logos just as often as they use crossed objects or mustaches in their trademarks. Why the sudden popularity of this visual quirk?

In recent years, “Est.” has made quite a comeback, appearing in trademarks at a rate 17 times higher in 2020 than in 1980.

Early 20th-century newspaper advertisements featuring “Est.” statements.

Before the use of corporate logos or illustrations became common practice in the 20th century, newspaper advertising was largely a typographic exercise. And aside from strategically setting your ad in one of the few typefaces available for use on the paper’s printing press or inserting a snappy slogan, there was little that companies could do to communicate a positive message, or vibe, about themselves. But one way to concisely tout a business’s bona fides was to attach an “Est.” followed by the year the company was founded in. This would show that the firm wasn’t some fly-by-night operation, but that it was trustworthy, legitimate, and, well, “established.”

This convention became widespread, eventually making its way into many company logos themselves, but over time it seemed to acquire an unfashionable air of stodginess.

Analysis of United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) data shows that the use of “Est.” and its variants in American trademarks bottomed out during the heyday of the counterculture movement in the 1970s when it was certainly not considered hip or very relevant to be associated with the establishment in any way.

But the data show that in recent years, “Est.” has made quite a comeback, appearing in trademarks at a rate 17 times higher in 2020 than in 1980. Businesses ranging from car washes to barbeque restaurants to soccer teams are all eager to let you know the year they were founded.

Among these “Est.” trademarks filed with the USPTO since 2010, the most common abbreviation used is “Est.” itself (with or without the period), appearing in 89.3% of such visual marks. Less used, accounting for 10.5% of these trademarks, is “Estd.” and its variant “Est’d.,” which, perhaps owing to their rarity, seem to project more gravitas, particularly in the typographic variation in which the “D” is made smaller and placed above the period (as seen in Guinness and Coors Light logos). Only 0.2% of these marks dare to go with the “Estab.” abbreviation.

“Est.” is like the leg warmers worn to a 1980s-themed costume party: more common at the party than they actually were during the time the party celebrates.

Today, “Est.” can serve to function in trademarks in one of two ways. The original use in signaling a business’s longevity as a proxy for its legitimacy remains its strongest selling point. This earnest use of “Est.,” however, falls short when the year of establishment is relatively recent. Yeah, your restaurant was “Est. 2018,” big deal!

And indeed, among the 494 “Est.” trademarks filed in 2020 to date, the average year that follows the “Est.” is 1992, just 28 years ago. In comparison, the average year after the “Est.” in trademarks filed in 2000 was 1939, or 61 years earlier. Clearly, the longevity-signaling function of “Est.” is becoming less important today.

But the other function that “Est.” serves is to evoke a nostalgia for the logos and advertisements of the past. It connotes an “old-timeyness” by using this convention that fell out of style in the 1970s. Like other aspects of the hipster aesthetic — think repurposed decor and reclaimed wood — “Est.” tries to present itself as a sort of marker of authenticity, a remnant of a bygone era when things seemed less ephemeral than today’s digital pixels and more real and rooted in tangible objects. This patina of antiquity is precisely the point.

And companies are actually outdoing the eras they aim to imitate. USPTO data shows that the rate of use of “Est.” during the 2010s has surpassed even that of the 1910s! In trying to restore a vision of the past, we may latch onto particular historical markers and exaggerate their actual prominence. “Est.” in this way is like the leg warmers worn to a 1980s-themed costume party: more common at the party than they actually were during the time the party celebrates.

There is, then, a sense of irony in the way “Est.” is used today. But it’s not clear how often an “Est. 2020” logo is to be read as if accompanied by a wink. For many registered trademarked companies, what’s being touted is not the year after the “Est.” that signifies longevity but rather the “Est.” itself as the symbol delivering meaning.

Principal at Emblemetric, Sociologist at Northern Arizona University. Data-driven reporting on trends in logo design: Emblemetric.com

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