Labels, logos, seals, symbols : when visual instills trust

Posted on October 26, 2008. Filed under: Advertising, English | Tags: , , , |

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade (Max Havelaar, AlterEco, …) : we have become accustomed to seeing those labels on sustainable development / fairtrade products. They popped up in the last 10 years and now figure prominently on packaging, shop receipts, advertising, and even now cities


Green, sustainable development and fairtade logos

But why are they used ? what do they mean ? Logos, labels, seals, symbols, … what is the difference ? As a marketer and a visual thinker it has long been a subject I wanted to cover, but found difficult to wrap around in a blog post.

Let’s start with the definitions :


  • seal : it is a complex word, having multiple meanings, both as a noun (to describe the animal, the object or the symbol) and as a verb (to describe the action of closing or signing)

  • logo : short for logotype, visual symbol. “A logo (Greek = logotypos) is a graphical element, (ideogram, symbol, emblem, icon, sign) that, together with its logotype (a uniquely set and arranged typeface) form a trademark or commercial brand” (Wikipedia).

  • label : the result of a labelization process, with an identification / differenciation objective, it is often mistaken as a logo, as the label of a product often consist only of a logo, the easiest way to identify a brand. “A word or phrase used with a dictionary definition to provide additional information” (Merriam Webster). “The general function of labels are widely known and recognized as a method of distinction that helps people recognize one product from another” (Wikipedia).

  • symbol : another complex word. From Greek symbolon, literally, token of identity verified by comparing its other half. It has different meanings, among which “an arbitrary or conventional sign used in writing or printing relating to a particular field to represent operations, quantities, elements, relations, or qualities” (Merriam Webster). Or, according to Wikipedia : “Symbols are objects, pictures, or other concrete representations of ideas, concepts, or other abstractions. In digital communications, a symbol is the smallest unit of data transmitted at one time.”

Because this is a visual design blog, below is a visual version of the definitions, using Visual Thesaurus :


4 definitions by Visual Thesaurus

Seals have been used for centuries, allowing the authentification of documents and coins, bearing the signature (coat of arms, head profile or another symbol). They were created for the purpose of information and goods exchange, often within the frontiers of a territory (the seal bearing the mark of its emperor, king or lord), or its influence area. They were marked on wax or using ink on paper / parchemin, often using a steel stamp or a signet ring.


State and corporate seals

Labels : in order to assert the quality of products in a mass-market environment, certification authorities have been created. Based on references (origin of ingredients, production process, …), and following a labelization / certification process, they authorize producers to display the logo of the label on their products. Producers typically pay for this label, that can be taken away should an audit prove they do not respect the guidelines.


Common labels


The process to manage a label involves 4 different entities : the person requesting it, the referential base, the authority granting it, and the person controling its application. See the diagram below from Arnaud Belleil ( / AFCDP), shown during a Social Media Club session.


Label - ecosystem

The common value of all those visual tools (labels, seals and logos) is to “encapsulate” trust in an authority to which one could resort to in order to get satisfaction, should anything go wrong.

Some common visual features can be found in seals and label’s logos :


  • the round shape : from the stamp

  • the “v” sign : to indicate validation / authorization

  • tagline : like old “mottos”

  • relief : a remnant from embossing, it is still used as it makes fakes more difficult




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