Client appreciation party with Missy and KariOlympic swimmer Michael Phelps was recently photographed wearing a pair of pants displaying a Nike swoosh front and center on a Sports Illustrated cover. The problem? He is endorsed by Under Armour. So you can imagine Under Armour was not especially happy.

Logos. What do they stand for? Why do companies put some much time and energy into developing them, putting standards around their use, and looking to seek instant recognition from a shape? Why should simply seeing a Nike swoosh – which was far from the centerpiece of the photo – be disconcerting to anyone?

Because in the marketing communications business, we take our company logos very seriously.

As someone who’s been involved with a number of logo launches, I can tell you I sometimes wish it really didn’t matter. But the fact is, you sometimes only get a very brief chance to tell your story, and the right logo can help you take advantage of those opportunities. So logo design can be very important to a business.

The story about Phelps reminded me of a time when my former employer was moving to a new way of handling logoed items. To kick off the switch, we had a fun presentation, showing that really ANYTHING can be logoed. This was before PhotoShop, but our vendor was willing to help us out. “Send us the items you want logoed, and we’ll handle it.”

What fun! One of the items that stands out most clearly to me were the men’s Speedo swimwear. For a financial services organization, that’s about as wild as you could get. And I imagine that’s part of why the Michael Phelps story caught my attention.

However, a logo is just one small piece of a brand. Before you can get to the point of instant recognition, you need to focus on your brand experience – how it makes you feel. Then a logo tries to convey those feelings in a symbol.

When you think about products you like – or dislike – those company logos give you a feeling. Think about soft drinks, coffee or beer. When it comes to these items, the flavor probably rises to the top. You like or dislike the taste, very seldom falling middle of the road. But how do you feel as you take a drink? What’s your emotional connection?

All well-recognized brands know how to tap into your emotions. Think Apple Computer. Google. Ford. Aldi. Baskin Robbins. Each make you feel something. Once you have those feelings, simply seeing a logo for a second can trigger the emotion of “security,” “the desire to be trendy or cool,” or even “competition” or a “desire to be first.”

Which leads us back to the Phelps debacle. It’s easy to understand why he didn’t stop to think about what pants he was wearing. The photo was taken during the Olympics when he was distracted by a myriad of other more important things.

To the casual observer, it doesn’t really matter, and the discussion around the photo has probably brought Under Armour more recognition than if he had just worn pants with the Under Armour logo. So maybe Under Armour should be thanking Phelps for the snafu.

I also realize if I were in Under Armour’s marketing department, I’d be privately holding discussions with the leadership team to determine a course of action. Every time someone wears a specific brand, they’re making a statement.

While the INB brand is not nearly as recognizable, every time someone who works here wears an INB-logoed shirt, they’re making a statement. But that statement has less to do with the image on the shirt and more to do with the way the bank employee conducts business. It’ll be interesting to see how Under Armour reacts. That says more about a brand than anything.