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Mercdes Benz's well-known logo is recognizable around the world.Laura Leyshon/For The Globe and Mail

It's not unusual to see a smoker in a fit of coughing, but something happened in Australia this week that left a whole clutch of tobacco fans breathless. Or at least hyperventilating.

On Monday, the Down Under federal government passed a law that will make it illegal for cigarette marketers to display brand logos on the outside of their packaging. As of December, 2012, the top two-thirds of a pack will feature a health warning – say, "Smoking Causes Blindness," illustrated with a graphic photo of macular degeneration – while the brand name will be rendered in small, standard type at the bottom of the package.

Within an hour of the law's passage, the parent company of cigarette firm Philip Morris 's Australian affiliate announced it had initiated legal proceedings against the government.

"The government has passed this legislation despite being unable to demonstrate that it will be effective at reducing smoking and has ignored the widespread concerns raised in Australia and internationally regarding the serious legal issues associated with plain packaging," a company statement said, adding the law would cause billions of dollars in damages.

While the case is raising the hackles of advocates on both sides of the smoking-cessation debate, it is also highlighting the increasing importance of logos in a world where people are drowning in messages from brands.

By one measure, of course, logos are nothing new. "Every sort of movement in history had logos," noted Andreas Eisingerich, an associate professor of marketing at the Imperial College Business School in London. "If you think about Christianity, the one thing that comes to mind is a logo."

Nowadays, logos may be laid back or energetic, futuristic or classical, aggressive or family-oriented, but they are almost always designed to make a company seem more human and accessible. And people have strong, complex relationships with them: last year, Gap was forced to scuttle a new logo after an online backlash, while earlier this year Starbucks endured ridicule for excising all of the words from its famous mermaid trademark.

Some people covet clothing with logos; others tattoo brand logos on their bodies. And they are key components of marketing success, which is why companies invest in them so heavily: One study found that 94 per cent of the world's people are familiar with the Coca-Cola logo.

"If you don't have a logo to identify you and to help steer you, and to help say, 'Here is the journey I'm about to take you, the customer, on' – everything else falls down to just the product," said Alfred DuPuy, managing director of brand consultancy Interbrand Canada. Logos act as guideposts or beacons, drawing people in and cooing to them: " 'Hey, I'm about to tell you a story.'"

"You have no idea somebody's about to tell you a story if there's no logo."

Philip Morris said as much this week, explaining in its statement, "Plain packaging turns tobacco products into a commodity, robbing (the Australian division of the company) of its ability to differentiate its products from competitor brands."

The especially frustrating thing for tobacco companies, which are under fire around the world, is that they are being stripped of the ability to use their logos just as logos are undergoing impressive changes. In the last few years, there has been an explosion of logo redesigning, prompted in part by the need to stand out in a cluttered landscape but also by the changes in design enabled by technology. "There's a shift from CMYK to an RGB world," noted Bill Gardner of Gardner Design, referring to the mechanisms for reproducing colour in, respectively, a print medium and an electronic medium. "That means we aren't hampered by some of the old rules."

Translation: logos can use any of the tens of millions of colours that are able to be reproduced on electronic screens, which is where most people are now encountering them. "AT&T and UPS have shifted their logos to a four-colour, very dimensional, very continuous tone," Mr. Gardner noted. "It wouldn't have worked five years ago, because now they're delivering their message in an RGB world." (He's been tracking trends in logos for more than a decade through the website he co-founded,, a hub where designers share their work and look for inspiration.)

As a result, the colours in logos are getting richer. "When we look at a computer screen, we're not looking at reflected light, we're literally looking at light, which means there's a greater intensity to the colour that we're seeing," he explained. "And (brand) identities are shifting colour palettes and becoming much more intense, to reflect people's current level of expectation in regards to colour."

Colour has always been a key component of logos, but it's becoming even more important. "When you're driving down the road and there's a McDonalds ahead, you see the yellow on the sign, or the red on the sign, before you actually make out the logo, no matter how good your eyesight is. You pick up rhythm and colour long before you pick up the logo itself." As a result, he noted, companies have spent heavily in attempts to buy colours, spawning a rush of intellectual property land claims on certain tones.

As well, he says, more companies are beginning to use motion, or animation, as part of their identity, and building it into their logos. He cites wireless company Swisscom, handset maker Ericsson , and Microsoft 's Silverlight product as brands that have embraced animation. "Any time you can find a way to make your logo a little bit more dramatic so people are picking up on it (is good) – the challenge is you have to deliver it in an environment where a logo in motion actually works for you," he said.

Amid all the new developments, research conducted by Dr. Eisingerich and three colleagues (Jason Park of the City University of Hong Kong; C. Whan Park and Gratiana Pol of the USC Marshall School of Business) suggest that most companies have underwhelming logos that fail to help brands increase customer commitment as much as they could.

That may be because very little is understood about what makes an effective logo. "Logos are all around us," noted Dr. Eisingerich. Yet, "there's almost zero research out there." So far.