capital offenses

In 2008, just after losing a court case about breaking labour laws, Walmart got a makeover. It swapped the bold capital letters it had used throughout its 46-year history (i.e., “WAL-MART”) with a capitalized “w” and lowercase type for the remaining letters (e.g., “Walmart”). It also removed the military-style star between the “l” and the “m” and placed a friendly sunburst at the end of the name.

In true corporate fashion, Walmart explained that this branding change was to “update store logos as part of an ongoing evolution of its overall brand.” (Could it have been any more vague?) It’s likely, however, that Walmart’s decision to move away from bold capital letters was an attempt to achieve a specific goal. Having just lost a labour dispute case, Walmart may have been trying to come across as a kinder and more approachable brand.

It may seem odd to think that writing a brand’s name in uppercase versus lowercase letters can change our thoughts or feelings about the brand. After all, a lowercase “a” and an uppercase “a” are the same letter. If we consider how we type words in emails, blog posts, and text messages, however, it’s clear that we don’t think about uppercase and lowercase text in the same way. For example, have you ever been on the receiving end of an email (or even just part of an email) that’s written in all capital letters? At best, the email seems mildly irritating. In many cases, though, it may even seem demanding and downright rude: whether in print or online, a sentence written in all capital letters can make you feel like you’re being yelled at. Because of how text written in all capital letters can come across, many people think it’s good online etiquette to avoid using all capital letters in emails and other online communication. Some have even argued that the caps lock key should be removed from keyboards altogether to make it harder for people to commit capital offenses.

Brand names usually aren’t full sentences, so writing them in all capital letters may not make it seem like the brand is yelling at its customers. However, because we’ve come to associate words written in all capital letters with authoritarianism, anger, and aggression, brands may be motivated to move away from capital letters so that they come across as friendly, approachable, and even humble companies. Kraft, Wendy’s, and Southwest, for example, have swapped bold capital letters for their softer lowercase counterparts (although some brands, like Foursquare and Sbarro, have gone in the opposite direction). Taking things a step further, some companies have gone so far as to make all letters in their brand name lowercase, including the first letter (think facebook and vitamin water). Even New York City hoped to make itself seem like a friendlier city when it changed the text in its street signs from all uppercase letters to capital letters on the first letter of each word only. These days, people want to work with and buy from brands that care about them, so it may not be surprising that people are drawn to brands that are making their mark with lowercase letters.

Is the love affair with lowercase letters here to stay? It’s difficult to tell. On the one hand, it seems hard to imagine a time when we won’t associate uppercase text with authority and aggression. However, people liked bold capital letters at one point because they seemed to convey prominence. There’s no reason, then, why a time won’t come when lowercase friendliness goes out of style and uppercase grandeur is in vogue once again.

Have thoughts about using uppercase vs. lowercase text in branding? Share them in our comments section below.

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Why brands are trying to make their mark with lowercase letters
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