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‘Four Ms’


Design: Sandgren & Murtha (USA)


MetLife, a non-initial abbreviation for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, is the largest life insurer in the United States. In 1964, MetLife replaced its famous old tower logo and slogan, ‘The Light That Never Fails’ (which had existed since 1909), with an abstract symbol – designed by the unassuming talent of Don Ervin, of New York design agency Sandgren & Murtha. The symmetrical geometric form, created by rotating the initial ‘M’ four times at right angles, conveys qualities of strength and solidity needed by a financial institution. The visual distinctiveness of the logo is enhanced by the dynamic star-like activity that occurs within the negative space. 

Ervin’s logo was designed to give the “gray lady of insurance companies” a contemporary look – and is a typical example of the stern Modernist approach embraced by much of corp-orate America in the 1960s. Then, a good visual identity was a sign that would best convey the status and ambition of a company in a purely abstract way. Limitless geometrical shapes and primary colours abounded, contrasted only by endless arrays of acronyms set in a sans-serif typeface, usually Helvetica.

By the 1980s, these identities appeared somewhat forbidding. The public’s perception of insurance and financial companies had changed. They were seen as distant, monolithic and soulless institutions – eady to grab your money. MetLife was no exception. “It wanted to appear friendly and caring but instead was perceived to have the personality of a life insurance company: faceless, bureaucratic, and cold.”

In 1985, in an effort to give its brand more ‘emotional’ value, MetLife intro- duced Snoopy, and other characters from the popular Peanuts comic strip, in its advertising campaigns. These cartoons were seen as the perfect solution to soften its corporate image, and to differentiate MetLife from its competitors. As the 1990s progressed, the MetLife logo was shuffled sideways and then completely phased out, replaced ignominiously by Snoopy as the corporate mascot.

Nowadays, the four radiating ‘Ms’ can still be seen on the east and west faces of the MetLife Building in New York (the last tall tower erected in NY before laws were enacted that prevented placing corporate logos and names on the tops of buildings). It is a reminder of the durability, elegance, impact and omnipotence of Ervin’s design.

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