Q: What’s the story behind the man’s head that American Express uses as a logo and when did the evolution to the blue and white logo come about?
A: There is a great deal of mis-information out there about the logo of the man’s head. In fact, if you do a search for “American Express logo” you will see several authority websites dedicated to logos… yet they all have the history wrong when it comes this!
Is it a Viking or a Gladiator?
Despite what other sources claim, the man portrayed in the logo is definitely not a Viking. The original trademark registration, filed in 1958, describes the design as a “gladiator on a shield.” The confusion may have resulted from those who (a) incorrectly assumed it was a Viking, or (b) misinterpreted one of the “design search codes” listed on the original trademark application:
02.01.13 – Gladiators; Men, Roman, Greek and other ancient soldiers, gladiators and Vikings; Vikings
Design codes such as this are basically an image category used by the trademark office. They are included with design mark filings, to make finding them easier. Obviously, Vikings (Scandinavian pirates) and gladiators (ancient Roman fighters) are quite different from one another, but the USPTO includes them in the same search code since they can look similar. The American Express logo application also lists three other search codes, none of which mention the word “Viking.”
Further evidence that it is NOT a viking can be seen on the AmericanExpress.com trademarks list:
GLADIATOR SHIELD & AMERICAN EXPRESS DESIGN
AMERICAN EXPRESS MOBILE PHONE CARD WITH GLADIATOR
Lastly, American Express describes the logo as “a gladiator head design” in a trademark lawsuit they filed against Vibra Approved Laboratories in 1989.
But I thought it was a Centurion soldier?
Many people assume it’s a head of a Centurion solider. It seems logical, being that this logo is used on the Centurion card and “American Express Centurion Bank” is the actual issuer of AmEx credit cards.
According to Dictionary.com the definitions for each are:
Centurion – (in the ancient Roman army) the commander of a century. c.1275, from L., Roman army officer, head of a centuria “group of one hundred,” from centum “hundred”
Gladiator – (in ancient Rome) a person, often a slave or captive, who was armed with a sword or other weapon and compelled to fight to the death in a public arena against another person or a wild animal, for the entertainment of the spectators.
A “slave or captive” is quite different than an army commander, so it appears the only thing the two have in common is that they both existed during the same period.
I read one source which claims the person is indeed a Centurion and was chosen as AmEx’s logo when they were a freight company. The problem with that explanation is that American Express was a freight company nearly 100 years before they ever filed for this trademark. Furthermore, it is a confirmed fact (according to AmEx’s own company history) that the logo used during their freight shipping days was a watchdog.
That being said, the logo does have an uncanny resemblance to a centurion…
Written documentation by American Express clearly identifies its logo as a gladiator. On the other hand, the visual design itself seems to suggest a closer resemblance to a centurion (the headgear is much fancier than what the typical gladiator wore). So in my personal opinion, I believe the logo must be a bit of a mish-mash between the two. Perhaps AmEx’s trademark attorneys in the 50’s incorrectly described it on the application as a “gladiator” and that’s the reason it is still referred to such today.
And let’s not forget the blue box logo…
The history behind this AmEx logo isn’t nearly as exciting as the gladiator/centurion. The blue and white square logo was adapted in 1975 so AmEx would have a clear, distinguishable logo that could easily be printed and recognized to identify the company.