- Andrea Bogoni
The Leica brand. Beyond the lens.
Over the years “Leica” has gradually turned into a kind of refined synonym of the term "photography". The camera, as we refer to it today, was actually invented in Wetzlar and photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado and Annie Leibovitz took the most significant images of contemporary era purely with their Leica. However, not many are aware that, beyond the famous photographic division, the Leica brand also inscribes highly technological products in the field of geospatial measurement and microscopy. The evolution and management of a brand, that is nowadays considered among the most precious in the world, is made even more interesting by the intricate corporate history. Corporate happenings are not so heard of and are only fragmentarily documented. This could be due to the fragmented structure of the group, grown through multiple mergers, and perhaps also because of the cumbersome celebrity of the photographic division. If read carefully, however, elements of the company history offer interesting insights and a very unique perspective on brand management.
Part 1 Ernst Leitz Wetzlar.
One of the first Leitz microscopes (left); the first version of the company logo (right).
It all began in 1869 in Wetzlar, in the heart of Germany. Ernst Leitz acquired the Optical Institute, a small optical laboratory established twenty years earlier by the mathematician Carl Kellner. Leitz took over the business at the age of 27 thanks to the parents' savings. His entrepreneurial skills saved the company from an almost certain bankruptcy. One of his main merits was the implementation of serial production rules to the production area of microscopy. This latter had remained largely artisan until then. In this way production increased considerably without compromising quality. With the acquisition, the business changed its name into "E. Leitz Wetzlar". It is not surprising that the company logo shapes derive from the stylization of a technical design as it was designed by an engineer. On closer inspection, it is made up of a lens and a prism that together frame the name. The concave curve formed below the surname will inspire the famous long "L" of later logos.
Worker testing a Wild theodolite (left); Wild Heerbrugg logo in use until the '80s (right).
In 1921 the Swiss topographer and inventor Heinrich Wild established the "Heinrich Wild Werkstätte für Feinmechanik und Optik", later known as "Wild Heerbrugg". The naming recalls the founder and the small village of eastern Switzerland that housed the laboratory. Wild started the business after being head of the geospatial area in Zeiss and thanks to the support of the geologist Robert Helbling and the investor Jacob Schmidheiny. The small laboratory became, in just a few years, one of the most worldwide advanced companies in the production of surveying instruments and geospatial measurements. These were mainly theodolites, levels and airborne cameras. Designed in 1937, the company logo was characterized by an austere and rational typographic style. In our days, the logo recalls the minimalist standards of Swiss design renowned from the 1950s.
Origin of the Leica myth.
The "Leica I", announced to the public at the Spring Exhibition in Leipzig, in March 1925 (left); a famous portrait of Oskar Barnack (center); the Leitz logo at the age (right).
The concept of photography itself was revolutionized in March 1925 when Leitz presented "Leica": the first compact camera in the world, work of the ingenious engineer Oskar Barnack. Suddenly photographers had an extremely mobile and silent tool in their hands. This paved the way for photojournalism. New expressive styles developed in the field of artistic photography thanks to Barnack’s technical innovation. The subject no longer had to be set up in front of a cumbersome machine placed on a tripod but it could immediately and spontaneously be grasped anywhere. The name Leica originated from a portmanteau, i.e. merging the words "Leitz" and "Camera". From a brand management point of view, it is interesting that in these years the term "Leica" indicated the product while "Leitz Wetzlar" was the name of the company. Its brand had already taken similar forms to those we see on today's devices: a long and unmistakable "L" that ideally supports the logo.
Wild headquarters in Heerbrugg, Eastern Switzerland (left); Leitz building in Wetzlar, Germany (center); Wild Leitz logo at the age of the merge (right).
1972 sees a fruitful collaboration between Wild Heerbrugg and E. Leitz Wetzlar. Only two years later the Swiss company concluded the acquisition of the Leitz majority package. The new company was called Wild Leitz and, with over 9,000 employees and an enviably broad and valuable product portfolio, it was undoubtedly one of the leading companies in several segments of the optical industry. The holding company's logo explicitly referred to the merger, both in terms of name and on a graphic-symbolic level.
From product to company brand.
Kern theodolite on its classic orange tripod (left); Leica Microsystems headquarters in Wetzlar, Germany (center); Leica logo implemented as a corporate brand starting from the late '80s (right).
The company reached its highest level of growth in the late 80s, with the acquisition of Kern & Co., Wild's historic competitor, and Cambridge Instruments. The latter, at the time, was the world's first manufacturer of scanning electron microscopes. Back then, the company management took a far from obvious decision in terms of branding. Although Wild Heerbrugg was in control of the groups finances, top management decided to rename the entire "Leica Group" corporate structure, i.e. adopting the name (in origin Leitz) that offered the greatest brand equity, thanks to the widespread prestige enjoyed by the photographic sector. The corporate rebranding not only represented a free and divergent choice in compared to pure financial logics, but it also stood for the evolution of the Leica name from a product brand to a corporate brand.
Four companies, one brand.
Leica Camera logo (left); Leica Microsystems and Leica Biosystems logos sharing the very same design as they belong to two sister companies (center); Leica Geosystems logo (right).
Financial procedures at the end of the last century led to the demerger of the Leica group. The brand is now shared by four independent companies. Leica Camera, 45% owned by Blackstone, brings together the legacy of Leitz and Barnack producing high-end cameras and observation optics. Leica Microsystems and Leica Biosystems, both of the Danaher group, operate in the fields of microscopy and diagnostics. Leica Geosystems, part of Hexagon, continues Wild Heerbrugg tradition by producing advanced systems for geospatial surveys and measurements. Following the demerger at the end of the 1990s, Leica Microsystems became the owner of the Leica trademark and trade name, whose use is still licensed to Leica Camera and Leica Geosystems. Leica is internationally recognized, not only in the optical sector in the broad sense but also in the luxury industry, as one of the strongest and historic brands in the world. Although the companies that make use of the name are today clearly distinct from an owner point of view, all Leica products share the same brand identity as well as the values of reliability, quality and innovation that distinguish them for almost a century.
Credits: - Main cover picture by Leica Camera AG
- Part 1: image by Leica Microsystems GmbH
- Part 2: logo by Leica Geosystems AG, picture taken from wild-heerbrugg.com
- Part 3: cover images by Leica Camera AG, photogallery credits mentioned on each photo
- Part 4: Wild Leitz logo reconstructed by Stacie Snoddon, photos from wild-heerbrugg.com
- Part 5: logo by Leica Microsystems GmbH, photos by Leica Geosystems AG and Leica Microsystems GmbH
- Part 6: product images by Leica Camera AG, Leica Microsystems GmbH, Leica Biosystems GmbH, Leica Geosystems AG; Leica M10 shot by James Bareham, The Verge
- LEICA and the Leica Logo are registered trademarks of Leica Microsystems GmbH
- English translation by Paris Nobile
- "Eyes wide open. 100 years of Leica Photography" - Kehrer Verlag - 2014
- "Positionen der Markenkultur. Leica." - Volker Albus und Achim Heine - Nicolai - 2004