The lesson of two epic logo debacles

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This article originally appeared on FastCo Design.

In 2010, Gap unveiled a new logo for their brand. It was nothing particularly shocking: Helvetica paired with a tinted blue square, referencing the familiar blue square used in its classic logo. But after a hailstorm of public criticism, an embarrassed Gap retreated to its former mark.

Last year, Airbnb unveiled their company’s new logo—officially called a “Bélo”—to a similarly contentious reaction, amid criticism that the mark resembled unmentionable parts of the human anatomy. But unlike Gap, the company chose to proudly stand by its new logo.

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Building consumer loyalty and brand affinity is one of the ultimate goals of the business world. However, when a beloved brand shifts gears and unveils something new, all bets are off. What was first a strategic business and design decision becomes subject to the court of public opinion—and before the new logo has even had a chance, the brand often decides to revert, without rhyme or reason. So when does it make sense to back down on a redesigned logo? And when should a brand stay the course?

Branding, for better or for worse, is now a conversation. Gone are the days of the monolithic, immutable brand, set in stone for the ages. Today, a brand is whatever its customers say it is, the result of a complex matrix of interpersonal recommendations and connections on social media. In this age of Trip Advisor and ever-present Internet trolling, customers have never had more to say, nor such a powerful platform from which to say it. This shift is indicative of an evolving relationship between brands and their consumers, one in which brands and customers’ sentiments and demands are inextricably linked.

This is both exciting and concerning: exciting, in that there is nowhere for bad brands and/or products to hide; and concerning, in that there is a potential for the lowest common denominator to dictate what will prevail. Design quality is not always a matter of taste, and historically, bold, new ideas have often been rejected not only by the public, but also by mainstream experts in the field. Could it be that the Gap and Airbnb logos were simply ahead of their time?

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In the case of the Gap logo, Time magazine reported that a neuromarketing company called NeuroFocus conducted a study in which brain activity and eye-tracking techniques were applied to a group of volunteers who were shown both the original and the new Gap logos. What they found was that the newer logo wasn’t perceived as novel or stylish, which created a cognitive dissonance in terms of their expectations for a retail fashion company. The human brain craves and seeks what is new, the article said, and the use of a rather generic font felt like a step backwards for the brand.

This is a rather surprising finding in that it flies in the face of the perception that people rejected the logo simply because they were threatened by change. The opposite appears to be true. Still, Gap’s reversion to the old mark signaled a distinct lack of conviction and a wavering sense of brand purpose. Perhaps they could have used the logo’s 15 minutes of infamy as a platform to do something bold and Warholian. They could have joined the discussion and had some fun with it. Instead, they retreated with their tail between their legs.

As for Airbnb, it could be argued that the brand is far more connected to its audience than Gap currently is to its own. Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Gap would shutter 175 retail stores. Recent reports on Airbnb estimate that the company will bring in $675 million in revenue by the end of 2015, a 55% jump from 2014.

A strong sense of community is central to Airbnb’s stated core values, and Bélo—with its customizability and warmth—is a perfect fit, regardless of what the Internet critics initially thought of it. Airbnb didn’t need to back down because ultimately it was very much in sync with its audience. To revert to the old logo was unnecessary and was likely never seriously entertained.

The issue is less about the circumstances in which a company should back away from a new logo and more about the quality of relationship the brand has with its intended audience. It’s a question of self-awareness, true authenticity, and relevancy. In today’s landscape, if a brand isn’t in complete synergy with the tastes, sensibilities, and desires of its core customers, it has more to worry about than its logo.

Kevin Grady is global head of content and design at Siegel+Gale.

 

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