Sometimes the most powerful branding case studies fall into the “what NOT to do” category. Take, for instance, logo contests. Specifically, a logo contest from the Australian Ministry of Tourism.
It’s a big deal down under.
This isn’t some neighborhood non-proft looking for a new logo for their email newsletter. This is a multi-national tourism marketing effort for a nation of 21 million people that consistently ranks as one of the world’s most popular nation-brands.
They’re going to spend 20 million dollars promoting their new brand to the rest of the world. And they’re launching the effort with a logo contest. Grand prize: $2500.
What’s wrong with that picture? That’s just a giant marketing blunder waiting to happen.
How much great design work do you suppose they’ll get in exchange for a 1-in-10,000 chance at $2500?
Logo contests are a horrible idea, for a lot of reasons:
1. Logo contests attract the youngest, hungriest designers with the skinniest portfolios around.
You might just luck into someone with incredible talent, but she’s going to need a lot of direction. Serious pros won’t touch that work because it’s not enough money and the odds of success are too slim. It’s a one-time transaction that never leads to long-term client relationships.
The Australian government received 362 entries and culled the unruly collection down to 200 or so. There might be a few decent designs in that sea of submissions, but I’m not even going to address the subjective, artistic side of this.
Instead, let’s look at the steps in the branding process that are always ignored in a contest environment.
2. Logo contests skip over the most important steps in the brand identity design process: brand strategy and a clearly defined creative brief.
Contrary to popular belief, brand identity design is not just about artwork. It’s also an exercise in business strategy. If you can’t define your marketing strategy, clearly and succinctly, you’ll never get a brand identity that sticks.
The creative brief should be a very clear synopsis of your strategy. Here’s what the brief says for the Australian assignment:
“Designers and contest participants should submit ideas for a contemporary Australia brand that captures the essence of the nation and presents Australia as a great place for living, holidaying, education, business, manufacturing, agriculture and investment. Submissions should articulate as clearly as possible Australia’s brand position in the context of the global marketplace and help the Government capture “the vibrancy, energy and creative talents of Australia”.
What brand position?
How can a designer possibly hit the target and “capture the essence of a nation” when there’s nothing on the website or on any links that even hint at a brand strategy document?
The young art school grads are left to figure out the strategy on their own… “What, exactly is the essence of Australia?
“Designers and contest participants may choose to spend time researching Australia and its current brand.”
“May choose to??? Any good branding firm would insist on it. Diving into the design work WITHOUT it, is a folly.
Research is the foundation of any truly professional branding effort. But the graphic designers who enter contests are not the people doing the research and the strategic thinking.
It’s not in their DNA. It’s often hard to get them to even read the creative brief once the research is done.
Designers are involved later in process. During the artistic, execution phase. But if you skip the strategic piece, the designers have no direction. They’re just throwing darts, hoping something will stick.
3. Logo contests exclude a critical member of the team. Or two!
Brand identity design should always be a team effort between a copywriter, designer and brand strategist. Some copywriters are also great brand strategists, but you’ll seldom find a designer who can fill that strategic role. If you’re relying only on a graphic designer, you’re only getting one-third of the value.
George Lois, one of the greatest advertising art directors of all time, spells it out: “My formula for great advertising design is to start with the word. This may sound like an anomaly, coming from an art director, but the word comes first, then the visual. You gotta have a slogan.”
A slogan, or a descriptive tagline, helps cement the brand identity’s overall idea. Taglines are always a good reflection of the strategy work that’s been done. If the lines are random, like the list below, the strategy is clearly missing.
Australia “The heart of many nations.”
Australia “Lighting up the world.”
Australia “Make it real.”
Australia “Live it up down under.”
Australia “It’s real noice.”
Australia “The inside story”
Australia “It all happens here.”
Which is it? Without a thorough brand strategy document it’s virtually impossible to judge the 362 taglines in any objective way. The odds of getting one that’s actually authentic to the Australian Brand is remote, at best.
And here’s where it gets really messed up… The public gets to vote! With no clearly defined strategy, no experience and no information whatsoever, the average Joe gets a say in the branding of a nation.
I’ve often seen the results of these contests fail completely. The client pays the prize money but ends up with nothing useable. Then it’s back to the drawing board with a firm that actually knows what they’re doing.
Developing a brand strategy is not easy. It takes discipline, creativity and thorough research. But it’s a required element for success. Contest or no contest.
If you insist on doing a contest or crowdsourcing your logo design you’d better do some extra-thorough work on the strategy side. Otherwise, it’s just garbage in, garbage out. For more on logo design crowdsourcing, try this post.
Here are some winning logo designs that we’ve done. Step by legitimate step.