The Press, June 2007

Covering the furore over the newly released London 2012 Olympics logo would seem almost mandatory for a column on marketing. But the most remarkable part of the story is that most people, the London Olympic committee included, are missing the point with this bit of graphic design.

The logo's release last week attracted an intense, mostly derisive reaction. According to the Daily Telegraph consulting company Wolff Olins had spent more than 12 months and billed over $1 million to develop the concept. UK design expert Stephen Bayley described it as "a puerile mess, an artistic flop and a commercial scandal".

To literally add injury to insult an animated version of the logo was removed from the Olympic body's website when it was revealed it could cause epileptic seizures.

Logo scandals are nothing new, and not uncommon in New Zealand. The Warehouse attracted flack a couple of years ago for sprucing up their logo, and Te Papa's was the scorn of the nation a decade ago for spending $300,000 on their corporate identifier.

More recently it was suggested in local media that TVNZ had been spent $300,000 updating their logos, including changing the colour of the TV One logo from blue to orange. "The whole idea behind the orange was to use a warmer colour, they needed to warm the channel up," the designer behind the idea was quoted as saying in the Herald on Sunday.

Is this 'Emperor's New Clothes' stuff? Scandals typical of the wasteful nonsense marketing inflicts on sensible businesses?

One issue is some media's coverage of such events. With barely disguised disgust the exorbitant costs of these exercises are reported. But in reality the costs quoted often represent the expense of conducting consumer research, the graphic design itself and the more expensive and prosaic part - costly tasks such as replacing signs and printing new stationery.

The more important issue is one of substance - and people often seem to overestimate the value a logo can contribute.

This is how London 2012 committee described the launch of their logo. "London 2012 will be everyone's Games, everyone's 2012. This is the vision at the very heart of the new London 2012 brand. The new 2012 emblem will use the Olympic spirit to inspire everyone and reach out to young people. It is an invitation to take part and be involved."

How a graphic is meant to achieve all of this it is hard to know. But this sort of thinking is not uncommon when it comes to logos.

Chris Townsend, commercial director of London 2012, was quoted in The Guardian newspaper as saying he hoped the new logo will help secure more top-tier sponsors, and help with selling £750m of merchandise, with T-shirts soon to be on sale. "You need the brand to bring the merchandise alive," he said. "It is designed as a proper consumer brand rather than a corporate brand you've seen in other games and it will stand alongside all the other leading sports brands."

Leading sports brand like Nike perhaps? According to Wikipedia, the distinctive 'swoosh' symbol Nike uses was developed in 1971 by a design student called Carolyn Davidson. Charging a princely $2 per hour, she charged the company $35 for producing the now famous marquee.

What the debate about the London logo seems to miss, and what the organisation also seems to miss, is that a fancy graphic is not a brand. A logo in itself has little value.

It is not the swoosh that has made Nike the 31st most valuable brand in the world according to InterBrand. The swoosh is powerful symbol because it represents Tiger Woods, shoes, LeBron James, clothing, golf, basketball, Lance Armstrong, TV adverts, child labour, running, Maria Sharapova and a million other things to millions of different consumers. It is all of these many experiences that create the value there is in the Nike brand.

Consumers will put meaning into a label like the London Olympic logo, it doesn't by itself create all of the meaning that is being ascribed to it. What gives meaning to a logo is all of the experiences that are behind it. That is why virtually every other Olympic graphic has strongly leveraged the immense heritage of the Olympic rings - they are a symbol that mean an enormous amount to people.

Does all of this mean that spending meaning on logos and other accoutrements of visual identity is a waste of time and money? Of course not, the way something is visually presented is always relevant. But only in the same way that a clean shirt is important when going for a job interview - you need to present the right image, but it is the substance of what you represent that will ultimately count.

Whether or not you think the London logo looks a 'beer mat' as one journalist described it, that initial impression is not critical. The controversy is largely misplaced. It is experience the London Olympic committee can build, from now until the end of the event itself, that will build the value in the logo. Their main mistake has been to make so much of it.

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