One of my blog readers from Australia recently emailed me an intriguing series of questions concerning his logo:
“I really liked your checklist for 10 Must-Have Criteria for Your Logo . Could I suggest another criteria? Vandal Proof, i.e. can the logo be easily defaced? My company is in the process of developing a new logo. My concern with our ‘person’ logo is it can be easily defaced—see attached ‘S&M’ and ‘Smoker.’ Do logos get defaced? Am I overreacting?”
I’ll spare you the inventive sketches he’d overlaid on the proposed logo. His assigned names give you an idea.
Funny enough, the examples he sent looked like he’d tried pretty darn hard to disfigure and make something less than decent out of his own logo…they weren’t the obvious oversights or inherent mistakes you see in some unfortunate logo concepts.
A moustache (or more) on your logo.
It’s interesting that he mentioned a defensive or “safeguarding” criteria, because it’s a criteria I spend a lot of time talking with clients about during naming processes. I refer to it in brand naming evaluation as “Incorruptibility.”
In reality, it’s pretty impossible for a brand to be truly incorruptible, or vandal proof, whether as a name or logo. Someone can always do something with it if they work hard enough and have the right motivation. When we’re dealing in simple forms and graphic abstractions (i.e. logos) they all pretty much lend themselves to being altered into something obnoxious with enough effort or imagination.
>>This and a couple other illustrative examples are off of the
humorous “Honest Slogans” site by designer Clif Dickens.
Myself, I see a name or logo’s corruption or “hack factor” as more of a risk scale or concept-to-concept comparison criteria, not as a binary (yes/no) assessment.
Still, it’s wise to anticipate potential problems, judge risks, and avoid any obvious potential bastardizations of either your name or logo. Corruptibility bears early and serious consideration as a part of the preliminary creative vetting and evaluation of name and logo concepts, and not as a final “checkbox” before something’s released to the wild. I’ve rejected many concepts in my career because of unease with a potential connotation, or had an otherwise good idea—that inadvertently referenced something industry- or culture-specific and which I never would have anticipated—tabled by a client.
But outright “vandal proofing” is a make-believe bar or test.
Minimizing your mischief factor.
The real question is: Are you inadvertently making yourself an easy mark…and giving them the actual fuel to do it?
The key is to look for any logical or easy bastardization potential among your name or logo candidates to try to choose something equally strong and meaningful, but less likely to open itself up to tomfoolery or maliciousness. Not to eliminate every possibility for sabotage, which won’t be achievable.
I’m typically on highest alert about corruptibility in the brand naming stage, and especially when the company is in an aggressive or volatile market where competitors or dissatisfied customers can take you on as an enemy, and try to invent a funny and disparaging moniker to “demote” you, even if it’s more in-house posturing. (It’s kind of like the grown-up, free-market version of playground nicknames and pranks.) With time, bad choices, or corporate missteps, those inside jokes can become more public. Or worse, a meme.
Sounds like, spells like.
In naming, corruptibility risk is usually an inherent problem of an aural nature (the sound of the name) or a spelling that opens itself up to mischievous tweaking. As examples, a founder’s name that can be easily bastardized to form a swear word; a degrading or shocking vowel sound substitution; or an instance where a name can be hacked to mean or imply it’s exact opposite.
Some brands can play the occasional aural or spelling oddity to their actual advantage, depending on their industry and its tolerance for humor or ambiguity. For example, the Fuddruckers hamburger chain in the U.S. got a ton of viral mileage and brand recognition (pre-social-media, mind you!) out of the fact that their odd name said three times fast inevitably caused a verbal stumble that made you inadvertently swear.
Along those lines…
It’s (frequently) all about sex.
Corruptibility comes into play in logos as well as names, as you can see with all the alternate logo mutations (sexual, clownish, cute, etc.) that proliferated as soon as Airbnb rolled out its Bélo “symbol of belonging” in 2014. [You can watch the intro video here]. I’m sure you know what I’m referring to in terms of Airbnb’s subsequent logo hacks, but if not give it a Google here. I’ll only show a cute one below. In the following social storm, coming up with Airbnb logo corruptions became not just a meme, but a national pastime and daily competition.
The public’s interest in rebrands and their fun in riffing on them increases in magnitude not just to the visibility of the company, but to the amount of money it paid for its rebrand and how much pomp and fanfare (and “psychobabble, arty-farty rationale”) it used to unveil the new logo and its meaning. In a sense, people are trying to cut bigger organizations (especially older ones with a lot of history and baggage) down to size and call them out on spin and hyperbole. And registering their displeasure if they think the rebrand is nothing more than a white-washing PR attempt to distract from real problems within the company.
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a story or rationale behind your new name or logo, just that it should be a good and accessible one. (Also, the smaller you are, the less attractive you are as a target.)
If you look at most of the worst offenders of pranked or highly mocked logos—not just of Airbnb’s online grilling but of “logo fails” in general—most of them are sexual, or about bodily functions. Or some combination of the two. We all really haven’t gotten past playground humor. But there’s likely a reason for that.
Logos are really kind of a Rorschach test.
That’s the biggest challenge in making judgments of corruptibility, in my opinion. The more abstract something is, the more it opens up to, “What do you see?” Or, “What can you make of it?” Like the Rorschach test, logos end up being subjective, projective, and based in the psychology, history, symbolism, and culture of the viewer. In Western culture, we’ve been programmed since early childhood to sexualize stick figures, simple shapes, and obviously nonsexual things to a point that we’re kind of optimally visually programmed for it.
If someone asks us then, we’re frequently looking for the negative connotations—sex, stereotypes, violence, race, politics, religion, drug abuse—first. So it’s not so much what’s inherently wrong in your logo, maybe, as much as what is inherently wrong in our perceptions, psychology, culture, and humor. (Though some “logo fails” are just simply wrong, wrong, wrong. See below.)
Interestingly, though Airbnb’s logo did really look like a huge misstep to many, the company essentially chided the world for their “lowest common denominator” locker room humor and didn’t race to eliminate or modify a symbol that was ripe for ongoing ridicule. They focused on building the company and the richer brand meaning that the symbol was shorthand for. And in time, it kind of became a nonissue.
Am I at risk for brand hijacks or high jinks?
Logos don’t typically get defaced “just for the fun of it”—unless they are as public, watched, and scrutinized as someone like an Airbnb. I’ve seen it much less frequently in more standard (what I would call “everyday”) companies operating in a general business category, unless they’ve just chosen really unfortunate names or imagery. Something that makes you think, “Duh, that was dumb. What the hell were they thinking? It’s like they’re just asking for it.” So shame on them.
In cases of really lax judgment like those, your name or logo are more likely to just get a raised eyebrow and a laugh rather than a concerted effort to modify it or publicly deface it. The bad ones don’t really need to be defaced; they’re already there and blatant, without any use of the imagination at all. I cringed for years when I would see a “Safe Place” campaign sign in any window, since the logo looked like child molestation, rather than a network devoted to youth safety. (I obviously wasn’t the only one, as they announced a “brand update” in 2012.)
One factor that could increase your risk of brand vandalism is if you are in a physical or over-logo’d environment where large brand applications are in public environments unsupervised for long periods of time (i.e. trucks, public transit shelters, etc.) and constantly exposed to graffiti.
Or, if you’re in a controversial, sensitive, or highly politicized industry. That’s probably where you have to be the most careful. For example, I’ve seen environmentalists or protestors deface corporate logos on chemical companies’ headquarters or trash-hauling companies’ vehicles to make them look bad or “evil.” In that case, they’re doing it to try to send a focused message, not just to doodle. I’ve also had heightened concern with my healthcare clients to avoid imagery that could read as uncomfortable, sensitive, or even lewd.
That painful parody may be protected speech.
Most logo parodies, where people intentionally make and distribute sometimes very funny and highly refined design vandalisms—or logo “hijacks”—are usually for gigantic corporations or franchises that people see as anonymous, valueless, or evil simply because of their focus, size, and impact, and where there’s enough recognition and knowledge in the universal domain that everyone will “get the joke.”
In those cases, they are typically retail, technology, or entertainment brands that people see everywhere. Starbucks is a very frequent target here in the U.S., as well as Shell (Hell), Burger King (Murder King), McDonalds (McDiabetes), Dell (Hell), American Idol (American Idiot), etc. In most of those cases, it’s not just about bastardizing the logo’s symbolism, but its name as well.
Another variant is where people create more sophisticated and subtle satire by not touching the logo or name at all, but creating the parody simply by rewriting the underlying tagline to say “what they really think” of the company; usually a scathing judgment on the brand.
Even if “unfair” and riffing off of a formally registered trademark, parody and satire can be a form of free speech protected under the First Amendment. It frequently comes down to whether the parody was for a commercial purpose or whether there is a reasonable chance of confusion, not just whether you find it offensive or distressing.
Again, the target of a parody is usually going to be a very large company or organization being ridiculed for moral, character, product, or service flaws. Not likely your average business trying to do the right thing by their customers and community.
It’s likely more about context than just content.
So, in answer to the reader’s initial questions in terms of the importance of their logo being vandal proof or their concern about “over-reaction” on their own part, I think it’s mostly about context.
It’s not so much the actual name, shape, and symbology (though some are inherently problematic) but more about the filters, context, and climate of your business, industry, audience, and community: what you do; what you sell; who your customers are; who your competitors are; how public you are; how large you are; you controversial you are; etc. It’s not that corruptibility is only important to big, public companies, but as a smaller company some of your risk factors are greatly reduced.
Beyond context, no matter how small or large your company, my best advice in terms of brand name or logo corruptibility is simply:
Don’t be dumb.
It’s really more about not “missing the obvious,” rather than building something indestructible. And obvious varies by viewer, geography, generation, etc. Testing a name or logo a bit with your actual market or demographic—not your staff, creative agency, shareholders, or family—before launching can go a long way to knowing what they might see in it.
And ultimately that’s the most important thing.
>> Have you had your brand name bastardized or your logo pranked? I’d like to see what happened and hear about it.