Launching the lead balloon

Do you know anyone who actually likes the recently-unveiled London 2012 Olympics logo? How could they have got it so wrong in terms of public and professional response? And what does the whole incident say about the UK’s branding and marketing industry? By John Stones

London%20olympics%20logoAs far as launches go, it could scarcely have been worse. Last week, Lord Sebastian Coe and assorted dignitaries assembled at London’s Roundhouse to launch the eagerly awaited logo for the 2012 Olympics. But instead of the anticipated euphoria, the graffiti-like identity was greeted with howls of derision in the media, and international mirth. It was quickly apparent that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) had a marketing clanger on its hands.

Not since Margaret Thatcher sneeringly draped her hankie over a rebranded “ethnic” tailfin of a model British Airways aeroplane in 1997 have so many eyes been on branding. Commentators have been vying with each other to find unflattering comparisons for the 2012 logo, from copulating characters from The Simpsons, to a deformed Swastika or unhappy echo of the MTV logo. An online petition quickly garnered almost 50,000 signatures before being closed, and Conservative MP Philip Davies tabled an early day motion condemning the logo as a “pathetic attempt to appear trendy”. Experts criticised the branding as inaccessible to people with poor eyesight. And to rub salt in the wound, the promotional video’s flashing lights triggered epileptic attacks and was quickly pulled.

Branding in the limelight
Wolff Olins, the Omnicom-owned branding agency paid £400,000 for the work, has battened down the hatches and is unable to comment publicly. But the UK’s marketing and branding industry has been put uncomfortably under the spotlight.

Jim%20PriorJim Prior, managing partner of brand consultancy The Partners, speaks for many when he asks: “How come we have a piece of design that doesn’t seem to be of a standard we would expect? And why did the Olympic Committee sign it off and Seb Coe think it was so great?” 

“It tested well,” says a spokeswoman for Locog, which is insisting the logo is not going to change. The organisation says it is “delighted with and very proud of the work,” and emphasises that it was advised throughout by the Design Business Association and the AAR, which oversaw the original pitch. “We wanted it to be brave and different because that is what the London Games are going to be,” adds the spokeswoman. “We didn’t want it to be nationalistic. A big part of the challenge was to appeal to young people. It has to be something that is fresh now and fresh in five years’ time.”

Locog denies reports that the word “London” was only inserted on the logo at a very late stage following outside pressure. However, sources close to London Mayor Ken Livingstone have confirmed to Marketing Week that he was “involved at too late a stage”.

Matthew%20PattenDespite the furore, the branding does have some fans, including Matthew Patten, director of communications for the national youth group charity Clubs for Young People, and a former sports marketer. “It looks contemporary,” he says. It’s all very well to have nationalistic symbols and cuddly bears but this is perfect for young people, and for a multi-national event. The kids I have shown it to say ‘yeah, fine’. There is no point in working in the branding section of Locog if you are not willing to break a few eggs.”

For those who believe in the maxim that all publicity is good publicity, or who are inclined to a cynical reading of the manipulation of public space, the brouhaha could be seen as a blessing in disguise.

Sponsorship troubles
Since the Los Angles Olympics in 1984, people are aware that it can be a profitable process for the host nation, says Patten. “London 2012 is in danger of not being commercially successful and has had trouble getting sponsors on board,” he adds. “What every sponsor brand wants is talkability; not laughability, not controversy but certainty that the event will be successful.” But the true test of the logo is if it adds value to merchandise, he says, and it is here that some serious damage may have been done.

But Locog says the branding will develop, with animations and applications for different media. And for the first time sponsors will be able to “fill the logo with their own colours”, perhaps opening the doors to future controversies over commercialisation.

Locog insists sponsors have been saying “publicly and privately that they love it”. Lloyds TSB, which is believed to have paid £80m to become the first domestic sponsor, professes itself delighted with the new logo. A spokeswoman says: “The new brand identity captures the spirit of the Games perfectly. It is young, vibrant, innovative and really brings the values and the excitement of the Games to life.” Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R will have to learn how to apply the logo to Lloyds TSB’s advertising, which will be no easy job.

Mark Wickens, chairman of Brandhouse WTS, believes much of the fuss has centred on a confusion between logo and brand. The logo, he says, is “not terribly legible, a bit crass, and patronising”, but suggests the criticism, from professional designers and the outraged public, does not take into account the new, more complex media world it will exist in: “It uses identity in an interactive way. It is a useful move forwards in branding.”

“It’s not going to make a sow’s ear into a silk purse,” says The Partners’ Prior. “Wolff Olins has created challenging identities in the past, but what is unusual in this case is that the public hates it, and designers do too.”

For Wolff Olins, the media frenzy has put its own brand on the line. Even though they have long since left, founders Michael Wolff and Wally Olins have both very publicly leapt to the agency’s defence.

It is not the first time Wolff Olins has landed in bother. While work for Orange is still seen as seminal, its short-lived pastel rebrand for Abbey was widely mocked and the agency suffered the ignominy of having to implement another company’s work after Abbey was sold to Banco Santander Central Hispano in 2005. And some in the industry have been perturbed by house-style similarities in its brands for different organisations (pastel soft focus for Tate and Abbey, jagged “streetiness” for the South Bank Centre and London 2012). But its creative ability has now been seriously questioned by peers and the public.

With hindsight, will London 2012 be seen as the first, perhaps awkward yet pioneering step to a new branding philosophy? Or will it be an emblem of failure? Either way, it has shown just how emotive the subject of branding can be.

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