Don’t Crowdsource or Run Design Contests for Your Place Brand

4 min read

Every now and then we see a city or district running a competition for their new logo. In theory, this sounds great — the destination gets some refreshed visuals and the person who wins the competition gets bragging rights and maybe even a little bit of prize money. However, we have three major problems with design contests for place branding:

It’s a design competition rather than a strategic effort.

When you run a logo design contest for your city, the winner is picked almost exclusively based on aesthetics. The criteria for winning is a) it looks cool and b) it’s relatively modern. It might sound more complicated in the brief, but at the end of the day, it’s really just those 2 things. Thus there is very little strategy that goes into contest designs, since the process lacks the comprehensive research and insights associated with a more robust (and professional) brand identity project. The lack of strategy means the logo has very little staying power — in a year it could feel totally obsolete.

Also, depending on the rules for the contest, you could wind up with a winner designed by someone who has never even visited your place. That hardly sounds strategic. And as budgets tighten and the pressure to differentiate your destination becomes even greater, it doesn’t make sense to put money into something that doesn’t necessarily take your audiences and goals into consideration.

These logos were all part of a design contest
Another — even bigger — strategic problem with this method is that a brand is about way more than the logo in the first place. At CivicBrand, our clients often hear us say, “A brand is more than just a logo.” No one loves Nike because of the swoosh, and no one loves a place because of the mark on its utility trucks. People love brands because of the feelings they elicit within them. A professional place branding project considers the emotional responses to a place and how the brand can both explicitly and implicitly tell that story. It also develops a strong positioning strategy, creates brand elements that the community can buy into to build civic pride, considers the brand’s architecture so that it works with departments and other entities, takes productions requirements into account, and delivers comprehensive brand standards and a detailed brand implementation plan.

It lacks community engagement.

Sure, by holding a design contest you “engage” the community in coming up with designs for your new city logo. But the process is without real and meaningful civic engagement. There aren’t efforts to hear from locals about what the place means to them. No listening sessions, focus groups, public surveys or casual chats in the coffee shop that could inform the design and strategy. All of these activities create public buy-in, so without them you stand a much greater chance of pushback from the public. Consider this simplified example: what if half of your population wants to push forward and move the city into the future, but the design that wins is something that feels very old-timey? Half the city ends up upset.

One might suggest that the solution for this is to have the public vote on the winner from a few selected options. While that does give the public some more ownership and input, it’s likely a vote on personal taste and not on overall brand strategy, so you end up with the same problems mentioned above.

What is the strategy behind these design contest logos? What story do they help tell?

It’s exploitative.

The winner might get paid for their work, but what about all of the other people who entered the contest? Anyone who enters is potentially doing work for free. As a general rule, we like to avoid that.

What to do instead:

Instead of holding a contest, we recommend undergoing a brand strategy project. Whether it’s just for a small district, an entire city, or even an entire country, a brand strategy project will conduct the research and uncover the insights needed to develop a more cohesive brand for your place — one that is not just a logo. Because a brand is not just a logo, it is a set of beliefs that defines your place and attracts others to it. Branding is all about the emotions associated with your place and the promise you make to your residents, business owners and visitors. A logo is just one component of how you communicate that promise to the outside world.

Because of the public engagement conducted as part of the branding process, you’ll be able to collectively clarify who you are and what you stand for as a place. You’ll develop a comprehensive brand platform that represents your entire community, not just a mark that looks cool. Your message will be defined and you’ll have many tools at your disposal in order to share it.

Hire CivicBrand for a workshop to help you get started on the branding process. We’ll walk through community branding best practices, common mistakes to avoid, and interactive branding exercises focused on your community.


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