The strange case of the Tokyo logo

Tokyo has abandoned its 2020 Olympic logo, following complaints that it was plagiarised from the Théâtre de Liège.

According to news sources, the Tokyo Olympics team initially brushed off claims from the Belgian designer Olivier Debie on the grounds that it wasn’t a registered trade mark. Whether Debie pursues them in court now is something we will see. However, the result is that the Théâtre de Liège is now world-famous, and the Tokyo Olympics is ever more deeply mired.

The whole thing came to a head when it turned out the Kenjiro Sano, the Japanese designer, had been accused of plagiarism before. At that point the Tokyo Olympic Committee evidently lost its nerve.

Probably a good thing.

If you look at the two logos the first thing that becomes clear is that the Théâtre de Liège design makes a good deal of sense. It incorporates the T and the L in a distinctive way, and you can even find the D if you look at the negative space. Whether it has quite what it takes to become famous without the controversy is another matter. By contrast, the Tokyo logo makes no sense at all: it is the T L of Théâtre de Liège, with an additional circle added to symbolise Japan, and the colours changed. But why? What relevance does the L have to the Tokyo Olympics?

The Tokyo Olympic Committee should have rejected the logo long before there were any doubts about its provenance. It just didn’t make any sense. So, how is it that a multi-billion of whatever currency project didn’t spot that its logo was silly?

This is a problem I face as a brand consultant. Prospective clients quite often show me their existing logo, and ask what I think of it. Generally that means that they recognise there is a problem. (Let me say now that a logo is not a brand, and a brand is not a logo!) How, though, did they approve it in the first place, if it never looked right?

As a general rule, I would suggest that the initial brand of a new business is never quite right. It takes three years or £.25 million in turnover before most businesses really get the idea of why their clients buy from them. When talking to established businesses, I’m generally very interested in their customer feedback: why do the customers love them, why do they keep coming back, what is memorable about the business?

If you’re a 0-3 year old business, please relax. Your brand and logo could probably do with some tweaking, but that isn’t your fault. It’s inevitable.

Rather more worryingly, there are plenty of businesses out there which went for an expensive rebrand, did all their new signage and stationery, and only subsequently realised it wasn’t quite right.

This isn’t necessarily a huge problem. If you look at the Shell logo over the last few decades, you will see that it gradually evolved as it was simplified. Simple is almost always better.

The very worst situation is the one Tokyo finds itself in: after a rebrand, a company discovers that it has the same logo as a competitor.

How can this be?

To paraphrase William Goldman’s comments about Hollywood, very few people commissioning logos have much idea about what they are looking for. The process often goes something like this. A company wants a new logo, and they tender out to a number of design agencies. The brief is something on the lines of ‘to construct a new logo for [name of company], a world leader in our chosen field’. Rather fewer designers than they were hoping for respond to the tender. At the tender interviews, one company asks a lot of questions and explains the process they will go through. Another company shows three logos they’ve designed. In most cases, the business chooses the company offering three logos.

Having sat on both sides of these kinds of tenders, let me say this: never take the company offering three logos. Almost certainly two of them will be reworkings of logos previously rejected by other clients, and the third will be a couple of hours of work. No design company can really afford to spend the weeks required understanding your business and your brand for a purely speculative tender. The result will either be a logo that looks initially attractive but later is discovered to be inappropriate for some reason (for example, because it doesn’t reproduce well on your packaging), or, worse, one which is very similar to something already out there.

No designer is intending to plagiarise (I say that more in hope than confidence), but we are all influenced by what we see. If someone reads about your company and instantly has an idea of what your logo should look like, chances are that they are remembering rather than imagining. Of course, it won’t be quite the same, because your organisation won’t have quite the same name. However, when someone points it out, the similarities are painfully obvious.

There’s a bloke in Birmingham who offers logos for £50, and provides a range of them for you to choose yourself. One of them looks eerily like the World Wildlife Fund’s panda. Probably many of the others look like other things as well. Again, I’ve no doubt that he’s drawing ideas that come into his head, but what comes into our heads most often is what we’ve seen.

You can’t guarantee that the design that you come up with will be dissimilar from all other designs in the world, but you can guarantee that you won’t be plagiarising. To clarify the difference (for those other readers), if your process leads to something which is similar in design to something of which you had no awareness, this is an accidental similarity. You still won’t be allowed to register it as a trademark in the same category as that other brand, but you won’t be plagiarising. On the other hand, if you just get a load of designs and pick the one you like, there’s quite a high risk that you’re half-remembering in the same way that the designer was half-remembering. If it later turns out that your designer’s web history includes that logo, or is on reference material she or he possesses, and you have no history of earlier drafts that led to that design, then you may well be in trouble. This trouble will be worse if it’s then shown that what appears to be an odd ornament, a quirk, in your logo was a actually a key functional element in the original — exactly like the bottom of the L in the Tokyo logo, which has nothing to do with Tokyo, but everything to do with Théâtre de Liège.

I could be a bit self-serving here and say: don’t start by going to a designer, go to a brand consultant first and let them engage the designer. However, that’s for another time.

If you are evaluating a logo, but you have no idea how to other than ‘I like it’ ‘It feels like us’ ‘It feels like what we want to be’ or ‘twenty people picked it in a survey’, then here’s a useful acronym that can help you: MADE. Great logos are MADE, rather than half-remembered. There is a making process, which you can document, and should, just to be safe.

  • Memorable
  • Appropriate
  • Distinctive
  • Efficient

A logo needs to be memorable, and that means memorable in relation to your business. A single red circle may be the greatest colour/shape combination ever invented, but unless your business is selling red circles (in which case it’s not trademarkable, as being illustration), it doesn’t connect with what you do. That’s why most effective logos incorporate the name of the organisation, either as text, or, with something as famous as Apple, by obvious visual association. Even Apple, though, kept Apple Computer, and then the word Apple for years before it was able to go to the symbol only.

The keys to memorability are: something recognisable, one thing which is different, and tip of the tongue pronunciation. Tip of the tongue (t, d, p, b, f, s, not g, k, r, j, n, l) is to do with naming — again, the logo is not actually the right place to start. The recognisable and different, though, is the key to great logos. Gillette is Futura extra bold italic, with the dot over the i change from a circle into a razor shape, and a razor added to the e. SONY is such a distinctive word that it doesn’t need additional distinction. The loop of short term memory is 2-3 seconds. If the eye hasn’t ‘got it’ in that time, your logo is not memorable.

A logo needs to be appropriate. By far the biggest problem I encounter is that organisations don’t know what appropriate is, because they have no clear notion of what their promise is, what the brand’s values are (i.e., what makes it valuable to their customers), how it is distinctive in its market, and what its personality or style is. That’s another reason to not start with the logo. If you have a strong understanding of what your organisation is, it’s relatively easy to just run down a check list and say ‘no, no, yes, yes’ and so on. I was once branding a children’s programme. We went through a personality checklist and agreed what it was. I came back a week later with a logo which I though might do (I was being rather lazy). Having done the personality work, the commissioner was immediately able to point out i) that it wasn’t appropriate ii) why it wasn’t appropriate and iii) what we needed to do to make it appropriate. A day later I was able to come back with the right thing, we agreed it, and, four years later, it is still working hard doing its job. When you know what it is the logo is representing, it’s fairly easy to say exactly how it needs to be improved. Otherwise, you are doing little more than saying to a bewildered designer ‘it’s not quite right—can’t you just make it a bit better?’ The result will usually actually be worse.

Distinctive is, of course, what the Tokyo logo wasn’t. Aside from the fact that Tokyo has a T in it, it didn’t particularly distinguish it from any other monogram. Most importantly, it didn’t distinguish it from a rather smaller, but still important, cultural competitor: Théâtre de Liège. If your logo involves your organisation’s name, and your organisation’s name is not like one of your competitors, then it probably will be distinctive. You can search the trademark register much more easily for names than for designs, and have confidence that your name is distinctive (if not, change it before you change your logo) and that the design is therefore also distinctive. Check what colours your main competitors are using. Pick either the complementary colour, if there’s really only one competitor, or the colour furthest from the other two. I had the privilege a couple of years ago of being the consultant for a brand that subsequently won Brand of the Year in its industry. It had two main competitors, who used respectively red and green as their key colours. The brand’s previous logo was green. One of the more difficult decisions (but absolutely the right one) was rotating the colours so that the new logo was blue, though a blue with a similar quality as the old green. Of course, there were other distinctive, but colour is the first thing we see.

Efficient is something you learn about after you’ve been doing branding for a while. Can your logo, and its corporate colour, and its typeface, be efficiently reproduced on all of your core products, packaging, and promotional materials? You would expect a designer to ask what your materials are, but often they don’t. Twenty-six years ago, when I was starting out, design was a physical process involving pens, prototypes and cutting out. Today, many designers work almost exclusively on computer. There are plenty of things you can show on a website which can’t be done in the physical world. This even goes as far as sending a copy of your draft logo to your packaging printer and asking them if it will be easy to reproduce: if they are printing in Flexo, or using heat-responsive paper, you may discover your marvellous new look comes out as a smudge.

If you—or your designer—can show how you set up your criteria for MADE, in relation to your industry, your organisation’s distinctness, your services or products and your methods of distribution, then you will be fairly immune to any charges of plagiarism.

If it’s just something that popped into your head, or your designer’s head, then there is a real risk that you are simply appropriating someone else’s look.

The lesson of the Tokyo Olympics is this: no one is too big to get away with it.

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