February 6, 2020

Is crowdsourced branding ever a good choice?

With the advent of increased connectivity, crowdsourcing has been used to accomplish countless goals including branding. But should such an important part of a company be left up to anonymous masses?

At the national level

With crowdsourcing having become a firmly embedded practice for brands, the concept is still being applied to all levels all the way up to and including branding whole countries. For one, the United Arab Emirates recently decided on a new logo and slogan, “Make it happen.”

Thankfully, to do that, it didn’t task citizens of the world with actually submitting new designs, but rather by voting for one of three logos. In the end, the design that won out was a seven-line map of the UAE (representing each of the emirates) in the red, green and black colors of the national flag after scoring the majority of 10.6 million votes cast.

It’s also not the only country to seek out the public in helping to brand itself: Back in 2016, New Zealand got as far as choosing a new design for its flag — one that replaces the Union Jack on it with the silver fern, another strong national symbol — out of a staggering 10,000 designs and then out of a long list of 40. In the end, however, that winning design by Kyle Lockwood didn’t pass the national vote between switching to his flag and keeping the original (his scored 43.1%). The cost to not rebrand in this case? $26 million New Zealand Dollars, or almost $17 million American dollars.

It’s trickier than it seems

We’re no strangers to the notorious design contest and unpaid spec work, but is all crowdsourcing done this way? Looking around the Internet, it doesn’t seem so simple. Taken at face value, crowdsourcing simply means leveraging the resources of a large group of outside parties to achieve a certain goal.

But even when we narrow it down to crowdsourced branding, it’s still not that simple because depending on the context, a brand is sourcing different elements that will eventually contribute to producing something carrying the brand message or image:

  • Opinion: much like the above examples with voting on pre-selected choices, this outsources the decision making power for the voting period depending on whether you agree with the results, or reject it simply because you don’t like the most popular choice.
  • Ideas: similarly with calls for suggestions or responses to prompts (such as asking questions on Instagram), this outsources the creativity and the time to write a suggestion or submit an idea that could be implemented immediately, not at all or far into the future.
  • Content: just like ideas, crowdsourcing content is popular with contests, campaigns and ads, because the participation is once again voluntary and intrinsically motivated, leading to a large number of high quality submissions.
  • Assets: this is where much of the focus on crowdsourced branding lies, particularly with logos and understandably so, because we can clearly see where it results in quantifiable rejected designs, wasted hours and lost compensation.

The Takeaway

We can say right away that for a brand’s defining visual assets like logos, most would recommend the average person doesn’t make their own unless you’re say, MAEKAN founder Alex Maeland, himself a talented designer and photographer. Otherwise, a crowdsourced brand logo or similarly important asset sends a strong message in itself: that the brand didn’t or doesn’t intend to do either the soul-searching of knowing what they represent — or the legwork of sourcing skilled designers to work closely with to execute their vision.

For opinions (including votes) and ideas, where the participation is voluntary and the minimum lift for the crowd in question is assumed to be low, we’d say it’s a valuable way to get feedback and perspective from “outside the box” that smaller pools of talent (say, a start-up team like ours) can find ourselves in.

What we’re left with is the fine line around content, which we need to observe carefully: When is it presenting an enticing prize to a crowd of fans and when is it dangling a carrot to a crowd of people willing to work for free? Large companies that can afford creative teams still use UGC and are praised for the refreshing content produced, but evidently that’s employed as part of a more extensive strategy and toolset.

Maybe the key here is the mix: a test of how much of a brand’s identity is suitable for crowdsourcing hinges on how much participation the brand wants (or how much power to outsource) — and more importantly, how much the crowd cares to contribute.

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