Branding Own Goals

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Leeds United launch their new logo into the back of their own net.

Unless you were undertaking some sort of Mars experiment, where you are completely cut off from the world, it was very difficult to miss the car-crash launch of the new Leeds United logo. However, I have some real sympathy for the club, because here was a business trying to create a logo with meaning.

Best intentions

Leeds United have been through a lot over the years, widely derided at times and a club that everyone loves to hate. With a series of owners with questionable intentions and practices, the fans have cried out for stability and an ownership that wasn’t an embarrassment which dominated the back pages of regional and national titles for non-footballing reasons.

For seven months under the new stewardship of Andrea Radriazzani, the club has barely put a foot wrong, ground purchased back, youth teams replenished with players from the academies of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Numerous coaches, sports scientists and nutritionists employed to provide the best environment for players, and players who were now committed to long-term contracts – here was an owner putting his money where his mouth is and building for the future.

So it was completely understandable that the club would have wanted to change the existing logo to signify a new era. A new logo that didn’t look back, one which was set for the future, to herald new beginnings and a positive outlook.

Just how wrong can you get it

If ever there was a textbook case of how not to redesign a football club logo, this was it. Within seconds of the launch, social media users created a cacophony of spoof logos which absolutely destroyed the club. Even rival teams and big brands jumped on board to make an easy profit in the social media currency of likes and shares. Leeds United wanted to be famous, alas, the logo simply brought it back into that oh so familiar territory of absolute infamy.

The fans of the club immediately launched a petition to stop the logo on change.org, the official site for ensuring petitions and questions can be raised in parliament, and signatories were signing up fast. Ten thousand signatures within 2 hours (equalling the 10,000 supporters the club claimed to have consulted), 50,000 within 6 hours and 70,000 after 8 hours. The club was seriously getting close to having its design choices debated by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in parliament. Which would have been the most Leeds United thing I would ever have witnessed in my lifetime.

So where did it go wrong?

I think the error was made right at the beginning of the process. The club has clearly been obsessed by the Leeds salute. This personable greeting used by fans to acknowledge each other is a bit like a secret handshake and has been used by supporters for a very long time. It was never instigated by the club, no-one really knows how it started, it was just a part of being a Leeds United fan.

I understand why the club would want to capitalise on something so unique to its supporter base. The mistake they made was making this gesture the sole focus of their creative redesign. This tunnel vision, focussing on a single issue for the purpose of creating a logo, was the biggest mistake they made. They were left with no alternative versions to benchmark their final design against. There was no get out, for a design that was flawed from the very beginning. I have real sympathy for the design agency involved, they clearly met the brief they were tasked with, it is just a shame that they don’t appear to have been allowed to explore other creative avenues.

I admire the fact that the club wanted to create a logo with meaning, it’s just a shame that the meaning and messaging was so trite and ultimately weak. Relying on the crass, emotionally tired marketing bumpf of “celebrating fans at the heart of our identity”. The messaging was lampooned in equal measures to the laboured design.

“The ‘Leeds salute’ is something that has been with the club for decades – fans do it, players do it and it’s become a powerful symbol between the fans, the club and the players.
“We wanted to do something which was truly ownable by Leeds and although the people of Leeds are very proud to be from Yorkshire, the Yorkshire rose actually features on a lot of other club crests.”
“So we thought, and the fans thought, that the ‘Leeds salute’ was truly ownable and something we could make famous.”
Angus Kinnear

They certainly made the salute famous, however, was the gesture anything other than a gimmick you would simply use for season ticket sales? I have to admit that the whole debacle has rendered the salute as more than a bit embarrassing now. Forever tarnished with being nothing more than a marketing gimmick, with scores of people at the ground forever forced to reluctantly ‘perform’ the salute for a sea of video cameras and club executives.

Creating a design Armageddon?

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the club was trying to inject some meaning into the logo and create a badge which was forward-looking and unique. I wholeheartedly agree that the new owners would want to create change to kick off this new chapter of ownership. Angus Kinnear, Managing Director said the following about what they wanted in a new logo:

Leeds had other issues with their existing crest. The use of the initials ‘LUFC’ and the absence of the words ‘Leeds United’ felt like poor marketing; a failure to properly display the club’s name. The white rose has always been popular, the essence of the badge Leeds wore at the height of the Howard Wilkinson era, but United saw it as generic to Yorkshire rather than distinct.

The climb-down over the release of the new badge was welcome and quite refreshing (after around 5 hours of launch), there are many owners who would have simply dug their heels in and increased the sense of hostility between club and supporters. However, they have inadvertently caused a car-crash of online design Armageddon, where fans create as many combinations of Yorkshire Roses, Smiley badges and lufc script text designs as is humanly possible.

The very things that the club wanted to move away from.

Although fans are correct in their assertion that the logo should retain a sense a heritage, Leeds United is truly unique in that it is a football club that has no clearly defined iconography that is ever present throughout its many historical logo designs.

Nearly all of the designs that the fans are now creating are not unique, they are simply a mish-mash of old logos, they mean nothing other than a smiley badge in a Yorkshire Rose. There is no meaning, it doesn’t convey what the club wants to be or where it wants to go. It is lazy design, which fails to create an identity or reflect the rich heritage of the club and the city.

Creating a logo with meaning?

I think whatever logo you create that is unique, new and different, it is always going to be met with resistance. However, to limit the impact and resistance to change, can a logo with designed meaning change those initial negative perceptions that come with any new aesthetic?

If you take for example the iconic smiley badge design, at the time of its release it was heavily criticised by supporters. Over time, however, it has become an iconic symbol for supporters – whether that is due to a design which typifies an era or because of the quality of the team of players that wore the shirt, is debatable.

With it being incredibly easy to criticise, sometimes you have to tackle an issue head-on and see if you can arrive at a solution. I took it upon myself to have a go at creating a logo with meaning and a central message. One which is at the heart of what Leeds United is about, purely for the purpose of writing this article and naked self-promotion.

No easy task.

I began by loosely setting out the criteria which meet the expectations of the club and its fans. These were as follows:

Club Requirements

  • Reference to Leeds as a city
  • Needs to contain the full text
  • Not use the Yorkshire Rose
  • Not use the smiley badge
  • Work across global territories
  • Clean and media friendly

Fan requirements:

  • Retain heritage
  • Use Yorkshire rose
  • Use Smiley badge
  • Would have a tattoo of it

As you can see, there is a clear conflict between what the fans want and what the club desires. I fall firmly on the side of the club. I think the logo needs to look forward, however it should retain a degree of heritage as the fans rightly demand. It is a design of compromise.

The other factors I considered were the regional rivals that the club has and Leeds as a City. If you walk through the centre of Leeds and look up at some of the glorious old buildings you will notice that they are adorned with Owls, in fact, they are everywhere. The Leeds City council crest has three owls, in addition to three stars and a fleece.

The problem with using Owls in a new logo design for Leeds United is that Sheffield Wednesday are known throughout English football as the ‘owls’ and have their own Harry Potter style logo to match. I am also not a fan of the fleece carcass of a Ram. Derby County has the whole sheep thing locked up tight and sheep and Yorkshire folk conjure up an image which isn’t particularly sporty or family friendly. When you see the Peacock, I immediately think of Spurs and although not regional, or championship rivals, you would hope that the intention is to become fierce rivals in the future. I reluctantly took a cursory look at Barnsley, who have miners and Sheffield United, who have knives in their logos. I did explore a cutlery approach, however, I think Leeds United have had enough of wooden spoons.

It wasn’t going to be easy but I persevered and here is my design:

 

Your immediate reaction is probably one of disgust and you are immediately tempted to click away and write me off. Although this is merely a first draft design, it is just a concept and one which simply forms the basis for a wider design investigation. However, I would appreciate it if you would read on to the explanation and see if that changes your view on the initial aesthetics.

The Meaning?

  • The Circle: In the very centre is the circle, this represents a football in its purest form and is at the very heart of the design.
  • The L & U: The combination of the L & U are based on the classic iconic smiley badge design, this element retains the heritage that the fans desire. Leeds used to be one of richest cities in Europe, handling one-sixth of Englands Export trade in 1770. It dominated the textile, engineering and printing industries, and is now the third most populous British City in the UK. The U that surrounds the Circle in this design, represents the mills and printing presses that the cities success was built upon. The stripes in the U, characterising the paper or strands of wool that wrapped around the presses/looms.
  • The Diamond Shape: I didn’t want the shape to be a straightforward circle as it just doesn’t work in this composition and the majority of new logos are predictably circular in design. The chosen diamond shape is in remembrance of a time in the 80’s when the most famous thing about Leeds United was that it had the tallest floodlights in Europe. It was a really important fact to use in playground banter at that particular time… “yeah, well, so what if you’ve just won the FA Cup – you haven’t got the tallest lights in Europe have you?”
  • The Stars: Possibly the most contentious part of the logo, a lot of fans view them as ‘tinpot’ due to them being representative of league title wins. However, in this respect, they are taken from the City of Leeds’ Coat of Arms and they do play an essential role in the essence of this design; The stars lead towards the circle in the centre of the design, and the circle, which at first represented a football, now indicates a missing star. For those of you not aware of Leeds United History, Leeds played in the European Cup Final in 1975 and lost. They had goals disallowed and all sorts of dubious decisions went against them. The referee was subsequently banned from the game for life and there was/is a palpable belief that the club had been cheated. The fans have never forgotten this injustice and continue to this day to reference it by chanting ‘We are Champions, Champions of Europe’.

So in my design, I reference the success of Leeds as a City with its rich textile and engineering heritage, I have incorporated the iconic smiley badge, via a loose interpretation which keeps a very retro feel. And I have made the burning injustice of a significant event in Leeds United history, the central driving force of what the club should be about:

Righting a wrong. Focused. Determined. On-a-mission.

Summary

Rebranding is never easy, it is always easier to do evolution, rather than revolution for a logo which evokes such passion and means so much, to so many people. I have much sympathy for Leeds, they simply lost sight of what a brand logo should be and tried too hard. It will be really interesting to see the direction any new logo takes. I don’t think it is going to be a straightforward task.

I do think the logo I have designed looks a bit like a US political advert, and this may not be a bad thing as clearly most clubs now have a global focus, however, the shape and the design is ultimately unique. I like the simplicity and it does fall into a very Bauhaus design philosophy. It is adaptable and you can amend colour, shape and sizing combinations to easily make sub-brands.

I have tried to run the design through a parody test, always a sensible review to be aware of – the circle and U look more like an index finger than anything else and the best I can come up with is ‘Vibration White Finger’, which is nowhere near as bad as ‘White Power’. Although I’m sure someone somewhere will be able to spot an angle.

Leeds United Badge Design

It would be interesting to know if you appreciated the design more, once you understood the meaning, whether it resonates (if you are a fan of Leeds United) and what your particular strapline would be to compliment the design. I have my own thoughts on this, but there are far better wordsmiths out there than me.

I must admit I am looking forward to seeing what the club does next, I get the sense that the eyes of the world are upon them and it will be interesting to see if they capitulate and fall-back on a tired combination of old logos to quickly appease their fans. Or whether they still have the desire to go bold, innovative and future-facing.

Many thanks for reading and check out this video summary of the design:

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