Why “libraries” didn’t fly in Seattle

Branding: It’s more than just a logo. A logo is a visual representation of a brand — a memorable nametag for an organization that, overtime, is associated with a feeling or emotional response based on its use. But a brand, as a whole, includes an organization’s name, the message it conveys visually as well as in written communication, and how the organization connects and engages with its stakeholders through the C-level down to the intern or even volunteers. Clearly, this is a simplified definition of a brand, but it’s enough information to analyze the recent failure of the re-brand of the Seattle Public Library system.

Last October, the Seattle Public Library board of directors voted down a proposed re-branding of the library district. The potential re-branding received a lot of public attention, which is pretty well summed up in this article published by The Seattle Times. There has been much speculation on the mistakes made leading up to the failed vote, much of which I agree with; however, not being part of the team that made the decisions, it’s hard to know why they did what they did. That being said, it does provide an opportunity to discuss further what branding is and why a brand cannot be changed in a vacuum. In addition to updating the library district’s logo, the re-branding proposal also included changing the name of the library district from the Seattle Public Library to the Seattle Public Libraries. A simple enough change — maybe too simple and without enough input from the communities it serves to be met with open minds.

Rather than rehash the mistakes made through the process (this has been pretty well documented by other sources), I want to touch on the importance of understanding a brand before you can change it. With many years of experience working with libraries and organizations that serve them, I want to touch on some important parts of the process that were either missed or oversimplified in this particular case.

Developing a brand takes time
A logo may only take a skilled designer a matter of hours to create, but a brand is created over a long period of time with the input of many. A re-brand must be met with thoughtful consideration; it’s not a decision that can be made in a vacuum. Libraries as a whole, not just in Seattle, are faced with an evolution, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. That being said, there needs to be a true understanding of what your brand is before it can be changed. A complicated rebrand, like this one, should happen in steps, possibly with a logo and name change happening last. Which leads well into the next point… 

Who you are and who you want to be may not be the same
Libraries have always been houses of books and information, and with the digital evolution of our world, the role libraries play has evolved as well. But that doesn’t mean that the vision of a board of directors and the needs of a community are the same. The only way to know this for sure is to ask. Ask a lot of questions in many different ways to many different people. Then evaluate – does who we say we are and who they think we are match? If not, then it’s time to decide what’s most important and make changes accordingly. This doesn’t mean change your logo, yet.

Communicate, communicate, communicate
Once a plan is in place, it’s time to communicate. Share with your stakeholders and the community what you have found out. Do it in non-threatening ways that they will positively respond to, and make sure you are communicating to all of your audiences — meaning, in their language and in places they will actually see it. An online survey is a great tool, for example, but if a large number of your users don’t have access to email or the Internet, that should not be the only way you communicate. Next step, listen. What are you hearing? It’s not all going to be good, and in this process, you may learn that what your audiences want is not who your brand can be. So, it’s time to make some changes. In this world of over-communication that we live in, this might seem like just adding to the noise, but transparency is always best in the long run.

You do not own your brand; your stakeholders do
This may be one of the hardest lessons for any organization to understand. You may be the CEO, executive director or board chair, but at the end of the day, it’s your customers, patrons and communities that you impact who truly own the brand. Ultimately, these people will serve as the barometer of what works and what doesn’t. Look at the Harry Potter series, for example; J.K. Rowling may be the creator of the stories, but the readers are so invested in the brand that their opinions have an impact on how the story continues. Even if you created the brand, overtime, you become the curator instead.

Understand your role in the marketplace, act accordingly
Libraries, unlike most organizations, are public institutions, and for that reason, people want to know that resources are being spent to impact the people who use them in the best way possible. So when it finally came to be known that the Seattle Public Library had intentions of spending more than $2 million if the rebrand was approved, the public had a lot to say about how they would prefer money of this magnitude to be spent. The reality was the money earmarked for the rebrand was from private donations, but at the end of the day, the public didn’t care because of the role libraries serve in the community. Understanding your role in the marketplace and acting accordingly will save money and possibly misguided public missteps.

Libraries may seem so different from the organization you run, but the story of branding and the lessons to be learned are universal in many ways. Understanding communications strategy and bringing the right team together to analyze and execute it are key parts of a successful brand or re-brand.

Megan Neri serves as Director of Client Relations at Imagine Communications. 

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