It's been said that "imitation is the greatest form of flattery". That concept has inspired some of the best works in popular music, comedy and fine arts for ages. But when it comes to crafting corporate identities and brands, copying other designs is not a good idea. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) should always strive to be unique.
Logos and visual brands should be strong depictions of the businesses and what they do best. Remember that your brand or your customers’ brands will be seen everywhere they are placed, from signage and business cards to marketing collateral (not to mention websites, social media and promotional products).
Similar Isn't Smart Business
Take the case of the Wichita, Kansas small business called In-N-Out Cleaners, which is your typical neighborhood dry cleaner. The name "In-N-Out" sounds familiar and maybe even a little too familiar. The dry cleaner's lettered logo in a dominant red outlined with yellow came to the attention of In-N-Out Burger, prompting a lawsuit from the national burger chain.
The In-N-Out debacle isn't the only example in which SMBs have poached — intentionally or inadvertently — the logos and trademarked assets of bigger companies. You might not be surprised that entities such as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea, let their space agency rip off NASA's logo (which is oddly named "NADA", a four-letter word that means "nothing" in Spanish). But entrepreneurs and companies of all sizes in the USA need to be a little more careful.
Just this summer, the New England Patriots’ tight end superstar Rob Gronkowski got in a little trouble with Nike. The football player, serial entrepreneur and frequent champion of charity fundraising launched a logo for his own "Gronk" brand, which was deemed too close to the iconic "Jumpman" logo owned by Nike's Michael Jordan brand.
Elsewhere in sports, spirits maker Jägermeister blocked a shot from the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks franchise. Jägermeister’s legal complaint noted that the Bucks' rebrand featured a deer-inspired logo too close to that of Jägermeister's trademark, which was first introduced in 1935.
Meanwhile, a high school in Colorado called Old Thornton High School had to change its varsity sports emblem completely. Despite being crafted in shades of royal blue and white, Texas Tech University objected. Even though the occasional contender in the Big 12 Conference created a logo in very different colors (red and black), Old Thornton's font and arrangement of the letters was deemed too similar to that of Texas Tech.
Yet, despite all of the advice to play it safe out there, promo marketing pointed out this month another example in which a college went "too similar", this time to the legendary three-stripe logo of athletic wear giant Adidas.
But it's not only the sports industry that gets competitive about logos. Recently, internet titans have battled over corporate identities. PayPal accused music streaming service Pandora of trademark infringement simply because Pandora had paired down its logo into a simple, single letter P in a shade of blue alleged to be too close to PayPal's logo.
Keep it Original, Work with Experts
Even big corporations with well-known logos shake it up now and then. Perhaps "fresh and original" is just a good marketing strategy. A graphic article by Storypick demonstrates that it is as important for century-old companies such as Coca-Cola, Canon, Audi and Volkswagen to transform their logos into something new and original.as it is for newer companies like Twitter, Uber and Amazon. Of course, sometimes for SMBs it is difficult to know where and how to start.
HuffPost recently published an article about "How to Know When It’s Time for a Logo Redesign". Some of the drivers for rebrands are common sense, like having "dated" logos. But it is also important to refresh complex logos that were designs for more print- and television-oriented media of the past to compete today, when smaller screens such as mobile prevail.
Small businesses should shoot for originality and be willing to pay for it. The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) advises that businesses, educational entities and non-profits avoid the $5 logo pitch, since these internet services tend to result in higher-than-advertised costs, stolen work and stock art.
Think about colors, style, shapes and other elements that, in your mind, create strong brands, and focus not just on trends but also the long-term. Establishing recognizable brands and logos is essential and they can always evolve as needed later.
Even more important is to hire help or "go pro" for logo design. Working with a specialist in small business marketing and graphic design will ensure that you get the best support, pricing and creativity for your brand and for your SMB customers.