Last year, the Seattle Public Library (SPL) hired mega-corporate-brand-strategist Hornall Anderson (GE, Starbucks, Frito-Lay) to lead a rebranding process. Ho-hum, right? Libraries are regularly redesigning or replacing their logos, typically with an open book or some vaguely tech image, accompanied by an inoffensive tagline like “Read. Connect. Succeed.” And though library rebranding efforts almost always whip library administrators into a lather, the public usually doesn’t pay much attention—except this time.
In late September, SPL administrators invited the public to complete a short survey on their proposed rebranding. The survey presented three possible logos (two of which referenced Seattle’s famous Rem Koolhaas–designed Central Library). In addition—and this was a new one for me—it included a proposed brand statement. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a brand statement to go on top of SPL’s existing mission statement and its strategic plan. But what turned out to be most controversial was a proposal to change the library’s name to Seattle Public Libraries—more precisely, what was controversial was paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hornall Anderson for the suggestion of pluralizing the library’s name.
After the survey went out, the Stranger, a well-regarded weekly alternative newspaper in Seattle, wrote that SPL was “about to blow a bunch of cash on a lot of cosmetic nonsense in a misguided effort to appear relevant in a corporate world dominated by sleekness and soullessness and sadness.” Too bad the opening of Amazon’s bookstore was still a few weeks away; that might have drawn off some of the bile. The bad press spread, with the Seattle Review of Books also taking up the charge. On October 28, amid heavy criticism, the SPL board voted down the name and logo change.
What’s unfortunate is that SPL really does need a new brand. Its old logo—a little globe inside an open book—is tired. And the library’s overall design (check out the website) lacks energy. Meanwhile, the message SPL is trying to communicate is much the same as that of every other public library in the U.S., which is hardly radical: while you can still find the library of your past (books, quiet), we are also becoming something different (community-centric, digital, learning focused). I can even see the name change, as it could be spun to reflect the diversity in today’s libraries.
So what went wrong? Let’s start with the money. According to the Stranger, by the time it went to the public, SPL had already spent $365,000 on the rebranding effort, and to complete the job it was planning to spend an additional $1.7 million. Spending close to $2 million on rebranding might be fine for Marmite (“Think outside the jar”), but it just doesn’t fly for a public institution. Even though SPL wasn’t using public dollars to fund the effort (the rebranding was supported by foundation funds), Americans expect public libraries not to operate like corporations. If a library can raise $2 million, the public would prefer it be spent on hours, materials, and services; it doesn’t matter where the money comes from.
Then there’s the corporate-speak. Somehow, SPL officials managed to write about the rebranding effort without ever really saying anything (“The purpose of the Seattle Public Library proposed rebrand initiative is to establish a new brand strategy...”). If I were a Seattle resident, my one question would have been: is this going to make the library better? Unfortunately, SPL officials never addressed that question in plain English, and it showed. According to media reports, of the 14,000-plus public survey responses, 70% said the rebranding wouldn’t help the library.
There was also the surprise factor. SPL administrators did not invest nearly enough time in communicating the need for its rebranding, and the public was not given much of a say in the yearlong process until the very end, when the survey went out. You would think the one lesson library managers nationwide would have learned from the New York Public Library’s disastrous, failed bid to redesign its iconic 42nd Street main library is that you have to involve the public in your plans, and early in the process.
Finally, librarians must always keep in mind that whatever it is we are proposing, it has to be about creating a better library for the public. When patrons learn about a new library initiative, they’re not interested in how our work is changing, or how libraries are transforming. They are looking to see their needs, hopes, and dreams reflected back to them. And if we’re not doing that, not only will we see our proposals fail, we’ll soon be out of business.