Airbnb, the online vacation rental service that now controls more hotel rooms than all of the major hotel companies combined, introduced a new logo last week. The response from the blogosphere and myriad branding experts” was immediate and negative.
Apparently, the responses were so bad that Fortune magazine titled their article on the fiasco, “Branding gone wrong: When bad logos strike back.” Besides Airbnb, the article also highlighted the criticism around new branding initiatives from Tropicana, Gap, JC Penny, and Starbucks – amongst their gallery of “branding gone wrong.” Of course, the title, and specifically the reference to “bad logos” clearly established the author’s own opinion and instantly moved the story from observational reporting to editorial commentary. Because regardless of whether the logos turn out to be successful examples of branding or not, and regardless of how the companies and their publics responded, being lumped under the title “…bad logos…” pretty much stops any reasonable conversation before it even begins.
According to the article, “Vacation rental service Airbnb unveiled a new logo last week that generated a wave of criticism for its design. Some likened it to a triangular paperclip or, even more crudely, to certain female anatomy. But the company still stands by the logo… ‘It’s a symbol for people who want to welcome into their home new experiences, new cultures, and new conversations,’ Airbnb said on its blog. Well, maybe if you squint,” sniffed the author.
Unfortunately for both Airbnb and the readers of Fortune magazine, neither the reporter nor the public is actually qualified to decide whether the logo is good or not. Sure, immediate public outcry can put a lot of pressure on a company’s CEO and marketing department and can even cause its board to forgo the new branding initiatives and crawl back to the comfortable old, folding like a lawn chair under the onslaught of negativity. But just because the first responses are loud and critical doesn’t make them correct.
Steve Jobs said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” However, even Jobs left out the critical notion that some new things simply require time before people can see and accept their true value. The practice of disparaging the new until it becomes accepted as breakthrough—and inevitably a beloved part of the status quo—is a common trope in the history of art and innovation. In 1889, the intelligentsia of France, including Guy de Maupassant, Alexander Dumas, Emile Zola, Charles Gounod, and Paul Verlaine signed a letter of protest that read in part, “We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigor and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”
A few years before that John Ruskin wrote of Beethoven’s music: “Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsettings of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.”
And even Paul Cézanne, the post-impressionist master Picasso and Matisse both said was “the father of us all,” was disparaged in his day. In 1877, the artist showcased a collection of his paintings to so much criticism that he vowed to never exhibit his work again. Many people are afraid of things they can’t yet understand but quick as a mob of angry villagers to light their torches and storm their metaphorical Frankenstein’s castle. Unfortunately, by the time cooler heads prevail it’s often too late to save the delicate and beautiful new idea trampled under the rioters’ hobnail boots.
I’m not predicting that Airbnb’s new logo, or any new branding idea that faces initial scorn, will ever prove to have the staying power of an Eiffel, a Beethoven, or a Cézanne. What I am suggesting is that if we judge too quickly we not only run the risk of killing ahead-of-their-time concepts that might otherwise prove to be masterpieces, but we also rob ourselves—and the world—of the potential power of a great new idea.