Branding Is A Flat Circle

…and so is the wwworld wide echo chamber of design and marketing criticism (this post not excluded).

Very recently, an Alibaba marketing exec rekindled the online hate for Airbnb’s beleaguered brandmark, “the Bélo”, with a tweet that has since gone viral and inspired countless blog posts like this one (despite the fact that it was already old news). The big problem for Mr. Bélo is that it turns out he looks almost exactly like a logo that a Japanese designer name Ueda Akisato created all the way back in 1975 for a movie theatre called the Azuma Drive-In, and lately people have been discovering it (along with a host of other modern logos’ look-alikes) in an old-fashioned paper book called Trademarks & Symbols of the World, which was published in 1988:

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So could this be a case of simultaneous evolution or should Airbnb once again don the design dunce cap? In my opinion, while the evidence against them is certainly damning, I’m not so sure we’re dealing with a clear-cut ripoff. When Airbnb first unveiled their new direction, my colleague Julie posted a thoughtful analysis of the big rebrand where she was neither applauding nor ringing her shame bell, but rather doled out a healthy dose of empathy for the creatives behind it in the face of the chilly reception it was getting from the design community. Now that the topic has come back around for a fresh cycle of scrutiny, my personal opinion is very much in that same realm.

Considering that I work for an agency whose brand mark is a cube, I certainly have a keen awareness of unavoidable design similarities and coincidences. Naturally, there are going to be many other logos and marks that bare similarity to ours because, there are only so many ways to manipulate and customize a cube, while still reading it as a cube—just like there are only so many ways to manipulate a letterform to make it read as soft, friendly, welcoming, and interconnected but still definitely brought to you by the letter “A”. All of the songs we love have been written with the same set of available notes and no doubt many of them share the same chord structure with a different melody, but that doesn’t mean all of these musicians have been spitefully copying each other all along, there are just only so many notes and ultimately we care more bout the feelings behind them than the structure.

So, in retrospect, the Airbnb team may look a bit silly for going on and on about inventing a totally new symbol out of the ether, yet I don’t necessarily doubt that it was a thoughtful and organic process that lead them to accidentally redesign the logo for an obscure Japanese movie theatre. More so, I’m not sure that any of it even really matters, since a brand is not one isolated symbol out of context, rather it’s the whole world that designers, copywriters, marketers, and brand strategist build around it, both visually and otherwise. And looking back on the rebrand everyone loved to hate, I have to say it’s held up pretty well after a few trips around the sun.

Despite this new wave of accusations, the Bélo seems to continue serving its purpose well, as every day millions of millennials armed with smart phones and wifi all around the world continue ditch their parent’s system of hotel reservations for a cheaper and more exciting place to stay and Airbnb market share and profits continue to soar. In the end, it seems like the careful thought behind this mark and identity system has managed to permeate through to a whole market of people who definitely never went to the Azuma Drive-In.