Designing our story: the 99designs rebranding process

Kelly Morr

We at 99designs recently gave ourselves a makeover. We started exercising, refreshed our wardrobe and even treated ourselves to a shiny new logo (designed by 99designer, onripus).

In other words, we rebranded.

In the days leading up to the big unveil, I sat down with Jolene Chen, our Director of Brand Marketing, and Aleks Witko, our Head of Design, and picked their brains about the rebranding process, what they learned along the way and how you can apply those lessons to your own company rebrand.

Jolene Chen, Director of Brand Marketing
Aleks Witko, Head of Design

So to start, how would you define brand?

Aleks: Brand is tricky. It has nothing to do with us at all. It’s what customers think about us, and what they say about us when we’re not around. We can try to change how we’re perceived, but that’s not a deliverable. While a logo is important, a brand is not just a logo.

We can come up with brand guidelines to try to help shape the perception, but that’s not necessarily what the public will take away.

Jolene: Companies often think that the brand is the responsibility of one person or team. But it’s really about everything that everyone in the company does, and what the customer takes away from their interaction with the company or product, from beginning to end.

The old 99designs website
Our old homepage
The new 99designs website
Our new homepage

Tell me about the previous 99designs brand.

J: We often thought of our identity in terms of what our product does: our brand was crowdsourced design. Like a lot of other companies, we focused on the functionality of our product to describe ourselves.

A: There was no strategy put into shaping our previous brand. We became what we were purely through the actions that we took.

J: Looking forward, we wanted to define our brand by examining our values and who we were as a company.

How did you do that?

J: Before we started the rebranding process, we asked ourselves a few tough questions everyone should consider:

  • Have our customers changed?
  • Do we want our customers to change?
  • Has our market changed?
  • Have we changed?

After answering these questions and being honest with ourselves, we worked with our CEO, Patrick Llewellyn, to define our mission and vision statements.

Our mission
zebras

We help people create and grow by design.

Our vision

We are building the leading global design platform powered by people, offering a full spectrum of design led solutions that allows us to build strong, lasting relationships with our customers and our community.

J: Our mission and vision gave us a destination, but it took a lot of people to help create the map and actually go on the journey of rebranding our business. Since everyone in the company—from our engineers and marketing team to the customer service representatives—contributes to what customers think about as our brand, we wanted our entire company to feel invested.

We split our employees into teams, hosted brainstorming sessions and asked them what 99designs meant to them. This exercise (and a lot of post in notes) led to the creation of our company values.

by Marhahering
Our values

We believe self-expression has no borders.
We believe in people helping people create their own success.
We believe everyone deserves access to quality design.
We believe in design that creates opportunity.
We believe the journey should be fun.
We believe passion is power.
We believe in putting people first.
We believe in you.


J:
Each team then created a Pinterest board to help express these values. What was really cool to see is that our culture and passion hadn’t changed, but more that our customers, our market and our platform had all matured. We just needed to catch up to what we had become!

Some of our pinspiration:

Once you’d done all that ideating, how did you translate these concepts into a visual brand?

A: We just created. And created. And created. We came up with lots of concepts. Exploring fonts, colors and styles. Full presentations and brand pitches, some even carefully rehearsed and set to emotional music. We worked hard to find the core of what we wanted to get across. There was one photographer, Scott Schuman (aka The Sartorialist) who was particularly influential. His work really brings out an authenticity in people, but with a great style.

That really struck a chord with us. The most unique element of our business is our community: our customers, designers and our staff. People are our most important asset. They’re at the center of it all. Our product was a means to an end. What it really does is connect passionate people looking to create something in the world. Create something while growing professionally and personally. Whether it’s a designer building their portfolio, an author self-publishing their book or a small business getting their logo and website, it’s about people and their passions.

J: When we took a look at who we were, we realized that at the core of our business, 99designs isn’t about us. But it was really about our customers and designers and how we were inspired by their stories everyday. So the core of our new brand keeps the focus on them, their achievements and all the ways design can make a difference.

Customer and entrepreneur Christina Fagan
Designer BATHI

How do you make choices between different visual languages, especially when there are multiple good ones?

A: Ultimately it was less of a choice and more of an evolution. Each revision led to the next step. It was a journey. Our leadership team was very good at constantly challenging us to make sure there was a strong concept throughout the visual language. We didn’t want to choose anything just because it looked cool. It had to be elegant, but with intent.

J: We also kept going back to our mission, vision, values and the core of our brand. If it passed the test and felt like the visual design supported these, we kept going. If it didn’t we tried something new.

1. Squares represent a blank canvas. We knew we wanted to include them as a visual theme.
2. But we weren’t sure how big they should be…
3. Oh hey, maybe we can have images burst out of squares! Or put words in squares!
4. We played and experimented until we got it juuuuuust right.

Of course, a brand is more than just the visuals (says the writer). How did you translate our brand values into a voice and personality?

J: Like our values, our brand personality is something we’ve always had. We just had to find it, uncover it and dust it off.

A: If you try to change a culture you’re crazy. What you want to do is hold a magnifying glass to the things that already exist that you want to highlight.

J: Exactly. Find the things that are already there and celebrate them. We looked to our heritage: we were founded by people who didn’t care about how things had always been done. They just wanted to make things better. To us, irreverence is our status quo.

History and values are what create the bedrock of the brand. Then you take all of these things and manifest it in the voice.

A: I always thought of us as larrikins.

J: As what?

A: Larrikins. Is that an Australian thing? Someone who’s cheeky and a little rough around the edges, but means well. A hooligan with a heart.

by torvs
Our voice

Our tone of voice reflects a sense of humility and awe at how cool the 99designs community is, and at everything they accomplish together.

We never brag or hard sell. We just love design and everything it’s capable of. By being design’s biggest fan, we’re constantly inspiring our audience, burnishing our design cred and reinforcing a sense of endless possibility. Which is exactly what we sell.

P.S. Have fun!
Right now, somebody somewhere is stuck in a conference room, looking at spreadsheets and droning on about synergizing their value-adds.

We get to help people buy, sell and make design. That kicks ass. And so should our voice.

So the logo. Tell me how and why you decided to have it done on our platform?

J: 99designs is known for logo design and we knew our designers would give us what we needed. We didn’t need to consider anything else.

We ran our logo design contest as a platinum contest not only because our platinum designers would give us great designs, but also because we know they invested themselves in our site, so we wanted to do the same with them.

A few great examples of the 4,000+ logos that were submitted to our contest:

How was the contest experience?

J: It was really fun to see the concepts roll in and we got just what we wanted. Of course, looking back, like with any project, there are a couple areas where we could have done better.

A: When we started, we had an idea of a direction we wanted to go, but wanted to stay open to other ideas, and so wrote our brief accordingly. Crowdsourced design allows you to generate ideas from all over the world. That’s the best part about it!

I think what could have been clearer is that, although the personality needs to manifest itself in our brand expressions, the logo itself doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting.

J: One thing we would have done differently is to get the key stakeholders involved earlier in the feedback process to make sure their voice was heard from the beginning. When you have more than one person involved in the process, you want to make sure what you’re saying is as clear as possible.

How did you decide on the finalists?

J: Of course we wanted everyone to be able to give their thoughts. So we used our contest poll to see which designs were resonating. Several themes came out of this poll:

  • People were drawn to the basic, uncomplicated logos
  • The 99d designs were some of the favorites
  • Our employees gravitated towards designs that had a global concept
  • Abstract marks were polarizing
Finalist bo_rad
Finalist Dave Roach
Finalist goopanic
Finalist Matt W
Finalist onripus
Finalist Tomillo

A: We also wanted our group of six finalists to represent a diverse mix of styles and treatments.

Once the six were selected, we sent them detailed feedback to help them refine their designs, and also asked them to give us examples of the logo in action. In the open round of the contest, we’d asked all designers to show us the logo in the same gray color, so we could focus on the form. But we did this knowing that we wanted our logo to be flexible and versatile. It would be printed and displayed in multiple colors, as it complemented the designs we were highlighting.

So we asked the finalists to show us their logos in action.

And then we ran another poll. And from there narrowed it down to three finalists.

Making the final decision is always tough. It came down to the finer details and subtleties between the finalists. Most people wouldn’t be able to pick out some of the differences between final variations, but those last few details can really make or break it.

Tell me about the final logo that you chose.

A: We looked at some of the classic heavy hitters like IBM, 3M, FedEx, Sony, Nintendo, Starbucks, Nokia and even some newer ones like Facebook, and tried to figure out what made them so emblematic. What we realized is that the best logos in the world don’t follow today’s trends. They develop their status over time through brand perception and what they stand for.

We’re in this for the long run. We wanted something that would not only last, but get better, as we serve our customers over the years.

Word mark
Our new logo, designed by onripus

The design we chose is a heavy, geometric, sans serif, based on proven classics, such as Avant Garde, but with a number of tweaks. A round tittle (dot on the ‘i’) that makes it friendlier. A rather unconventional ‘g’ that seems unfitting in a geometric sans—which is a hat tip to our quirky, inclusive but irreverent personality. Some initial revisions featured letters that were geometrically accurate, but optically didn’t look right, so we worked with onripus to keep refining the small details.

Ultimately, we knew we’d get a result we’d love, but we were particularly pleased with how strongly the final design serves our brand values. I guess that’s what our contests do.

Once you had all of the pieces in place, how did you go about implementing the changes?

beard-whale
by Vladanland

J: This was a huge, company-wide effort. It’s the first time in our history where literally every person in the company was working on the same project. But that’s how important we believed this was for our business and our future.

Everyone chipped in to make our company rebrand possible. Product and engineering had the task of turning our site over across every single page and across products. Marketing and customer support were strategically planning for launch communications and figuring out how we would help customers through the change. Our designer support team worked tirelessly to prep our designers to update their profiles and build excitement. Our international team had the fun task of translating all of the new content into the eight native languages we represent. And the finance team helped out with budgets and celebration planning. It was a massive undertaking, but it also brought us together in a way that had never been done before. It helped build relationships and cohesiveness that will continue to benefit us moving forward. And everyone feels proud of who we’ve become because they were able to be a part of the process.

Looking at where the brand turned out, how does it compare with what your original vision was when you started the rebranding process?

A: I wish it had gone faster, but then there’s this thing, you know, called reality.

J: Where we ended up rang true with the original concept. While we were in it, we saw the give and take conversations, but when you look at the new brand as a whole, it’s amazing to see all the we’ve accomplished in just months!

t-rex
by Pinch Studio

How do you think this company rebrand will impact 99designs going forward?

A: I believe it will show that it’s not just our product that’s unique, but also our people. Our personality comes out more and it’s unlike anything else out there, especially in the small business market. I believe it will showcase our quality.

J: This is just the beginning. We’ve created a strong baseline that is aligned with where we are going as a company, but the journey doesn’t stop here. We will continue to champion the values and principles of our brand and continue to include that in everything we do. There’s no stopping us now.

What advice would you give to anyone starting their own rebranding process?

J: When it comes to rebranding, always remember who you are, and who you’re not. Start by looking at your mission, vision and values and build your new look from there. This will help make sure you’re not just falling in love with the latest design trend.

Also, make sure you get input from key stakeholders early and often. You don’t want to do a lot of work, just to present it and have the folks at the top tear it to shreds and make you start over. Getting feedback early also means you’re getting buy-in as everyone gets more excited to have their ideas included.

A: Create. Create. Create as many options as possible. You’ll know the right direction when you see it. Creating more gets you further. It always translates into learning and growing.

The author

Kelly Morr
Kelly Morr

Kelly is the senior manager of content strategy at 99designs. She likes writing stuff, making stuff, coming up with far-fetched ideas, figure skating and cuddling her two cats.

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