Grafik The Right Idea written on a brick wall

DC Water

DC Water Is Life

I was sitting in the office today bitching about the fact that we were not called in on the RFP for the DC Water renaming and logo project. I have seen the new mark around town and I like it. It has presence and a strong brandline, “Water is Life.” I asked Teddi our VP of Business Development to find out which agency produced the campaign only to find out that the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority held a national competition in 2010. The Authority invited anyone in the 50 states to take part in a speculative competition for $2,000. Presumably, since the Authority had been under fire for contaminated water and asbestos, they figured this was in part a band-aid to a poor image. And, in order to save money, they started the process by opening up a public competition.

From the press releases, I have been able to figure out that there were three winners—who each were paid a princely sum of $667. And you have to look really hard to even find the designers’ names. The Water Authority drew 177 entries from all over the country! Feast your eyes!

Water Authority Entries

The Authority press release is actually pretty crafty as it does not actually say that the logo was chosen from the competition—the logo was a result of “pulling together the considerable public input from our competition.” This reads to me that the Authority  had to eventually go to a professional source to get their branding done. They do not mention the name of the firm—and it is quite possible that I could be mistaken—but somehow I do not think so.

So what has happened with this rather inconsequential speculative competition? Well, 174 people who volunteered their time for the competition got nothing. Three “winners” got $667 and their names are almost hidden from view—so no publicity at all. The Authority got to pay $2000 PLUS all of the time it took to hold and publicize a competition, sort through all of the entries, scan all of the entries, hold a judging, make a poster…. etc. And, since a Washington Post report notes that they are expecting the cost of the rebranding to be over $160,000, I would bet my eye-teeth that a professional firm actually implemented the overall identity since it is done quite well. And, while I expect that it will be hard for DC Water to own their trademark since the phrase is already trademarked, (and they would have found that out that if they went with pros) the tagline and execution is done very well.

Is there a lesson in all this? Frustratingly yes. Contests for brand expressions are rarely successful since there is no backbone to a mark or logo if there is no understanding of the brand. Holding a logo contest invites pretty symbols that are rarely on point or on brand. A brand exercise for a beleaguered organization like DC Water  should have dealt with a whole host of issues besides the mark. And perhaps when they started working with a professional firm, they were asked the right questions. We’ll never know.

These contests are rarely successful for the public as the agency they entrust with spending time and money wisely often forgets to factor in the amount of time and coordination it takes to run a contest, and rarely considers what happens if the contest nets zero appropriate marks.

Speculative contests are rarely successful for the entrants—who hope that winning may be their launching pad to success. Witness how much publicity the designers actually got—both the contest winners and the firm chosen to execute—and you can see that dreams of fame are misguided.

In the end, DC Water is lucky. They evidently ended up working with a strong designer or firm that understands logo systems and they got a fresh clean look. But they could have been equally unlucky had their contest mandated that one of the entries be chosen. In that case the DC public would have had to endure another 14 years of a poorly concepted, poorly crafted mark.

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