Leeds United rebrand: How did it all go so wrong?

Earlier this week, Leeds United Football Club unveiled a brand new crest that they claimed would represent the club for the next 100 years. Unfortunately it looks like it will be lucky to even last 100 days after over 70,000 fans signed a petition against the crest in a couple of days. So what went so wrong? Other than the obvious, which is the shockingly bad piece of design, how did a brand that is so big and so important to so many people make such a mistake.

At this stage it is important to mention that this post is only my opinion, I was not involved in the Leeds United rebrand and all in all there is very little documentation around how the new crest came about. Yet from the outside and reading what I have there seems to have been some pretty bad decisions made and many that I think lessons can be learnt from.

Historically rebrands very rarely go down well, people do not like change and that’s just the harsh reality we have to live with. Just look at some of the big examples to receive criticism in recent years like Uber, ITV, Instagram, Verizon and F1. Many people, especially in the creative industry, always think they could have done better without any context of the brief, the budget or the client. Add to that, that football fans are one of the most loyal customers around then you are already up against such a tough task. Making it even more important that for a brand as big as Leeds United, you get it right. Personally I always try to keep my thoughts to myself and wait until it all blows over but in this instance it was more of a blow up, than a blow over and it’s not hard to see why.

The Leeds United rebrand came about ahead of the club’s centenary year and has apparently been the result of a 6 month process which involved consulting over 10,000 people. The club apparently consulted players, staff, the owner, partners and the public in a series of user research analysis surveys and workshops. On paper this all sounds fantastic, user research is such a powerful tool in any project of this nature but it has to be done right. In this case it would appear that it has been nothing more than a box ticking exercise, just asking 10,000 people what they thought via an online survey with no empathy. Did they go back and re-analyse, did they try cross sections of fans, did they show the fans the decisions being made throughout the process. It looks like the answer is no and unfortunately it has come back to haunt them. There is such a thing as bad user research.

Again from the outside it feels like Leeds have approached the rebrand in the wrong way, it’s almost like they have been misguided by their perception of the right approach. With the availability of information and the ‘our process’ trend that is currently rife within design it is very easy to start doubting what you are doing. Every project is different and therefore every project deserves it’s own approach. Yes the same techniques will work across different projects but you have to do what is right for the project. The process that worked for DesignStudio during the Airbnb rebrand, no matter how successful, isn’t necessarily going to work for you.

As for the logo the concept and execution is average at best. You can’t help but wonder how the decision to create an illustration of a man beating his chest in some kind of cult salute managed to get through the net. The design style itself is an absolute Dribbble dream, If I search ‘sports crest’ on Dribbble I will see so many logo’s similar to this style. I didn’t know Leeds United were an American college sports team. Where is the history, the heritage, the pride. Somehow, somewhere they managed to come to the conclusion that they should ditch all of that and why, because research told them fans were ready for a change. Just another example of not designing for purpose, it honestly feels like this has been designed with one eye on how many likes it might receive from other designers and artists. A million miles from the real target market, the fans.

With any rebrand I think it is so important to give further context to the vision behind it. Juventus were probably the most recent football club to rebrand that you could compare this to and they nailed it. The logo on it’s own came into quite a bit of criticism from fans but the vision of the brand eventually won them over. Leeds United on the other hand launch with nothing more than a very simple, a little bit generic and very boring dedicated website (which was swiftly taken down) and a little promo video. They gave their fans nothing to soften the blow. Where was the ambition or the innovation? That extra bit that said to the fans, we know this is a big change but this is our future and look how good it is going to be. Instead it all just lacked any conviction, almost like Leeds United didn’t believe in it. So how did they expect their fans to?

For me the Leeds United rebrand has been a great lesson for all brands. You cannot underestimate the emotional attachment your customers have with your brand and getting a rebrand wrong can be so damaging. It is also an important example to creatives working on a project of this nature. We have a responsibility to the client to ensure that we are doing what is right by them and not what is right by our portfolio. No matter how exciting a project is it has to put the clients needs first and personally I feel that’s what separates great design from the rest.

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