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Crowdsourced branding is a terrible idea. Why do people keep doing it?

The UAE is the latest region to attempt to crowdsource the design of its branding. Is this what democracy looks like in 2019?

Crowdsourced branding is a terrible idea. Why do people keep doing it?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is rebranding. And, as Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum tweeted, it is looking to you, citizen of the world, for input.

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There are three logos to choose from, which will represent the country for the next 50 years. Emirates in Calligraphy depicts the “authenticity and originality” of the UAE through Arabic calligraphy; the Palm depicts a gold palm frond that’s meant to symbolize the “willpower of the leaders and people of UAE,” and 7 Lines is an abstracted map of the UAE depicted in the colors of its flag, meant to indicate the united and “future-focused leaders of the seven emirates.”

Anyone in the world can cast a vote and “have a say by selecting the best logo leading the UAE,” says the promo video for the initiative. As a bonus, the UAE has promised to plant a tree for every vote cast: “the seed of a better world. Not only for the UAE, but for the whole humankind.” The sizzle reel’s soundtrack gives the impression that “the logo” is soon to be the newest hero on the cast of Marvel’s Avengers.

[Image: UAE Nation Brand]

Though all in all, the process seems ironically democratic and altruistic for a nation that the nonprofit Freedom House designated as “not free” in its 2019 evaluation (though yes, the UAE does have some democratic institutions, such as a constitution and some limited elections).

The UAE isn’t the first country to attempt to crowdsource a national brand. Earlier this year, Montenegro held a contest to design its new logo (spec work, anyone?), which closed on November 25. New Zealand held a contest to redesign its flag and then decided against it. And let’s not forget what happened when a British government agency asked the internet to name a British research ship. The crowdsourcing result was “Boaty McBoatface.” The internet was overruled.

So why exactly are crowdsourced national brands, such as the UAE contest, becoming a thing? What these countries and regions are doing has an element of civic pride: In theory, citizens get to decide how they want to be represented. So are these honest attempts to make a national brand user-centered? An attempt to avoid backlash against a logo constituents might dislike? To make the process seem more democratic? Or to build a sense of community?

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A cynic would say the reason for these types of participatory rebrand campaigns is marketing: To create the sheen of modernity and transparency and to subtly counter those who would say otherwise—without having to address the policy issues that actually matter. In the UAE in particular, one could argue that a contest focused on a national brand could help distract from issues that are really at stake, such as free and fair elections, an independent press, and women’s rights. At a time when democracy itself is under attack in much of the world, it’s a sickly fitting trend: giving citizens the illusion of having a say, without having to hand over any real power.

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