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Pirates, Tramp Stamps, and the Power of Logos

In Jewish folklore the golem was a human-size clay figure that would spring to life when a magical word was etched into its forehead, and seized to move only when that word was altered to spell out the word “death.” Which may just be mankind’s first lesson in how the changing of an entity’s branding can literally bring about utter extinction.

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Technology company Corsair learned a little something about this last year when simple plans to freshen up their logo touched off a firestorm of vitriol and ridicule among its primary (and highly vocal) audience of hardcore gamers. Fortunately, San Francisco’s Theory Associates managed to deftly repair the damage by taking the company’s mark right back to its roots.

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Setting Sail for Trouble
Since 1994, Corsair Components has sold everything from computer memory to mice and flash drives, but it’s with gaming accessories that it’s made its name.

“Gaming is so big and this is one of the biggest gaming companies in the world,” says Theory Associates President Jamie Capozzi. “They’re on the nerdy side of gaming where you can almost build your own computer. You buy a whole case and load it with parts and build your own machine.”

Named after the corsair vessels sailed by privateers – basically government-sanctioned pirates – until the 19th century, the company boasted a simple logo depicting the six sails of a ship.

Last year the company officially launched a dedicated gaming brand, Corsair Gaming, complete with a new corporate logo designed by a branding firm unnamed here for reasons that will quickly become apparent.

Gone were the ship sails, replaced instead by twin corsair swords crossed at the hilt. And as with its previous logo, this one was emblazoned on its latest keyboards, mice and hardware.

And the Internet masses howled.

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Choppy Seas
A month before Corsair unveiled its new logo, a particularly vicious campaign by a vocal minority of gamers targeting women in the industry bubbled up into the mainstream media. Dubbed Gamergate,” this online harassment included death threats, distribution of women’s personal details, and worse. All this because some male players feared that feminism was creeping into the traditionally male world of gaming.

Still deeply embroiled in this online gender clash, many male gamers took one look at the new crossed-swords Corsair Gaming logo and thought it resembled the lower-back tattoos favored by young women – derogatorily known as “tramp stamps.”

“Even my girlfriend said it looked like a butterfly with a heart in the middle,” one Corsair customer said online  – a relatively mild reaction in comparison to others. “She also threw the word ‘cute’ in there to add insult to injury.”

Shared another: “A tramp stamp tattoo is never a good idea and it’s an even worse idea on a gaming product. It makes the entire product feel cheap.”

Recalls Capozzi, “They got a lot of negative press on this, pulled it back, and then came to us and said we want to update our logo but this happened and we’re totally freaked out now.”

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Scalpels and Sledgehammers
This reaction to a new logo that even Capozzi describes as “cool” may have been inordinately negative – always the risk you run when catering to a traditionally touchy demographic – but it highlights a fundamental rule of branding, he says.

“We always have this theory in the studio: Sometimes you use a scalpel and sometimes you use a sledgehammer” when making changes to a brand. “But it’s very important when you do a logo redesign that you use your tools very carefully.”

In this case, “I think the design firm that worked on it picked up the sledgehammer and went for it. Yes these are CORSAIR blades but that is too much of a leap. They wiped the slate clean and they started over. When you have 20 years of brand equity, that’s a very dangerous thing to do.”

More importantly, the change ignored just how devoted a following Corsair has. Hardcore gamers are obsessive about their hobby, including the hardware they use many hours each day and spend a lot of money on.

“Those gamers that railed against this new logo did so because you messed with something that was very personal to them,” says Capozzi. “When you’re so familiar with something and you’ve grown up being a gamer and this is your company, then that is your symbol, it’s not the company’s anymore. It belongs to these people who love it. And when that was taken away from them, I think that’s the reaction they got.”

‘The Fun Part of Danger’
Adopting the “scalpel” approach, Theory Associates went back to the original Corsair logo and saw the crux of the problem: this had always been meant to be a pirate ship.

But “when we looked at their logo, we saw the Mayflower, we didn’t see the pirate ship,” says Capozzi. “Our goal was to just take the idea of this ship but make it much more aggressive and more like a warship than a sailing ship.”

Ironically, “aggressive” in this instance meant transforming those billowy sails into ones with sharp angles that almost resemble…sword blades.

“By reading those comments online we could see a very clear idea of what people thought the brand was,” Capozzi explains. “We just made that: fast, aggressive, that fun part of danger.”

Working closely with Corsair Creative Director Rob Cornish, they managed to successfully update the logo for the 21st century. And the moment that new mark hit the Corsair website in June, the positive comments came thick and fast.

Still, Capozzi is quick to point out that “it’s a pretty safe spot when someone goes out before you and makes a blunder like this because there’s no guessing. For us we know exactly how to fix this. It’s easy to be the hero on Monday morning after the Sunday game’s already been played.”

It’s also pretty hard to fault the creative flight of fancy behind the reviled logo.

“When you get the job to design a pirate ship, from a creative standpoint you want that sledgehammer man, you want to use it,” he laughs. “Which is one of my prouder moments as an agency owner – doing what was right for the brand and not flexing creatively like you so feel you want to do.”

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Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.

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