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When to Hire a Design Firm to Get Your Logo Just Right

Struggling to convey your startup's value to consumers? Team with the right design firm for branding that fits.
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When restaurateur Emmanuel Verstraeten decided to expand the culinary philosophy behind his Michelin-starred New York City eatery Rouge Tomate to create SPE Certified, he knew he needed the perfect logo. Not just for aesthetic purposes, either: SPE Certified, a certification startup championing nutritious but delicious dining, needed a symbol that could integrate seamlessly into clients' menus and identify those dishes that adhere to the program's strict nutritional ethos--a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval for fit foodies.

"In order to tell consumers you have a wonderful product or service, you need to create a strong brand identity," says Verstraeten, who serves as CEO of SPE (an acronym for sanitas per escam, Latin for "health through food"). The logo had to contain the name SPE Certified. What's more, adds vice president of marketing Greg Deligdisch, the company required an image that conveyed respectability and trust: "We're not a diet brand. The program is based in rock-solid science."

No challenge proved greater than the SPE logo, which evokes a sprouting seed.

SPE recognized it couldn't achieve its branding goals in-house. Instead, its looping, tomato-red logo, website and marketing assets were cooked up by Carbone Smolan Agency (CSA), a Manhattan design and branding firm whose client portfolio spans Tiffany & Co., Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and even the Louvre.

"When you're introducing something new to the marketplace, presentation and communication are critical," says Leslie Smolan, who founded CSA with design partner Ken Carbone in 1977. "SPE Certified is a complicated concept to roll out. There's a lot of information to communicate. Unify, simplify and amplify: That's the winning formula."

CSA began collaborating with SPE in September 2011; the two firms spent roughly three months kicking around ideas and approaches. "When you work with a client, you have to understand their vision and goals," Smolan says. "We also look at the competition. What is no one else doing? We want to create a unique visual voice. From there, we define the brand's qualities and attributes--the key messages--and weave all that together with a toolkit of devices, like color, typefaces, formats and graphics. These elements can be combined in multiple ways, because they're coming from the same place and speaking in the same voice."

No challenge proved greater than the SPE logo, which evokes a sprouting seed. "Once we got through that process, everything else fell into place," Deligdisch says. "It informed the rest of our identity architecture." CSA also created a series of digital and printed assets emphasizing keywords that are central to the SPE philosophy, including "taste," "nutrition" and "seasonal."

The concept of sustainability is no less critical to CSA's vision for SPE. Carbone and Smolan design branding that is built to adapt to changes in the marketplace. "Branding is not a start-stop activity, it's a commitment over the life of a company," Carbone says. "We like to guarantee each brand a minimum life span of 15 years."

None of this comes cheap, of course. "It's hard to say how much someone should spend. There are different ways to arrive at the number, but the investment in your brand has to be amortized over years, or hopefully decades," Carbone says. "We like to mirror a startup's sense of value. For example, if you're spending $125,000 per year in rent, is it unrealistic to think you'd spend that much to develop a brand that will work for the next 20 years? Compare that to a full-page ad in The New York Times. It's a one-time placement that's there on Monday and gone on Tuesday."

Whatever the cost, Verstraeten is more than satisfied with the finished product. "I love [the logo] more and more every single day," he says. "I believe it can become iconic."