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Spamtown brouhaha: Austin’s new city logo gives a nod to Spam.

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Austin's new city logo opens up a can of worms

  • Article by: Jenna Ross
  • Star Tribune
  • April 4, 2014 - 9:55 PM

The city of Austin, Minn., has a spiffy new, blue logo. But there’s one problem: People hate it.

Its simple, oblong shape is meant to suggest a can of Spam — made by Austin’s own Hormel Foods Corp. — but some have argued that it looks like sardines instead. The tagline is “Talent Packed.” To which some have said, “Huh?”

“Most everybody didn’t like it right from the start,” said Mayor Tom Stiehm. In his seven years in charge of the southern Minnesota city, he’s never fielded so many phone calls. “I haven’t gotten one call in favor of it.”

On Monday, the City Council will discuss the reaction to the proposed logo, which was unveiled in March, and what to do next. A few city leaders have suggested a poll or contest to replace the array of symbols and phrases scattered across the city, including a decades-old logo featuring a tree.

But the group that led the creation of the new logo is standing behind it. Spam is “something that another community can’t claim,” said Laura Helle, director of creative vision for Vision 2020, an effort to improve the city by 2020. “It’s a fun and light kind of concept: Peel back and see what you find here.”

Designed by Minneapolis-based marketing agency Haberman after months of community meetings and on-the-street interviews, the modern logo is part of a bigger branding campaign that would bring a fresh, consistent look to signs and websites that now seem “disjointed,” Helle added.

The city’s multicolored website doesn’t display a logo. The Chamber of Commerce’s site features the slogan “Somewhere Special,” while the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau goes with: Spectacular People Austin Minnesota (SPAMTown), USA. Meanwhile, the city parks spotlight the tree.

Stiehm agrees that the tree’s time has passed. “Tree city could be 5,000 different cities,” he said. “We do want something unique to the city of Austin.”

But some residents worry that the “Talent Packed” logo says little beyond Hormel, the Austin-based company known for Jennie-O, chili and, of course, that shelf-stable meat product.

“The logo was supposed to represent a Hormel can of Spam — instead of the town of Austin,” said Hannah Gullickson, 27, a lifelong Austin resident. “One business does not make a town.”

Gullickson was also “appalled” by the cost of creating the campaign. The project’s $58,000 budget is coming from the visitors bureau, the Hormel Foundation and the Main Street Project. The city paid $10,000.

The editorial board at the Austin Daily Herald recently argued that hiring a Minneapolis-based agency “goes against everything this logo is supposed to represent.”

“If Austin is ‘talent packed,’ ” the board said, “why didn’t Austin residents design the logo?”

The paper found that 88 percent of the nearly 600 people who voted in their online poll said they either strongly dislike or “don’t care for” the proposed logo. Just 4 percent said they love it.

Helle said that Vision 2020, funded partly by the Hormel Foundation, is “always very cognizant of where we’re spending our money.” Haberman had expertise in broader branding strategies that Austin-based firms couldn’t offer, she said.

The agency’s work for the visitors bureau in New Ulm, Minn. — featuring a new logo and ad campaign starring a bobblehead “Hermann the German” — earned local praise and a state marketing award, said Terry Sveine, that bureau’s manager.

Helle is open to seeing what happens at Monday’s meeting, as “whatever they do is a reflection of what the community wants.” But because she has a graphic design background, she’s “very aware that when you design by committee, you sort of end up with nothing.”

Some cities seem so afraid of making a statement that they end up with little more than a squiggle for an image, she said.

“No matter what you focus on, people will say, ‘Austin is more than that,’ ” Helle said. Creating a city logo might be “the toughest design problem out there.”

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

© 2014 Star Tribune