When Tampa, Fla., branding agency Spark conjured up a brand concept for Gary Johnson back in June, they never intended for the Libertarian presidential candidate's campaign to actually employ it. Turns out, according to the agency, the campaign did just that, using a very similar color scheme and design elements without permission, and without implementing the thorough "brand system" devised by the agency.
In fact, the Johnson camp is still using a distinctive color scheme, design composition and similar font on its website home page, Twitter and Facebook pages and elsewhere, all of which unmistakably mirror ideas originated with Spark.
In June, the agency published its quarterly magazine, Stick, which featured a variety of articles relating to the "underdog" theme. The agency -- which does not work with political clients -- decided to take a stab at creating branding specs for an underdog political campaign and chose to use the third party hopeful, former New Mexico governor and triathlete, as its guinea pig.
"We looked at it from a pure brand standpoint," said Elliott Bedinghaus, VP-creative at Spark, adding, "Our intent for this was never to work with Gary Johnson."
The campaign did not return multiple requests to comment for this story. However, it is worth questioning whether Johnson campaign staff considered the work to be something they were free to use.
Here's how the agency described the project in its quarterly magazine:
"We are by no means political geniuses and don't assert this information in an attempt to sway voters in any way, but we decided to ask the following question purely from a brand standpoint: If Gary had a robust brand and campaign, what would that look like to voters?"
The result was an array or applications for simple and clean yet striking brand imagery. The magazine featured mockups of billboard advertising, campaign posters, a logo, T-shirts and even a bike lock, playing on the candidate's active persona.
After the issue was published -- though the agency had no intention of actually working with the Johnson camp -- Spark tweeted about the brand concept to the campaign and sent a link to Spike via the campaign site. Spark received no response or indication from the campaign that they were aware of Spark's brand concepts.
Flash forward two months and it recently became quite apparent that someone in the campaign had seen the distinctively bright aqua and candy-apple red color scheme and design concepts.
"Last Monday one of our designers saw an ad from Gary Johnson that was eerily similar to ours," said Elliott Bedinghaus, VP of creative at Spark.
It isn't clear whether the Johnson camp is using the Spark-inspired imagery in online display ads or other advertising; however, Spark's ideas are splashed across the JohnsonWeld.com home page and other places online to promote the campaign's August 15 Money Bomb fundraiser intended to help Mr. Johnson get into the general election debates.
The fact that the campaign did not acknowledge the origin of Spark's concepts was one thing. What really got under Spark Art Director Alex Coyle's skin was the poor execution of the agency's ideas. Rather than using the color scheme and other design elements in a cohesive manner across the site, social media pages and other campaign collateral, the Johnson camp so far has employed them sparingly, resulting in a disjointed look.
"Hey, if you're going to rip us off, at least do it right," said Mr. Coyle.
In particular, the agency takes umbrage with the use of the font composition, which was specifically designed to isolate the "on" of "Johnson" to highlight how the candidate stands on key issues, as in "on the open internet," and "on healthcare."
"That 'on' always speaks to a tagline," he said. "Particularly, we were upset that it wasn't being executed in the correct way."
After seeing how the Johnson campaign implemented its brand system, Spark wanted it to do a better job. So the agency published editable files and a downloadable font on HelloGaryJohnson.com, a website that also features a video with a notably diplomatic message to the Johnson campaign:
"When you swiped our campaign we were happy to see that you agreed with us," states the narrator. "In the spirit of creating a great brand, we thought it only fair to provide you with the tools to execute it on a deeper level."
Spark execs spoke with the Johnson campaign on August 6. According to Spark, the campaign representative apologized and said he and other staff were not aware the work had been stolen. Because Spark is not interested in pursuing political clients, the conversation didn't go far. Mr. Bedinghaus said he does not blame the candidate, who likely was unaware of the situation. "The reality is that he had no idea what was going on," he said.
At this stage, though frustrated with the way it all transpired, Spark asks that if the campaign wants to use its brand system, it should do it according to the agency's well-crafted design guidelines using the tools it eventually provided to the campaign.
"The issue of intellectual property and stolen creative work is a very big, real and nuanced issue in our industry," said Mr. Bedinghaus. "Not everyone is going to agree with how we handled this response. But if we can create another opportunity to talk about the issue, then we think that's worthwhile."