by Shawn Dryden on June 1, 2011

This is the true story of how one local business used social media to head off an impending PR disaster and deftly transition it into a marketing bonus. It is both a warning and a guide on how a small business should handle its brand. It also showcases one of the most important aspects of social media to small business, which is quick, distributed communication with their customers.

Varsity Donuts, a new shop opening up soon in Aggieville, had a great new logo that fit their business perfectly. It was a man with a donut for a body carrying a tray of donuts, with a smile and wink. It had a fun, retro vibe to it. Unfortunately it was also stolen. Whoever Varsity Donuts called upon to design a logo had copied it off a website. Now, the Internet is a vast space, and there is no doubt countless logos have been copied off of websites found all over the world, and most people will never know. The stolen logo for Varsity Donuts, however, was actually pretty famous among designers. It had appeared on the well-known blog Brand New, which covers new and redesigned logos. It was a part of their 2010 April Fools Day prank. The blog posted a fake redesign of Dunkin’ Donuts that featured the stolen logo. You can read an explanation of the prank and see the original designs here. It was only a matter of time before it was noticed.

Varsity Donuts set up a website around April 12, and a Facebook and Twitter account on April 20. By April 27, people had figured it out. Not sure who was the first to point it out, but the original designer of the stolen logo, Matt Stevens, posted about the theft on his Twitter account that day. Word spread across Twitter quickly through replies and retweets. It’s hard to say how many people read it on Twitter, but to get an idea, Matt Stevens has 1,600+ followers and four of the biggest retweeters of his initial post have 2,900+, 7,700+, 1,700+, and 6,200+ respectively. It only took five people, one tweet each, to reach 20,000 people, and this was tweeted by hundreds more. Comments also popped up on the Varsity Donuts website, pointing out how the logo had been stolen. Now this is where the story turns around.

Luckily, Varsity Donuts had set up that Twitter account and had enabled comments on their website, which allowed people to voice their displeasure directly to Varsity Donuts. This way, they were made aware of the growing online mob very quickly and were able to respond. Just a day after the theft was made public, Varsity Donuts posted an apology on Twitter and replied to the comments on their website. Matt Stevens even retweeted the apology back out to his followers. Without engaging in these social platforms, Varsity Donuts could have gone several days or weeks without knowing about the growing resentment toward their business. People were talking about them online and word was spreading fast whether they liked it or not, but by giving people an avenue to talk to them online, they were able to get on top of the situation and deal with it quickly.

Varsity Donuts then contacted Matt Stevens about the stolen logo and he tweeted about that as well, saying they had trusted the wrong designer and that the people at Varsity Donuts were actually “good people”. That got picked up and retweeted back out to all those thousands of angry people and effectively ended the scandal. In one day, thousands of people knew that Varsity Donuts had stolen a logo, apologized to the original designer, apologized publicly, was forgiven, and also gained a lot of sympathy and respect.

If it ended there, it would still have been a good story and good lesson, but it gets better. Varsity Donuts then got Matt Stevens to design them a new logo. You can see preliminary designs on his blog and Dribble page. This, of course, was also tweeted and retweeted to thousands as everyone is now following along and interested in the development of this identity and donut shop. The new logo process was even posted on Quipsologies, another well-known design blog that posts daily entries about interesting happenings in graphic design. The owner of the blog, Armin Vit, also runs Brand New, the blog that, in the beginning, posted the fake redesign for Dunkin Donuts.

It is pretty amazing to see how this story has unfolded. Varsity Donuts, in being transparent, honest, and public with this issue, saved face and even gained supporters. All of this and the place hasn’t even opened for business yet.