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Rebranding – What to do about the logo?

A brand should be constantly evolving to stay relevant and to adapt to changing market conditions. And like everything else, the market conditions appear to be changing more quickly by the day. Every once in a while, though, most companies and organisations feel the need for a more profound analysis of what their brand stands for. Typically this means a discussion around what to do about the logo.

Brand logos on flags

It seems that the more iconic the brand, the greater the need for constant reinvention (think of David Bowie, Madonna or Lady Gaga). Just as products or services need to adapt to changing customer needs and preferences or market conditions, the brand itself needs to follow suit. And that also applies to smaller and non-consumer brands.

The reinvention process can be subtle and might not affect the brand’s logo. Most people probably won’t even be aware of such modifications. McDonald’s have gradually been moving their colour scheme of their European restaurants from bright red to a more subtle and eco-friendly-looking dark green. It makes for a big change in tone. But chances are those who don’t regularly eat there haven’t even noticed, as the yellow arches logo remains unchanged.

We designers love to create new brands from scratch, or at least make a marked difference to the visual expression of an existing brand – changing the logo is much more exciting than just tweaking the font, making the brand colour lighter/darker, or simply making the logo bigger.

But most of the time, this is not what’s called for. Usually a subtle evolution of the marque or a facelift is all that’s needed to signal that the brand is alive and well, has caught up with the times, or is ready to move the organisation on to the next stage. Or is it?

Looking at an annual Top 100 list of the best global brands, the logos of the vast majority of companies haven’t changed for many years. And if they have, it has been an evolutionary change – a gradient added or removed, a bolder or lighter font used.

Coca-Cola looks the same as it always has done; The Apple logo has changed colour; Mercedes-Benz’s star is looking three-dimensional again after being ‘flat’ for a few years. But at first glance they don’t appear to have changed at all. And why should they? Rather than being Lady Gaga, these brands are more like the Rolling Stones. Everyone knows what they stand for and they would be mad to change a logo that even the average five year-old would know and recognise. And if the Stones can be exciting in their seventies, so can some brands.

However, there are some notable exceptions among these top brands.

Microsoft changed their established corporate logo at the same time they redefined their core product, Windows. The company is trying to transform and modernise their operating system with a stark new user interface and by making it touch screen-friendly, so the management felt the need to attempt to change the perception of the whole brand. About time, some might say.

A few years ago, Pepsi introduced a new logo that is almost the polar opposite of that of their eternal competitor, Coca-Cola: a marque that is constantly changing its appearance. Maybe a desperate attempt to find a territory for the brand that Coke is unlikely to invade. An unusual move in any case.

When Starbucks recently changed their marque, they did so by simplifying their previous logo. It could be seen as a simple evolution, but what was deliberately lost in the process was the wording “Starbucks Coffee”. Famously, Nike did a similar thing years ago when they reduced their logo to one of the most iconic brandmarks – the swoosh.

With Starbucks, however, there is an underlying message: the brand is now about much more than just coffee (they even run a music label). The simplification of the logo keeps the brand fresh, without doing away with its established visual equity. Plus, it allows the brand to grow into other areas.

MTV did exactly the same thing: “Music Television” was cropped off from the well-known logo when the music itself disappeared from the screen.

Rebranding can be an evolution or revolution. And sometimes it’s somewhere in between. The right approach might not always be apparent at the outset of the process. The client might have sentimentalities about their logo or grown tired of it, and there is a danger that such feelings then become the main criterion for decision-making.

Unfortunately it’s also not just about keeping us designers happy. The role of the design agency is to analyse, recognise and recommend the most suitable approach to make sure the brand is doing the right thing at the right time in the given market environment.

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