The Rocket Blog

Rebrand? Refresh? Repeat my options?
By Lindsey Butler on Feb 1, 2017
Bird Lady

Want to make a creative professional fantasize about Xanax?

Tell her the company’s CEO has been considering a rebrand. Then, watch the color drain from her face as she sighs audibly, then cries soundlessly, her eyes becoming fixed on an indeterminate point in the middle distance. Slowly, her face clouds over with the sort of quizzical expression only the Germans are capable of describing.

Weltschmerz, perhaps?

You may, at this point, become alarmed, even tempted to seek medical intervention. But don’t worry, y’all, she’s totally fine. That’s just what it looks like when her mind briefly disconnects from her body in search of a happy place. She’ll be back soon.

Contrary to what the evocation of anxiety meds might indicate, reimagining a brand is one of the most fun projects a team can tackle. But here’s the catch: it’s also one of the most fraught.

There are LOTS of reasons people blanch at the prospect of a rebrand, but we don’t have time to draft a legit thesis on the psychological aversions suffered by marketers. (There are too many.) So, instead, we’re going to generalize in a fun, quippy way because it keeps things moving.

Managing and developing brand identities can feel like a parade of struggling and numbskullery when the players involved adhere too fervently to either of the two most common (mostly wrong) schools of thought: The Shiny or The Sacred.

Multitasking Lady

The Shiny

This camp sees themselves as advocates of progress and bastions of cool. In general, they do not acknowledge a denotative distinction between can and should.

In their personal lives, The Shiny are obsessed with newness for the sake of newness and spend a lot of time on early adopter subreddits gushing about how much they love their pre-released, developer-licensed OS, even though it crashes their computers once or five times a day. FOMO-fixated, they believe brands not only have an obligation to change, but also harbor a secret fear that people will forget about them if they aren’t constantly being updated.

Smartphone Addiction

THE POTENTIAL PROBLEMS WITH THIS VIEW?

It’s a reactive approach to brand management: efforts are not well-planned, and results are not properly measured. Changing arbitrarily, rather than strategically, can create a whiplash effect that exhausts audiences. When Shiny thinkers crash and burn, the impact not only affects the perceived value of a brand; sometimes, it can even unwittingly change the meaning.

Think back to Uber’s early 2016 rebranding debacle. Not only did they unveil a questionable new flanker logo, but to make matters worse, they rolled out self-aggrandizing brand language that squarely put concepts ahead of people. Needless to say, the company met with a few less-than-stellar responses.

So, how does something like this happen to such a successful company? It can be traced back to two primary factors:

1. Not thinking critically about how or why you should rebrand

Want to see an exercise in acting first, thinking later? Look no further than Uber. The company’s rebrand was led and largely executed unilaterally by its CEO, Travis Kalanick, a talented engineer/entrepreneur/textbook example of Founder’s Syndrome with no background whatsoever in design or branding.

The irony behind the company’s efforts is they were supposedly inspired by Kalanick’s desire to create something iconic that spoke to each Uber market. Yet, the results are an identity set so wild and divergent, it feels more like the contents of a burst piñata than a series of intentional choices.

Localized Patterns

A few style tiles from Uber's expanded identity set. Image via Brand New / UnderConsideration

2. Not soliciting essential feedback from your audience on the front end

The Shiny chase new ideas in much the same way puppies chase butterflies: with utter abandon and little thought to ultimate purpose. On paper, it looks like Kalanick did his homework, sending his design team around the world to chat about regional color palettes and patterns. But, if you look more closely, you’ll notice none of that globe-trotting-info-gathering was spent assessing what was and was not working in each market with the existing brand.

High on Pantone chips and fabric swatches, Kalanick had already fallen in love with the idea of rebranding before the notion of field research even darkened the doorway of his mind. He totally glossed over the discovery phase that should’ve been Step 1 in identifying whether a rebrand was even warranted in the first place.

Founders be founding tho, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Now, let’s take a look at the other side of the aisle, so to speak; where The Shiny are apt to rebrand on a whim, our next group tends to avoid the idea altogether, unless dragged kicking and screaming into it.

Pointing Dude Caption

The Sacred

This camp sees themselves as defenders of tradition and protectors of provenance. In general, they view ambiguity as hostile.

In their personal lives, they spend a lot of time on ancestry.com trying to connect their family lineage to various monarchic dynasties or scouring eBay for first edition printings of books they won’t actually read. They believe brands are hallowed and inviolable and hurl terms like “classic” and “timeless” at anyone who wants to challenge them.

THE POTENTIAL PROBLEMS WITH THIS VIEW?

Prioritizing establishment over innovation often means missing crucial windows of opportunity to advance. Brands that completely eschew changing with the times run a high risk of rendering themselves irrelevant and alienating their audiences, especially the younger ones. Sacred thinkers do the most damage to a company’s interests when they refuse to rationally engage with critics in favor of blindly following a personal ideal.

There are two main areas in which brand strategists trying to preserve the past can jeopardize the future:

1. Failing to keep up with cultural shifts

Are you thinking what we’re thinking? Like, maybe this is the perfect time to talk about that one NFL team who many wish would remain nameless? All personal judgments aside, it’s telling to note the Redskins name has been inspiring a remarkable amount of public ire for over half the lifetime of the team itself. Despite there being an entire grassroots campaign devoted to changing it, as well as stalwart news publications, prominent figures in sports journalism and even respected NFL officials deeming it offensive, the team's current owner, Dan Snyder, hasn't budged in the slightest. 

Snyder and company are fortunate professional sports engender the kind of fierce brand allegiance other industries salivate over, so the controversy hasn't impacted the franchise's bottom line at this point. However, it has kept them involved in protracted legal proceedings and continued to be a P.R. albatross the team cannot seem to shake.

Ignoring criticism doesn't make it go away, and time doesn't ameliorate all situations. While the brand is certainly not obligated to change, its continued success is predicated on public support and opinion. For many people, the team's controversy has overshadowed its legacy, and that can leave a mark.

2. Not adapting with technology

Most people think of logos and visual identity elements as static works of commercial art, which is kinda true. However, they're also symbolic shorthand for a company's entire culture, values and vision that must be enduring enough to withstand fleeting trends, yet versatile enough to flow across a sea of ever-evolving communications channels.

If that sounds like a tall order, it's because it is.

At the dawn of marketing's modern era, brands only had to worry about creating a mark that could carry a label or anchor a print ad. But then came radio, followed by television and, finally, the wild, wild west of the internet, which has brought with it a constantly expanding, seemingly endless procession of possibilities for forward-thinking marketers. (Hey there, social media and VR!)

So, what's a brand strategist to do? If you try to master every avenue, you'll be exhausted and fall into The Shiny trap, but if you plug your ears and pretend change isn't happening, you'll be left in the dust. 

It's called a refresh. Take a sip.

Refreshing Soda

Instead of trying to reinvent your brand every time there’s an iOS update or dragging down your sharp new website with the same logo you’ve been using since 1950, it’s time to meet in the middle: be open to change but also purposeful about when, why and how to embrace it.

So, what is a refresh exactly?

It’s making small, subtle changes to an established brand, while maintaining the core identity. Though this approach can’t solve problems for brands that need an invasive makeover (*cough* Redskins), it’s perfect for helping most stay nimble and age gracefully. The trick to a good refresh, like any other cosmetic procedure, is making it look natural.

Responsive design is one of the primary concerns driving many big-name brands to revamp their “classic” logos with a contemporary eye. Instead of thinking about brand adaptation as merely scaling a mark up or down in size, responsive design takes into account location, context and tone. Websites have been doing it for a while now, and branding is finally catching up. When done well, the ineffable quality that makes celebrated brands appear classic is that they always looks current, whether you’re interacting with them through print, web, social media or experientially.

Check out some of these examples, via JUST Creative:

AdaptingLogos
Lessismore
IncrementalReduction

That's a lot to think about, right?

Like, sorta makes you want to breathe into a paper bag?

We understand. Also, that’s why we’re here. Whether you need a new visual identity or just want a little nip/tuck to keep your brand looking its best, RocketFuel's design and marketing professionals eat, sleep and breathe this stuff.

Come get refreshed with us (info [at] gorocketfuel [dot] com). (It's fun!)