Time To Reboot Your Brand? Here’s How

Many companies–Yahoo, Starbucks, Wendy’s, among others–have recently updated their brands. Should you follow their lead?

Time To Reboot Your Brand? Here’s How
[Image: Flickr user Anthony Quintano]

What do Harvard University Press, Hooters, and the Miami Dolphins all have in common? Along with a lot of other companies, they all updated their branding in 2013. Brand updates are crucial to keeping your brand relevant to consumers. But what principles need to be kept in mind when doing one? How do you even know when you need one? How do you know if it’s working and, most scary, how do you do it in a world where millions can criticize it on social media instantaneously?


I did some thinking about how to address those questions and got input from some top-notch branding experts: Allen Adamson, managing director aof Landor and author of BrandSimple; Sarah Arnell, brand consultant and former CEO of The Arnell Group; Christian Haas, founding partner of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, New York; Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO of Vivaldi Partners Group; and Wally Krantz, worldwide creative director of The Brand Union. Their insights combined with my views have crystallized into the points below.

1) Tie the update to real change.
Non-marketers may think of branding as just a logo change but smart marketers realize that graphic elements (logos, color palette, typefaces) are symbols to communicate the essence of the brand experience. While the symbolism is important, it’s the combination of the symbolism and what the brand actually delivers that determines the customer experience. So the strongest brand updates are those that communicate a real change in the brand’s strategy and experience.

When Starbucks updated its branding back in 2011, the intent was to enable the company to move beyond just the coffee market. Therefore, one of the key elements of the update was removing the word “coffee” from the logo.


2) Nail the “right time.”
Obviously, given the above, the best “right time” to update your brand is when there’s going to be a fundamental shift in your experience; performing the update serves to signal that change.

But there may be other times you have to do a refresh.

According to Vivaldi Partners Group founder Erich Joachimsthaler, you need an update “if what consumers feed you back is inconsistent with your brand vision and aspiration.” These situations might occur if your brand:

  • has become indistinguishable from the competition,
  • starts looking too “corporate” or stale or
  • is disconnected from your offering, your consumers, or the times.

News Corporation got with the times when it spun off its news and entertainment division, naming the entity “21st Century Fox.” Its goal was to be current yet at the same time leverage the heritage of 20th Century Fox.

3) Build on brand equities you own–in the customer’s mind.
When updating the brand, you’ll want to keep those attributes and graphic elements that resonate most strongly with customers and on which the brand still delivers well. Then think about how to offer them up in a fresher way.

I think the Miami Dolphins did a good job of this when they refreshed their logo. They kept the dolphin, sun, and water (no surprise) and maintained the color palette but brightened it. And best of all, they dropped the goofy helmet on the mascot.


At the same time, you may want to disassociate yourself with elements that are no longer relevant or perhaps are even a negative. Think about the Livestrong Foundation after Lance Armstrong confessed to doping. The organization needed to end its linkage to Armstrong and so it removed “Lance Armstrong” from its logo.

4) Less really is more.
As Thoreau said, “Simplify, simplify, simplify” (although if he’d followed his own advice he would have just said, “Simplify.”). This idea that less is more is often the mantra of designers and for good reason. In today’s cluttered world, simplicity allows a brand to stand out. And the process of simplification drives the designer to determine what is really essential to keep and what can be thrown away (again, see the Miami Dolphins example above).

Simplification is very important for high-end brands. A clean, simple look communicates high-end. Harvard University Press took the to both be more current and still signal premium. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


5) Don’t try to be trendy.
Some brands think that to look current and relevant, they need to follow the latest design fad. That’s a mistake. As Christian Haas pointed out, “The dot-com era generated an uncountable number of swoosh logos. A startup wasn’t legit if it didn’t have some sort of Saturn ring surrounding its name. After Apple introduced the iPhone and its bubbly app-icons design, tons of brands followed suit, and it seemed as if every logo was framed behind a glossy piece of glass. Now they look dated. Lasting brands are timeless, not designed after fads.”

Simplicity can also help here by ensuring a brand’s look will be more timeless. Per Sara Arnell, “Unless you want to embark on a logo refresh every few years, keep the design unencumbered to leverage a timeless appeal. And think ahead. Make sure the logo can encompass subbrands or divisions that are planned within the growth or innovation strategy of the brand/company.”

Check out Nivea’s logo change. The new logo is great but I’d have to say the old logo still looked pretty current, even though it was designed in 1925. That’s because they kept it simple.


6) Provide an “Easter Egg” but only if it’s meaningful.
If you can add a little hidden meaning in your new design, that’s great. That’s what Baskin-Robbins, Tostitos and other brands have done (Baskin-Robbins has its “31”in its logo and Tostitos has two little people sharing chips). But only do it if it ties to your brand experience.

7) Test it in context.
According to Wally Krantz, “Work on a white sheet of paper looks great, but the real test is to see it in the complexities of the real world. For example, if you’re considering adding some complex messaging to a fleet of vehicles–turning them into billboards–be very careful. What looks great on the outline of a van on a white sheet of paper is very different from what happens when you have all the visual noise of the street in which you’re trying to command attention. FedEx’s Fred Smith’s criteria were: You should be able to be standing on the 40th floor of a building in NYC and spot a FedEx truck many blocks away.”

8) Be able to explain it.
Assuming your brand refresh is built on a real brand experience or strategy change (see No. 1 above), it should be clear enough to be easily explained. Here’s how Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz explained his rebranding rationale: “Starbucks will continue to offer the highest-quality coffee, but we will offer other products as well–and while the integrity, quality, and consistency of these products must remain true to who we are, our new brand identity will give us the freedom and flexibility to explore innovations and new channels of distribution that will keep us in step with our current customers and build strong connections with new customers.”


9) Judge success by how it supports your objectives long term.
Any brand that does an update nowadays is going to get an earful on social media. Some will be from real customers, and a lot will be from marketers and designers. While the latter are just offering their opinions, some of your customers may be genuinely unhappy. And your most loyal ones may be the most upset. However, that shouldn’t surprise you. Studies have shown that logo changes are often viewed negatively by consumers. So you should anticipate it and, more important, ensure your executive team knows it will be coming. Otherwise you might end up doing a flip-flop like Gap did a few years ago. If you have a good rationale for changing and a strategy to do so, you need to stand firm and think long term.

As Allen Adamson, managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates (and author of three books on branding), said, “You can’t keep all the people happy all the time. You need to stick to your guns. You know where the business is going and the story you want to tell. You need to judge success on if your brand update meets your objective. If you wanted to signal change, look to see if people pick that up. If you wanted to look more current, then see if you’re getting that across.”


About the author

Mark is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo