Logo Design: Should You Rebrand or Just Refresh?

David Hamilton Branding

So you’ve been staring at the same logo for fifteen years and you’re getting a little tired of it. It looks stupid on your trucks, you hate that color of yellow, and the font looks very late 90s. You’ve decided that you want to do something about it, but how far should you go? Is it time to rebrand entirely or should you look at a logo refresh instead?

The Difference:

With a logo refresh, the changes are mostly cosmetic. There is little danger of losing brand recognition. Maybe you change up the font, shift a color to a slightly different shade, add a subtle outline. This is the kind of change that you see from major sports teams regularly when they make minor cosmetic changes to their uniform. It helps to keep the logo fresh by staying with current design trends and losing potentially dated elements.

With a logo rebranding, the current logo is replaced. Often this can be accompanied by change in color scheme, slogan, target audience, marketing strategy, or even the name of the business. Rebranding comes with a risk because it often requires writing off your previous brand recognition. Though the risks are heavy, sometimes the rewards can outweigh the cost. But how do you know when it is time to cut your losses on your previous marketing? For me, it helps to identify your brand recognition into two major categories, comfort food and bitter aftertaste.

Is Your Brand a “Comfort Food?”

Comfort food brands are familiar companies that have pleasant associations for their audience. This might include the local tavern that you like to frequent, your favorite brand of soda, or the hometown sports team where you watched a lot of great games. Their logo may be dated, but it conjures pleasant memories within the target market.

That doesn’t mean the logo shouldn’t be refreshed regularly. Shell Oil, one of the most established and recognizable logos in the world has been refreshed an average of one time every ten years since 1900.

The Danger Of Rebranding

One of the most famous rebranding debacles of the twenties century was Coca-Cola’s “New Coke” rebranding of 1985. In an effort to regain market from Pepsi, the company changed their logo and their formula, switching from Coca-Cola Classic to New Coke. Public outcry was immediate and strongly negative. Within two months, the company abandoned the new line and returned to their classic recipe and branding.

Even simple package rebrands can go horribly wrong. Tropicana saw a 20% drop in sales when they removed the iconic orange with a straw from their packages in 2009.

With a complete rebrand, companies that are very familiar and have long term positive relationships with their customers run the risk of losing pleasant memory associations, angering their fan base, or even just not being immediately recognizable to consumers.

Coca-Cola's rebrand was a nightmare for the company


Coca-Cola image courtesy of Shutterstock.com, for editorial use only.
gcpics / Shutterstock.com

Is There a Bitter Aftertaste?

Negative associations, bad headlines, or scandal can happen to any business. When this happens on an international corporate scale often the recovery process requires keeping a low profile for a few years then launching a rebrand. When it happens to a small business, the process can often be much quicker. The rebrand may involve a name change like the Lance Armstrong Foundation rebranding themselves as Livestrong, or it may just involve a new logo.

For sports teams this often occurs after years of losing seasons. In 1997 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ditched their creamsickle orange and white jerseys for red, pewter and black along with a new streamlined logo. Five years later the invigorated sports franchise won their only Superbowl.

When Rebranding Works

One of the most successful rebranding examples of the last century was the rebranding of Federal Express to Fed Ex in 1994-1995. The rebrand planning process didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of a year of market research and over two hundred logo designs.

In the case of FedEx, their rebrand was due to changing market needs. When the design initially launched in the 1970s, overnight delivery was a new concept and the company needed an image that would set them up as a strong nationwide alternative to the post office, but by 1994 their speed was well established and the company was being dragged down in global markets by a hard to pronounce name and potential negative associations with the word Federal.

The new brand features a shorter name, an eye-catching graphic, and a clever arrow hidden in the negative space between the letters E and X. FedEx later went on to buy Kinkos and brand all divisions under the more versatile FedEx label.

Federal Express's Fed-Ex rebrand was a huge success


FedEx image courtesy of Shutterstock.com, for editorial use only.
Daryl Lang / Shutterstock.com

Putting it to Work for Small Business

So all these corporate stories are nice, but what does it mean for your mom and pop grocery store? Basically if it’s been 5-10 years since your logo has seen any changes, it’s probably time for at least a refresh.

When it comes to rebranding, ask yourself these questions: (1) Has my marketing strategy or target audience significantly shifted since this logo was designed? (2) Is my logo ambiguous about my business, or does it give people the wrong idea about what we do? (3) Is there any negative history or bad press that people currently associate with my business or organization? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you should consult a marketing expert about the benefits of a potential rebrand.


Can You Have it Both Ways?

It is possible to walk the middle ground  – to do a logo refresh that maintains your previous marketing but it an way that feels fresh and original and fixes the problems with your original design.  For an example I’ll point to this logo refresh that we did for the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, CA.

NCRT had a thirty year history and an established fan base. Their logo — composed of block letters — was a well established icon on Eureka’s main street and yet many people didn’t know that the building was a theatre.  Our logo refresh maintained the block letter format but fixed the ambiguous identity problem by adding a lighting instrument and a splash of color.  NCRT now uses the logo with alternate colors to match the mood of the current production.

NCRT Logo Rebrand

Wrapping It All Up

Refreshing a stale business image should be a regular part of every business’ toolbox, but throwing away years of brand recognition with a full rebrand is a process that needs to be approached carefully.  Don’t abandon a logo just because you’re tired of it. Do your homework. Show your current logo to focus groups. Explore all sides of the situation. In the end, if you decide that a rebranding may be right for you, consult a marketing expert. Under the right circumstances the payoff can be huge.