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Brand Refresh vs. Rebranding – What’s the Difference & Which Is Right for You?
In 2009, Tropicana experienced an unfortunate rebranding setback. After spending $35 million to completely rework the ...
In 2009, Tropicana experienced an unfortunate rebranding setback. After spending $35 million to completely rework the brand, they lost $20 million in sales in just one month alone. Why? Because the original Tropicana design was already beloved by its audience.
But what can we learn from Tropicana’s misstep? For one thing, changing anything about your brand is bound to be controversial.
That said, some of the most influential brands today have stood the test of time because they’ve adapted to the changes around them. Think of Pepsi, UPS, Target, GE, IBM, etc.. These brands are well-established, and we recognize them anywhere, even if they tweak their logo or change their typography.
Successful branding means speaking to your audience on a symbolic level. Making any sort of profitable change requires deep research, strategy, and creativity. It’s a complex process, but when done right, it’s like magic.
For new and established companies alike, it can be difficult to think through these kinds of decisions. Let’s look at the difference between a rebrand and brand refresh to see which strategy might work best for your company.
What’s The Difference?
If you look at examples of either a brand refresh or a full rebrand, it can be hard to draw a clear distinction. Instead, it’s helpful to think of it like a spectrum. While some projects fit into one category or another, your main concern should be doing what’s best for your brand.
What Is a Brand Refresh?
For the most part, a brand refresh is limited to visual changes. It may include changes like:
- Revising the logo
- Updating the photography style
- Changing brand colors and/or typography
- Upgrading marketing materials
Typically, a brand refresh doesn’t change the name of the company or its products. Think of it like a ship changing course by pivoting just a bit. The brand is still heading the same general direction, but it may reach port at a different berth.
Here are two examples of successful brand refreshes:
The siren has been a key part of the Starbucks logo from the beginning. Since 1971 when they first started serving coffee, the logo has gone through 4 different iterations.
Notice the core of their new logo hasn’t changed, but the most recent version doesn’t show the brand name. The outcome takes advantage of the iconic siren image and is now much simpler and lighter. The photography also shifted to focus more on the premium, handcrafted quality of the product itself rather than the farms where it originated. Photos of Starbucks drinks now resemble the type of photography you would see in a luxury furniture store.
It’s important to note that this brand refresh may only work for Starbucks because everyone already recognizes the siren. If they weren’t already a popular brand, they might still need the brand name in the logo to make it clear who they are.
Walmart underwent a brand refresh in 2008, partly due to declining consumer sentiment toward the brand. To distinguish themselves from their past, Walmart changed its logo as well as its advertising in a number of ways. The new color, typeface, and starburst emblem are the most visually prominent aspects of this change. They have also combined “Wal” and “mart” (previously separated by a star) to form a single, coherent wordmark.
Their store branding now appears much brighter and friendlier, but customers can still recognize the name. They also did away with the now-dated smiley face mascot. Instead, they make use of the starburst on rollback stickers and aisle signs for a more consistent appearance across brand assets.
What is Rebranding?
If a brand refresh is a slight change of course, a rebrand is like turning around and heading to a completely different place. Companies that rebrand often completely change their image, tone, typography, or other core elements of the brand identity. While the company underneath remains the same, it may be totally unrecognizable to potential customers after a rebrand. The brand name and products are typically the last things to change. But in some cases, it may be necessary.
Here are a few examples of successful rebrands:
In the year 2000, British Petroleum went through a complete rebrand in an effort to appear more environmentally friendly. This transformed them into the BP we’re all familiar with today. While their brand colors are still very similar to the design from 1989, they are much brighter now. The new logo resembles both a flower and a shining sun. The combination of these things evokes a feeling of natural freshness that the previous shield emblem couldn’t accomplish.
The photography and graphic design also changed during this transition to appear more authentic and down-to-earth. Crisp, sunny images of workers in a number of industries speak to BP’s ambitions toward cleaner energy and net zero emissions.
In 2021, Milo Credit worked with our team here at Fusion Media with a desire to completely update their logo and visual design. The fintech startup had grown a lot since its founding and was now branching out into the worldwide market.
As a brand, Milo wanted to maintain the fun and friendliness of their original designs while conveying a sense of maturity and trustworthiness to their investors. Because the owl mascot was so essential to the brand identity, there was no reason to completely get rid of it. Instead, we redesigned it to accomplish both goals with a whole new attitude. From there, we expanded the brand’s visual identity using a consistent Art Deco style and created guidelines to help Milo’s creative team apply the new branding to any application.
Reasons for a Brand Refresh
The major distinction between a brand refresh and a full rebrand comes down to why you want to change in the first place. Your branding strategy should aim to adapt to the changing environment (internal or external), and to put your company in a better position than it was before.
Changes in Your Target Market
Sometimes a change in your target market will warrant a slight pivot in your brand’s visual identity. This usually happens naturally over time. Society changes, and the same customers you had a decade ago will have different visual preferences now. You’ll also attract different audiences with different expectations of your brand.
The newest Kraft Foods logo is remarkably similar to the original. The only apparent changes were brighter colors and an updated typeface. These changes suggest a more positive experience that fits with the target audience’s expectations. However, Kraft obviously wanted to take advantage of the existing brand equity by simply refreshing an already beloved brand.
Keeping Up With Industry Trends
Over time, industry design trends also change. As other brands evolve their brand identities, you may need to do a brand refresh to stay competitive. Otherwise, your brand may look dated and out-of-touch by comparison. By updating your brand identity, you can show your audience that you are in tune with what’s going on in your industry.
Avoiding Copyright Issues
In other cases, you may need a brand refresh to avoid sharing a name or some visual element with another brand. If this happens, you may need to change a number of different elements, including the brand name, logo, slogans, or marketing materials.
Most likely you will only have to do this if you receive notice from another brand’s legal team. In that case, the changes you’ll need to make are usually clear, and it doesn’t mean you’ll have to change everything.
Look at Jasper (formerly Jarvis), an AI writing software company that was recently forced to change their name due to a legal conflict with Marvel Entertainment. While some may call this a rebrand, we would consider this a brand refresh because nothing changed except for the brand name. The brand’s visual presence was already established and well conceived, so changing only the name was a smart decision.
Reasons for Rebranding
The criteria for a rebrand is much more broad, and there are many more reasons you might decide to do one. That said, rebranding is a much larger undertaking than a brand refresh.
Merger or Acquisition
If another company acquires your company, a rebrand is almost always necessary. Otherwise, if your company is growing, you may need to make changes to your brand to reflect that. When Discovery bought Warner Brothers, this is exactly what happened.
The biggest change with this rebrand is the name, which now takes prominence over the symbol. The new iteration now shows the names of both companies stacked on top of one another, to indicate the merger.
While the shield symbol appears similar to the original design (before the 2019 logo update), it has been updated to work better with the new sans serif typeface. The original bevels in the gold trim have been removed to suit a more minimalistic style.
Capturing a New and Changing Market
If old marketing channels aren’t performing as well as they used to, or you want to reach a new demographic, a rebrand may be the right solution.
For instance, imagine that your main target audience is parents. If you want to expand your reach to include their children as well, you will need to tweak your messaging or leverage new channels. If your brand currently has a mature or sophisticated image, that visual identity likely won’t speak to kids. You’ll have to change multiple elements to make your branding more playful, simple, and kid-friendly (across all assets). You’ll also have to rethink your approach to marketing as you start promoting your brand across new channels.
In other cases, you may realize that the demand in your industry is changing dramatically. A rebrand in this case would mean changing something fundamental about the way you do business.
Take Kodak. For the entire 20th century, Kodak was a beloved brand known for its camera and film products. The only problem was the growing market for digital photography. While no single factor can totally explain Kodak’s collapse, many experts agree that the main reason Kodak went out of business in 2012 was a failure to adapt.
Although Kodak did release a few digital camera products, they failed to portray the value of the brand itself for a new generation. The spirit of Kodak wasn’t just film photography — it was helping people capture their most precious memories. If they had realized that power and pivoted to achieve that same messaging with updated technology, they might still be in business today.
New Products or Capabilities
Sometimes, changes in a company’s products or services will warrant a full rebrand. As your company grows, your original branding may no longer reflect your capabilities or culture. In cases like this, a full rebrand can help you more accurately communicate your unique value as a company.
The e-commerce startup Zoro Tools went through a similar transition when it became Zoro.com. When the company started, it only specialized in tools and industrial supplies. Over time, Zoro diversified its online store to include a much wider variety of products.
By rebranding, the company simplified the name, retired their cartoon fox mascot, and got rid of the sawblades in the wordmark. The universal box symbol now reflects the fact that Zoro ships all kinds of different products — not just tools. They also developed a much stronger visual design, which is now evident on their website in both the color scheme and intentionally friendly iconography. Overall, the rebrand allowed Zoro to enter a new stage of maturity and better convey what they now offer as a company.
Cultural Changes or Reputation Management
If your brand stays around for a few decades, chances are that the culture around you will change a lot during that time. While your existing target audience may remain largely intact, culture is changing rapidly. Over time, some imagery or symbolism may be seen as controversial or even offensive. In this case, a rebrand may be necessary to prevent backlash. One example of this is the rebrand of the Washington Football Team to become the Washington Commanders.
In other cases, your company may need to rebrand to disassociate from a previous mistake (e.g. scandals, PR issues, or instances of unethical conduct), similar to the BP example cited earlier. Now more than ever, consumers have high standards for integrity with their favorite brands. In today’s market, a single wrong move can be devastating to a company’s reputation. A rebrand can help visually represent the change from past practices and pave the way for a new era.
Challenges With Updating Your Brand
Changing anything about your brand is always a big decision. If you don’t think carefully about making the right moves at the right time, it might not produce the desired result. In some cases, it can be catastrophic. Here are a few challenges that companies of all sizes may face when updating any part of their brand:
Alienating Your Target Audience
If your existing design already has a wealth of brand equity, changing something could make your target audience feel disconnected from your brand. This is even more of a risk for brands that have reached “beloved” status (i.e. Tropicana). In these situations, you’ll need to approach your branding efforts with a lighter touch. Sometimes, a full rebrand will never be a viable option. While you may want to shift your brand to include a new audience, make sure the change doesn’t alienate your loyal customers in the process.
Cost of Updating Existing Assets
Companies that already have a large, established physical presence need to be mindful of ROI. Every visual change you make will need to be updated on your website, product labels, signage, vehicles, merchandise, and probably much more. Updating these assets is already going to be expensive, but you can minimize costs by choosing a design that requires minimal changes (e.g. keeping the same main colors). In any case, detailed visual guidelines are important to ensure your new branding is consistent and versatile enough to work across a variety of media.
Things Are Always Changing
While some brand changes used to hold up for decades, companies now need to reevaluate their strategies more often. Culture is changing all the time, and the internet allows new ideas to spread faster than ever before.
In just a few years, your brand update may not communicate the same message to your target audience as it once did. Otherwise, your visual presence may no longer be relevant, or your business model may no longer work at all. While you want to strive to create something timeless, you should also be willing to make a change when the time calls for it.
5 Tips to Help Your Branding Process
Changing your brand may seem risky, but it doesn't have to be a full-blown leap of faith. Successful branding is marked by a clear strategy, careful thinking, and thorough research. If you’re about to embark on a new branding journey, here are a few tips to help you achieve a positive return on your investment:
- Do You Really Need to Do Anything At All? This is the first question you should ask your team before you make any major decisions. Consider Tropicana — they most likely only needed a brand refresh (if they needed to change at all). In an effort to modernize, they lost millions of dollars and ended up reverting back to the original design anyway. While you might think you need an update to stay relevant, sometimes changing your brand will hurt your bottom line in the end.
- Think About the Launch From the Beginning. Even if you are totally successful from a design and project perspective, the only way to produce a great result is with a well-executed launch. To optimize this effort, consider how your audience may react to the change in messaging or visual branding before you start designing your new brand materials. Most often you can accomplish this by discussing your ideas in focus groups and looking at customer personas and survey data. Sometimes your customers may already have strong feelings about elements of your existing brand, and you’ll need to be careful to present the changes with tact to help them accept it. You’ll also want to consider the goals you have for the launch and how you will measure success.
- Do Market Research and Testing. Start by researching competitor brands. Look at how other companies have updated their brands and analyze their work. With some basic searching, it isn’t hard to tell what customers like about a brand. You can use that insight to inform your own efforts. Once you have a few prototypes, start doing A/B testing. Then, workshop the design with focus groups and other trusted advisors who are knowledgeable about your industry. If you’re working with a professional design agency, they should be able to conduct secure market testing before finalizing changes.
- Align to the Mission of the Brand. Since rebranding always carries the risk of alienating your audience, it’s often safer to stick close to the original design. Instead of asking what you should change, consider what elements you can keep. Within that, think about creating something timeless. You want your branding efforts to put you in a better position for longevity than before.
- Think Through Every Application. To make sure your new branding is fully effective, you have to consider every possible application of the new design. Equipment, websites, vehicles, and merchandise all need to work well together with any brand identity. By creating clear and thorough brand guidelines, you can turn your brand into a design system that allows for scalability. This means that when you hire graphic designers, web developers, photographers, or writers, you can give them clear direction for the project and trust that the outcome will be consistent and on-brand.
Making the most of your brand refresh or rebranding project means diving deep into the core identity of your company. What is your business really about? How you answer this question will help you decide what changes you need to make to move forward. With established brands it's important to remember that the brand is more than its own visual representation — it actually lives in the mind of the consumer, and they will often feel an attachment or even a sense of ownership over it. Honoring that relationship is an important factor to consider. Focus groups can help establish guardrails, but how far you want to push past your consumers' comfort zones is up to you.
At the end of the day, your brand shouldn't feel contrived. It should be an extension of what makes your company uniquely valuable. Because customers and employees form attachments to brands they know and love, changing something can be an emotionally difficult process for everyone involved. When the time comes to do a brand refresh or a complete rebrand, you may find that everyone has a different opinion about the brand’s mission and what it means for your target market.
At Fusion Media, we know that any good branding effort takes cooperation between multiple departments within a company. Our approach isn’t just driven by numbers. We specialize in getting to the heart of your brand. We help businesses develop brand identities that are sensitive to both the employees and the target audience. Beyond that, we have the skills and experience to develop a brand identity that will resonate with your customers and remain relevant for years to come.
Whether you need help with a brand refresh or a complete rebrand, our team can help with design, UX, digital marketing, and more. Contact us today, and let’s design something great.