Brand Design
10 minute read

The Dos and Don'ts of a Rebranding Strategy

Jordan is a visual communications designer with a user-centric focus. Her work integrates strategy, brand, and user experience.

Companies with strong brand recognition know that it is a hard-earned position requiring strategy, design, and constant attention. When the time comes to reconsider, revamp, and redefine the brand image, there is a mountain of things to think about. A rebranding strategy can be daunting.

However, there are many companies who have gone through the experience of rebranding and have come out the other side with a lesson to share. Learning from the wisdom of others (or lack thereof) is the first step towards a successful rebrand.

Rebranding Strategy DOs

1. Refocus Through Research

A rebranding project is no place for the fear of commitment. It’s a time to search every nook and cranny to uncover what it is that makes a brand exceptional and unique.

Airbnb's rebranding process included extensive research.
Airbnb's rebrand is based on extensive research and alignment of internal and external values.
Airbnb rebranded in 2014 by DesignStudio.

Airbnb is an online marketplace where hosts rent out their homes or rooms to traveling guests. When DesignStudio kicked off the rebrand project, they had already been conducting ad-hoc user research while hosting Airbnb guests at their fit-for-purpose loft. The team then embarked on a year-long immersive research phase that took them to all corners of the world where they experienced the brand as users do.

Combined with numerous internal interviews and extensive competitor analysis, the team uncovered common beliefs and values among everyone who interacted with the brand. The research successfully brought focus to the brand as a community of belonging, which they manifested in every brand touchpoint.

2. Find Inspiration in Customers

It can be argued that a brand is made up of the people who ascribe to it. Loyal customers can authentically point to what makes the brand great—a strong foundation for a rebrand.

Camden Market's successful rebranding reflects its community.
Camden Market's successful rebranding reflects the community that makes it up.
Camden Market rebranded in 2016 by Ragged Edge.

Camden Market is an outdoor retail space in London with a history steeped in punk counterculture (Amy Winehouse frequented the area). It’s a community that would shun a strict corporate identity commonly found in retail destinations.

With its ear to the ground, design agency Ragged Edge aligned everything under the sentiment “unfollow convention.” There is no static logo but rather a collection of elements, like typefaces and imagery, that are combined in ways that infuse the spirit of the place. The rebrand process concluded with the delivery of a toolkit for the brand and community to express themselves—sans brand guidelines.

3. Look to the Past to Find Your Future

Companies born of another era have a treasure trove of inspiration for a revived identity. A brand that evokes nostalgia while stepping into the future is one of fresh authenticity.

Co-op's rebranding strategy included reviving its past.
Historical photos of the Co-op brand come back to life in the most recent rebrand.
Co-op rebranded in 2016 by North.

Britain-based Co-op is one of the world’s oldest and largest cooperatives, best recognized for its supermarkets that dot the UK. The company’s image was struggling until it looked inward and found the common threads that ran throughout its history. The original company values were dusted off and the previously iconic cloverleaf shape was brought back to center stage in a new, digital-friendly style.

The positive consumer reaction spread across generations and geography. Creative Director at DesignBridge, Chloe Templeman, explains that a successful rebranding is “about taking inspiration from past brand stories, and then putting a modern lens on it.”

4. Commit to What You Stand For

Whatever a brand is dedicated to—be it inclusivity, happiness, or nonconformity—its stance should permeate through the entire company and all brand expressions.

Misfit gained many benefits of rebranding.
Misfit's new brand design strategy consistently reiterates their mission to raise waste awareness.
Misfit rebranded in 2017 by Gander.

Misfit is a range of cold-pressed juice made from the misshapen fruits and vegetables that go unsold because of their “unconventional looks.” The company didn’t want to simply rebrand their product but to send a clear message: “Food waste is bad news, but totally avoidable.”

The design of the rebrand communicates this commitment in more ways than one. Bright colors are used to convey confidence, odd shapes are celebrated in the logo, and photography highlights the misshapen produce. Together, the brand elements exemplify that food waste is not necessary, creating a brand that cultivates “waste awareness through passion, enthusiasm, and humor.”

5. See the Brand as a Full Experience

A brand is not made up of only the logo and typefaces—it is the holistic experience a company offers. The brand should inform every touchpoint, including the product experience.

The Guardian's rebranding steps included assessing the brand experience.
The new brand design of the publication spans across all versions of The Guardian's products.
The Guardian rebranded in-house in 2018.

The Guardian is a British newspaper known for groundbreaking journalism, famed for breaking the story of Snowden’s NSA leaks. The rebrand was originally done to help save losses, but the in-house team took the opportunity to send a message about what they stand for, and carried it throughout all elements of the design.

Readers come to The Guardian for clarity (especially important in the height of “fake news”). The visual elements of the publication are designed to enhance their product: journalism. Executive Creative Director Alex Breuer explains “the new design has readability at its heart…with a more flexible page layout in print and online and enhanced use of photographic journalism and graphics, our new design is simple, confident and stylish - providing readers with the best possible experience across all our platforms.”

6. Brand for Your Future Company

The new brand shouldn’t represent what a company has become, it should articulate what it will become and communicate its future vision.

Chobani's rebranding proposal mapped out their future.
Chobani's new brand identity positions the company for its future endeavors.
Chobani rebranded in-house in 2017, led by Leland Maschmeyer.

Chobani is a leading yogurt producer in America that uses only natural ingredients. Since it began in 2005, the company has built a respectable reputation born from its dedication to craft, taste, and nutrition. The rebranding process was used as an opportunity to chart its course into the future.

“We’re passionate about democratizing good and helping to accelerate universal wellness.” The company’s mission to “bring better food to more people” remains at the core of the brand, but the new design is built for where they plan on taking the company. The photography and illustration styles, typography, and colors all paint an image of a pleasant, wholesome, and simple future. The brand elements are built to communicate through various outlets, not just the supermarket shelf.

Rebranding Strategy DON’Ts

1. Don’t Try to Be Something You’re Not

Setting high expectations for the future of a company is admirable, but a rebrand should never act as a curtain that hides the less desirable corporate behaviors and values.

Rebranding a company should be authentic.
The new General Mills logo comes across as insincere and inauthentic.
General Mills rebranded in 2017.

General Mills is a global food company best known for its boxes of breakfast foods on which America grew up. But as most large conglomerates try to find their place in a customer-driven marketplace that touts company values and authenticity, they have a lot to prove—and to lose.

When General Mills refreshed their brand, they jumped on the brand bandwagon and amplified the strength, longevity, and trust that are the pillars of their company. But the simple addition of a heart to the logomark made consumers see an insincere mask that misrepresented the company. It’s hard to ignore the amount of control and profits the super-entity has gained with mass-produced foodstuffs—hardly redeemable with a tiny red heart.

2. Don’t Lose Your Identity

As design trends come and go, a company should not follow the pack blindly. Brands should first understand what is most true about their differentiator and identity.

Tropicana's brand design strategy ignored brand recognition.
Tropicana's rebrand was discontinued mere months after launching.
Tropicana rebranded (and re-rebranded) in 2009.

Tropicana is a PepsiCo-owned fruit juice maker, best known for its cartons of orange juice. The brand had built recognition by way of the red and white striped straw stuck in an orange that appeared on every container.

When Tropicana went through the rebranding steps and launched a new packaging design, the team had done away with the iconic symbol and simplified everything within the look, just as competitors had been doing. In one fell swoop, they lost all brand recognition and sales dropped dramatically to 20%. The original design was quickly reinstated, but the fumble will go down in branding history.

3. Don’t Overcomplicate the Concept

The rebranding process can take months, but the final concept should be simple enough to be explained in less than 30 seconds. Overly complex ramblings are ripe for ridicule.

Pepsi's rebranding process was overly complex.
Pepsi's overly scientific rationale confused both loyal customers and brand enthusiasts.
Pepsi rebranded in 2008.

Pepsi, a contender in the battle of America’s favorite fizzy soda, has a long history of rebrands and logo changes. Any multibillion dollar company won’t take the process of rebranding lightly, but there is a risk of taking it too far.

Arnell Group, the intellectuals that conceptualized Pepsi’s “Breaktaking” brand strategy, pulled inspiration from science and design—reminiscent of Da Vinci’s heaps of drawings. The team linked the new logo to Mona Lisa’s facial proportions, geometry of aesthetics, the earth’s gravitational pull, magnetic fields, and perimeter oscillations. The confusion and outcry from soda drinkers and brand experts alike was further fueled by the price tag of $1 million for the resulting scientific nonsense.

4. Don’t Change Everything All at Once

A brand is made up of many touchpoints that reinforce the company in the mind of the consumer. But when a rebrand upends too many of those touchpoints, it can be disorienting.

Weight Watchers changed too much in a rebranding proposal.
The rarely seen secondary logo of the Weight Watchers brand was the only element that carried over in the rebrand.
Weight Watchers rebranded in 2018.

Weight Watchers is a global weight loss company with a strong history. But as social discourse is ditching numbers on a scale for measures of wellness, the company decided to pivot its focus. In doing so, Weight Watchers shortened its name to WW, which stands for Wellness that Works (or is it Wellness Wins?), replaced the primary logo with a much lesser-known secondary logo, and updated its visual language. The intentions were valid, but the execution left customers feeling lost.

In an effort to explain the new identity, the company tweeted, “Weight Watchers is now WW. We have a mission: to inspire healthy habits for real life—for everyone. We’ll always be the global leader in weight loss. Now we’re becoming the world’s partner in wellness.” As a brand that connects with consumers during a deeply personal and emotional journey, a sense of familiarity and consistency would have gone a long way.

5. Don’t Design in the Dark

The rebranding process—especially when it involves a logo—deserve time and rounds of revisions. Without the knowledge and perspective of outsiders, a brand can become very shallow.

Yahoo was too concerned with minute logo details.
The public reaction to the new logo was lukewarm in comparison to the excitement of the people who made it.
Yahoo! rebranded in 2013.

Yahoo is a web service provider in the same market as Google. When Marissa Mayer became CEO, she initiated a rebrand and immediately immersed herself in the efforts. “I rolled up my sleeves and dove into the trenches with our logo design team… We spent the majority of Saturday and Sunday designing the logo from start to finish, and we had a ton of fun weighing every minute detail.”

Seasoned designers know the value of stepping away from a design in order to look at it with fresh eyes. Equally important is the fresh perspective of people who haven’t been involved. It’s easy to develop tunnel vision when designing a new logo. At some point, a design team has to look up from the minute details to assess how the logo represents the brand within a marketplace.

6. Don’t Ignore the Launch

Brands aspire to connect emotionally with consumers. A rebrand should be introduced in a way that acknowledges and respects that relationship.

Gap had no rebrand implementation plan.
For loyal consumers, Gap's rebrand was like having the rug pulled out from under them.
Gap rebranded in 2010.

This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning “Gapgate” of 2010. The global apparel company, Gap, made a massive error in judgement when it revealed its new logo. The critique on the actual design of the logo is long and brutal, but it overshadows the haphazard way in which the change was executed. With no warning at all, the 24-year old logo disappeared and was replaced with a relatively generic new version.

Gap loyalists were caught off guard and brand enthusiasts were baffled. There was no rationale, no pitch for future visions, no acknowledgement of the strong brand that helped establish Gap. There was such uproar (in part because of the seemingly random design style) that the company reverted back to their trusted logo in a matter of days.

The Importance of a Rebranding Strategy

Rebranding should be an endeavor based on research, introspection, and strategy. The process should not be rushed or deprioritized—rather, it should be done carefully all the way through the launch. By taking the time to find out what makes a brand desirable, a rebrand can leverage the best characteristics of a company and hone a deeper connection with consumers.

It’s clear that success comes to the companies that understand who they are, what they want to become, and how to value the people who are loyal to the brand.

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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

How do you successfully rebrand a company?

Rebranding a company requires a lot of research, strategy, and introspection. Considerations include: Find inspiration in customers, commit to what you stand for, brand for your future company, and don’t try to be something you’re not. Learn from companies who have already gone through the rebranding process.

How long does it take to rebrand?

The time it takes to go through the rebranding process will depend on the size, history, and vision of the company. But a rebranding project is no place for the fear of commitment. It’s a time to search every nook and cranny to uncover what it is that makes a brand exceptional and unique.

What is brand revitalization?

A brand revitalization helps a mature company that is now declining in growth. A rebranding strategy is implemented to reestablish the brand in the eyes of consumers, expand product offerings, or expand into new markets. Companies such as The Guardian, Co-op, and Pepsi have revitalized their stagnant brands.

Why is branding so important?

A brand represents the values and vision of a company. It is an expression of its beliefs that consumers can emotionally connect with. A brand builds loyal relationships between consumers and companies. When a mature company is becoming out of touch with its consumers, a rebranding strategy is put into place.

Why do companies change their logo?

A logo is part of the brand that represents the vision of a company. A rebranding process, including a logo redesign, can help shift the perception of a company in the eyes of the consumers. This can impact profit and growth because it can better align the values of the company with those of the consumers.