Straight away, I’d like to point out that this isn’t a critique. Having spent a good deal of time working on similar projects I can sympathise with the efforts needed to shift an organisation’s visual identity, and have no inclination to hate on others’ hard work. I mean that not just for the designers but for their clients too, who are often the ones at the pointy end of getting things approved, bought into and ultimately out into the world.

So for context, let’s start with a bit of empathy building. To get an idea of how much effort goes in on either side, try the following visualisation exercise. To imagine yourself as a client setting out for a rebrand, try and think of going to get your hair cut and entrusting the blade-wielding stranger to “just do whatever they think is best”. To picture the scene for a designer, imagine being asked to reverse parallel park an 18-wheeled articulated lorry full of your Granny’s priceless family heirlooms at 60 miles an hour. It’s a scary process for either party — whether it’s apprehension in trusting or the responsibility of being trusted.

With that being said, what I’m interested in discussing here are the things which in my opinion mark out the more successful and long-lasting approaches to identity design; the key questions and aspects that really need to be resolved in the first flush of a rebrand. There’s more to be said about how you might go about achieving these and rolling the brand out, but from a pragmatic point of view your brand will always be a bit wobbly if these key points are not covered up-front. They are:

  1. Be special
    It’s really important that everyone in your organisation knows what makes you special and are all pulling in the same direction.
  2. Create a shortcut
    Make it as easy as possible for people to update their mental marker of who you are.
  3. Set what’s fixed and fluid
    Decide how brave you can be in departing from what’s currently expected of your brand.

As I expand on these, they’ll probably sound like common sense things that one would expect from a rebrand. But the problem is they’re often seen as natural outcomes rather than pragmatic goals — and thereby run the risk of either happening by accident or not at all.

As a designer, I’d look to get these things sorted in order to understand the limits of the parking space and not proverbially smash all of Granny’s china. As a client, I’d want to know these bases were covered so as not to end up with the branding equivalent of a mullethawk. And so, when viewed with these shared and mutually beneficial goals in mind, the whole rebranding process doesn’t seem so mysterious or scary for either side.

“red tulip flower in yellow tulip field” by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

1. Be special

It’s really important that everyone in your organisation knows what makes you special and are all pulling in the same direction

There are many reasons an organisation might decide it’s time for an update, refresh or overhaul of its visual identity. There’ll probably be a number of internal considerations with restructuring and staff changes. There will be multiple audiences and stakeholders to either retain or bring on-board and chances are there’s more competition around now than there was when you started.

That last one is crucial. If there’s internal changes, multiple audiences to talk to and several competitors trying to talk over you, it’s really important that everyone in your organisation knows what makes you special and are all pulling in the same direction.

To give a historical example of the difference this can make, let’s consider how Yahoo! may have missed out on their potential market and opportunity by never really deciding why they were different.

Yahoo! rebranded a few years ago and focused on redrawing their logo. Which in itself is fine. But in doing that they pretty much ignored their competitors and didn’t really spend any time working out what their unique offer was. This could have been a fairly straightforward process which, for illustrative purposes, I’ll have a bash at here.

Now it’s not a huge leap of insight to see that Yahoo’s main competitor was Google. Let’s take the two names. Google is a mathematical-sounding term reminiscent of ‘googol’ (meaning 10 raised to the power of 100, apparently) and Yahoo! is an exclamation of excitement at the start of an adventure. So if Google are all about really mathematically accurate search results, Yahoo! is about the adventure of surfing the web and not really knowing what you’re going to find.

There’s a core idea and a core point of differentiation and a mission statement all in one. From there you get a list of adjectives and you know what the brand has to communicate in a very tangible way: Adventure, Discovery, Excitement etc. This then feeds down to all the rollout materials and new messaging.

I’m not saying that a process like that would have saved Yahoo! from obscurity on its own, but it illustrates how knowing what makes you special can give you a much more compelling offer to a target audience — and not just be overshadowed by a competitor.

“right arrow sign on wall” by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

2. Create a shortcut

Make it as easy as possible for people to update their mental marker of who you are

Once you’ve got your differentiating message down, a rebrand then needs to make sure it sticks. Getting the word out can be done through various social channels, through ad campaigns or in person — but what’s important is that you have a signature to sign off with. Something ownable that helps people build a quick association with what you stand for.

While most often the ‘ownable’ bit of a visual identity is a logo, there’s various different ways your signature can work. For example it could be a tone of voice (Innocent smoothies), a colour (Cadbury’s purple), a typeface (Macmillan) or even a sound (Nokia ringtone). Having a signature is important when you’re starting out in a crowded sector, but it’s just as important when dealing with a brand that already has an established audience — possibly even moreso.

Your signature will be the recognisable element that lets people know your new message is from you. It’s the trigger to a broader idea of what your brand stands for, and unlocks a whole heap of associations in the mind of your audience.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s take the happy birthday song. The first six notes overheard pretty much anywhere in the world would let you know that someone in the vicinity is celebrating their birthday. It doesn’t matter if it’s being sung by a world class Tenor or being farted through a kazoo, as long as it carried the tune you’d still know someone somewhere was a year older. That combination of notes has been fixed in your brain as a mental shortcut for the idea of ‘birthday’ irrespective of how it’s performed or where you are. Brand signatures work the same way.

For instance when you see the Apple logo, you know the shortcut for what it’s trying to communicate to you; the company, the products, and your own associations with the brand. That’s because Apple have spent a lot of time and money planting that shortcut in your head by signing off all those different ideas and messages with their logo.

It makes sense, then, to try to make it as easy as possible for people to update their mental marker of who you are; but actively helping your audience build a mental shortcut is a goal that’s often lost in the shuffle of an inward-looking rebrand.

“brown rock mountain on body of water” by Nil Castellví on Unsplash

3. Set what’s fixed and fluid

Decide how brave you can be in departing from what’s currently expected of your brand

So, you’ve worked out why you’re special and you’ve got a way to help build that mental shortcut in the minds of your audience. Now you need to work out which elements of your existing identity you can afford to be flexible with.

Some organisations are recognised variously for their outstanding customer service, recognisable logo, eye-catching photography and killer tagline. Others might only be recognised by the colour of their employees’ uniform. Similarly, one group might spend loads of their budget on advertising and another solely on leaflets and social media engagement. What I’m discussing here isn’t necessarily about which methods you use to spread your new message, it’s more about asking how brave you can be in departing from what’s currently expected of your brand to grab someone’s attention.

Much of this depends on things like how segmented and varied your audience is or how singular your own proposition is. For example if you speak to two or more audiences with markedly different expectations of your brand then it might make sense to vary your communications for each audience. In contrast, if your proposition is focused to a point that your entire audience expects one key thing from you, then you can afford to have a more unified approach to your identity.

To give two examples of what I mean, let’s take Nike and The Economist. I’ll focus here on their advertising to narrow the range down to a single common expression of their brand identities.

Nike compared to The Economist adverts

When we look at Nike’s communications as a whole, their identity flexes drastically from one campaign to another, from one audience to another, from one product range to another — on and on through all of their materials. You’re unlikely to encounter one single visual style more than once, with the whole thing anchored in their logo. Then there’s The Economist adverts’ hard-nosed consistency in colour, typeface, layout and tone of voice with little or no variation over all their advertising.

Each approach has its merits and both brands are well-known enough to be able to build recognition with either. Nike are brave with their visual styles, but conservative with their copy lines. The Economist are the complete opposite. Furthermore, if Nike suddenly decided to only use one typeface, colour and layout style they would lose a key aspect of their innovative and energetic brand identity. Equally, if The Economist decided to start using photography and direct quotes from people, they would lose their key message of having their own distinct point of view.

So when executing a rebrand, knowing what your audience expects from your existing identity — combined with what makes you special and how you’re going to help build a shortcut — allows you to define the parameters of what’s fixed and what’s fluid in your new identity. In doing this, you’ll know how you can express your brand appropriately for both your organisation and its audience without being either too conservative or freaking people out.

In conclusion

That’s my top three things to bear in mind with rebrands. I like to think they’re fairly practical and sensible, and if all three bases are covered then it’ll probably be successful. There’s much more to say about audience engagement and other things along the way, but if you set out to know why you’re special, how you’re going to be remembered and how far you can push it, you’ll be that much better prepared for a successful relaunch.