To Refresh or to Rebrand? That is the question. But what is the right answer?

Your brand is having an identity crisis.

  • Maybe the issue is only skin deep. A color palette tweak here…a better optimized for digital logo there…dash of more engaging messaging to reach new targets in emerging markets…and you’re ready for your close-up.
  • Maybe the problem goes deeper. Your brand strategy and business strategy are out of sync. The experiences you offer fall short. Seasoned employees aren’t buying it. New hires don’t buy into it.
  • Maybe the challenge goes all the way to bedrock. Your brand neither represents who you are as an organization today nor projects a clear, compelling vision for where you aspire to be tomorrow.

Whether it requires a refresh or a rebrand, your brand needs to evolve. Standing still isn’t an option, you know this. But how do you know what direction is right for you? What’s the difference between the two? And most importantly, what level of investment will it take to support either avenue of transformation?

Arrow pointing

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For answers to these critical questions, review the following 5 considerations:

1) Strategic considerations

Is a key strategic business shift in the works, one with the power to change your brand’s story in a significant, meaningful way?

Rebrands favor the bold. Especially when a company either changes strategic course or doubles-down on their key tenets. Of course you want to broadcast that from the mountaintops for all to hear. In 2014, CVS Caremark did just that, becoming the first national pharmacy to remove tobacco from their stores—a potentially huge, billion dollar revenue hit, but also an undeniable, headline-grabbing signal that the organization was rallying around a new purpose of “helping people on the path to better health.”

On the day cigarettes and other nicotine products were removed from shelves, the company announced a full rebrand—including name change (CVS Health), modernized identity built around a heart-shaped logo and a glimpse into CVS stores of the future – a welcoming one-stop shop for health care and peace of mind.

In this case, investing in a comprehensive rebrand was appropriate, as it represented a seismic shift in CVS’s foundational business strategy.

Explore flag

 

2) Budgetary considerations

Where are you in the lifecycle of your current identity’s application across big-ticket touchpoints and experiences?

Refresh or rebrand, there are real-world costs to consider, especially around touchpoint conversion. And not just as a one-time price, but rather as a long-term, rolling investment. From a branding sense, nothing affects your bottom-line more than a logo change. Signage, environments, digital experiences, uniforms and collateral will all need to be redone. So it’s important to know where you are in their lifecycle. As part of a normal maintenance schedule, were they recently replaced or reordered? And if not, what does your budget look like for full replacement?

But logo changes aren’t always necessary. In many cases, a clean-up or optimization of your current logo will suffice. A refreshed logo works fine to solve specific application challenges, predominantly digital. And there are ways to do a logo optimization that does not require immediately swapping out signs and other expensive assets. Whereas a rebranded logo has a higher calling: a bold signal of change, not just a change of symbol.

A significant logo change is the tipping point for refresh vs rebrand. If the new logo makes a noticeable departure from the past, that is when you have to account for more significant conversions costs (e.g. signage). But if you don’t have a lot of expensive physical assets, or if you are at a point in the lifecycle where those assets need to change anyway, then budget becomes less of a factor.

In 2013, American Airlines thought they were looking at a refresh, but ended up pursuing a full-on rebrand. Renowned for their iconic “silver bird” livery, the airline owned hundreds of polished, paint-free aluminum planes. But as that fleet neared the end of its service time, American placed the largest single order ever for new aircraft. Unlike their predecessors, these modern machines were made from a lighter, more efficient composite material. So their old identity wouldn’t work. The question, “What should our new planes look like?” opened the doors to a much different project…and a much larger opportunity. Rather than just a new paint job, American lifted the hood on its whole brand. Wanting to shift perceptions from “American Might” to “American Spirit,” a multi-year brand transformation across all experiences was soon underway. Other airlines, such as Southwest a year later, didn’t need to go that far. Since their fundamental strategy wasn’t changing, and their order cycle already in place, a more cost-effective refresh was pursued.

Cashbox full of money

 

3) Signal of change considerations

How big of a need is there to signal change externally and get people to view you differently? Do you need to move away from negative legacy perceptions?

Think Starbucks and most of us think one thing: coffee. Approaching its 40th anniversary, the company used the milestone as an opportunity to clarify its future vision and explore expanded product offerings “beyond the bean.” First up: dropping the word “Coffee” from their brand name. Then a simplified expression of their “siren” logo. While still close enough in to the legacy brandmark to maintain equity with current brand aficionados, the new logo and name change signaled a new path forward. Dunkin’ recently followed the same playbook: dropping “Donuts” from their brand name and drawing inspiration from their existing logo and color palette.

While these refreshed brands sought to wrap their new identities in proud legacy associations, others needed to pivot quickly in the other direction. Here, Subway and Weight Watchers come to mind. For nearly 15 years, the franchise sandwich chain hung their hat—and a good portion of their brand—on famed spokesman Jared Fogle. But when scandal rocked the company, a new identity was needed and fast. Beyond a new look and feel, targeted messaging played a huge role in rebuilding consumer trust and interest. While not a new name, the logo changes harkened to the past while creating enough distance for people to notice the change.

To most people, Weight Watchers connotes dieting and weight loss, but this is a very narrow view when compared with the broad range of lifestyle and wellness changes the company promotes. And the term “weight loss” started to carry a potential negative stigma in today’s more progressive world. A more drastic departure than the previous examples, in September 2018 they “slimmed down” the name to WW with the tagline “Wellness that Works.” While they didn’t need to run from negative legacy perceptions, they had an opportunity to leap forward and better own the wellness space.

neon sign that says change

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4) Cultural considerations

Is there a need to revitalize and energize your organization’s culture? Unify the culture? Move people toward a common goal?

Organizations that grow organically tend to develop different cultural microcosms. Throw some acquisitions into the mix and the fragmentation is exponential. Now imagine North Shore-LIJ, New York’s largest health care provider, with 21 hospitals, 550 ambulatory sites, and countless other individual brands and businesses. In order to better serve the community as an integrated system of care, and transform the broader health care industry, they unified the entire system under a single brand, Northwell Health. But to truly deliver on their mission and make an impact, the key was to galvanize their 60,000+ employees around a common objective.

The Northwell Health rebrand allowed everyone to unify around something bigger and more meaningful, and ultimately resulted in a workforce more engaged that 85% of other health care organization and being in the 90th percentile of best places to work. The rebrand acted as a lightning rod to energize the culture, signaling to people that they must change the way they think and behave to create immediate impact in the communities they serve.

People chatting at a table

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5) Structural considerations

Are you branding as a result of a merger or acquisition? Is your organization being spun-off and you are legally required to change?

You would think this one would be easier, with so many of these being a clear rebrand. When brands are spun off from the mothership, or are merging together to form entirely new organizations from top to bottom, full rebrands are the path to success. However, acquisitions can be trickier, and approaches run the full gamut—from integrating into an existing brand to a full rebrand. And the rationale tends to fall into one of the categories described above.

When FIS acquired Sungard in 2015, the complementary offerings expanded the reach and capabilities of FIS. But this growth was a natural extension of their vision, and of what the FIS brand already stood for. The focus for this acquisition was more strategic, integrating cultures through a common brand platform and values, and refreshing messaging to reflect the bigger story. The visual expression remained largely intact.

On the other side of the coin, when IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances) acquired Frutarom in 2018, this was an opportunity to shift perceptions to a more natural and health-conscious supplier. The company ditched the blocky and corporate identity for one that represented a more organic and friendly tone. This helped signal to employees and customers alike that this deal wasn’t just about being bigger, it was about being better and making a difference.

A large strong bridge

 

So, what does this all mean…

A refresh typically involves updates to your brand strategy and design system elements, but does not impact the name or logo in a significant way. Evolutionary, this approach is most often used to modernize or optimize a brand where its core is still relevant and effective.

A rebrand involves an overhaul of your brand strategy and design system, including the logo and sometimes a name change. Revolutionary, this approach is most often used to reflect meaningful strategic shifts and signal significant change.

Remember, while the path isn’t always clear, the journey you’re about to embark on represents great opportunity for your brand. Done successfully, the results can help you compete in a cutthroat market, empower your team with a north star rallying cry and convert brand skeptics into brand loyalists.

 

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